UMass women in STEM fields launch ‘Safe at Work’ campaign

Published: 10/11/2017 11:22:37 PM

AMHERST — When women graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields at the University of Massachusetts Amherst began gathering as an organization several years ago, their meetings were initially just great opportunities to gather with peers.

Soon, however, members of the group Graduate Women in STEM, or GWIS, say there was a shift. Woman after woman began sharing with one another their experiences of sexual assault and harassment in their departments, and far too many had a story to tell.

What began next was an effort more than a year in the making to document accounts of abuse, resulting last month in the release of a report — titled “Broken Silence” — that is overflowing with allegations of sexual misconduct, fueled by unequal power dynamics and fears of retaliation or damaged academic progress for reporting wrongdoing.

“We in the sphere of STEM academia are living in the middle of an epidemic of sexual violence,” chemistry doctoral student and GWIS co-chair Christie Ellis wrote in the report’s introduction. “That’s no exaggeration. We are literally surrounded by a problem that should have no acceptable minimum presence in our community.”

The report’s release in the GWIS quarterly magazine marked the launch of the group’s “Safe at Work” campaign against sexual violence, and the group has organized a town hall on Thursday to give the university community a chance to discuss sexual misconduct with administrators. The event will take place at the Integrated Science Building, beginning with refreshments and introductions at 6 p.m., followed by workshops at 7 p.m. and a question-and-answer session with top university officials at 8 p.m.

“We really want to thank the students for sharing their personal stories and for their courage in speaking up,” university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said. “We take every charge of sexual harassment or assault seriously, and investigate thoroughly. But we always need to do more, and particularly the issue of campus climate is a national concern and a concern here.”

Science, technology, engineering and math fields — commonly known as STEM — are male-dominated and lacking diversity at academic institutions across the country. A recent study published in the journal Educational Researcher found that disadvantaged minority and female underrepresentation in academic faculty nationwide “is driven predominantly by underrepresentation in science and math intensive fields.”

At UMass Amherst, the picture is no different. Of the 556 STEM faculty members at the university, only 156 identify as female and less than a quarter are faculty of color, according to data obtained by the Gazette.

Joelle Labastide, a biophysics postdoctoral research fellow and GWIS co-chair, said that the group wanted to work to bring down the real barriers to women in STEM fields realizing their personal and professional goals. To increase diversity in STEM, she said, women are often coached on things like shaking hands, presenting themselves confidently and speaking like an expert. But those things do nothing to address systemic issues like racism and sexism.

“We found out that sexual violence is one of the most pervasive and most difficult to pin down, so we decided that’s what we were going to take on,” she said.

As just one example of how graduate students can be vulnerable to abuse, geoscience doctoral student and GWIS co-chair Raquel Bryant used the analogy of allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood kingmaker had long been dogged by rumors of sexual misconduct before The New York Times and The New Yorker recently published numerous women’s on-the-record allegations of harassment and abuse by Weinstein. That alleged abuse, the women in those articles said, was fueled by an imbalance of power that made them afraid to come forward, and by concerns about harming their futures.

“That same ‘worst-kept secret,’ it goes on with professors too,” Bryant said. “Everyone knows the professor that’s a creep.”

Bryant said GWIS organizers have been satisfied to see that university officials have been accessible to the group, sitting down to talk with them. Many of their peers, however, haven’t had that same chance, so at Thursday’s town hall the idea is to give them the opportunity to engage administrators as equals looking to solve a problem.

“We really want there to be more communication between graduate students and administrators,” she said. “I just know they don’t have all the things they need to solve this problem, because otherwise they would have solved it already.”

As an example of a place where better policies could be implemented, the women talked about the lack of formal rules and guidelines shaping the relationship between a student and her advisor.

“The relationship between an advisor and graduate student is one only governed by norms, and so is super susceptible to abuse,” Bryant said.

Blaguszewski, the university spokesman, said that Tricia Serio, dean of the College of Natural Sciences, “plans to create a graduate student and post-doc advisory council program to have an established, published procedure for graduate students to change advisors should problems emerge.”

Putting immediate solutions like that in place is important, the GWIS organizers said, because women are currently facing violence. But change, they added, is as much about reshaping an entrenched culture that has proved fertile ground for sexual violence to flourish. That’s a task no one policy can solve, they said.

However, the three women said they are more than up to the long road ahead, describing how their work as scientists looking at large systems has prepared them for their current political organizing. And creating a safe workplace for women in STEM is the only way to ensure they are able to reach their full potential as academics.

“The whole system breaks down when the building blocks, the people, are not intact,” Labastide said.

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