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Why can’t you leave me alone? Gender-based Bias & Harassment as a Black woman in STEM

As a woman in science, our interactions with the people that we work or go to school with may not always be positive. Black women may be more likely to experience harassment in the field. In this post, we explore the experiences of Black women in science and how to deal with gender-based bias and harassment.


Trigger warning: this post covers topics such as sexual harassment which may bring up bad memories for some readers. Please take care. The main takeaways from this post are listed at the end.


What kind of discrimination do women in science experience?

As you’ve probably heard many times before, science is a traditionally male-dominated field. The patriarchal culture that has developed as a result of this can, unfortunately, lead to some negative experiences for women in the field. Many women experience gender-based bias (sexism) or harassment at work, school, or university. 50% of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace compared to 41% of women in non-STEM jobs (1). A 2018 study on undergraduate women’s experiences with sexism and sexual harassment in STEM found that the majority of women reported experiencing sexism (61%) and sexual harassment (78%) at least once in the previous year (2). Sexism can affect many aspects of our lives, resulting in things like fewer career opportunities and lower pay (3). Sexual harassment leads to a poor and uncomfortable working environment which can impact our quality of life.


As Black women, we may also experience an added disadvantage because of racism. Black women may experience racial micro-aggressions in addition to the previously mentioned gender-based bias and harassment (4). The combination of racism and sexism can lead to things like Black women in STEM earning 25% less than White women (5). This is known as intersectionality, or, the double bind (4,5). You can read more about intersectionality and its consequences for Black women in STEM in one of our previous blog posts, here.


How does experiencing Bias & harassment affect us?


The fact that sexism and racism occur in STEM is not shocking and has been well-discussed in recent years, what is less well-discussed, however, is how experiencing bias and harassment affects us as individuals. Research suggests that many women are discouraged from joining and/or are encouraged to leave the  STEM field as a result of the bias and harassment they experience (2,4,6). According to governmental reports, women are and historically have been, underrepresented in STEM, especially in senior positions. In the UK, only 17% of STEM professors are women and an even smaller percentage of these women identify as Black. In the US, women from minoritised groups earn a higher percentage of STEM degrees than men, however, they are vastly outnumbered by men, making up only 4% of the STEM workforce in 2015 (4). Together, these statistics affirm many of the lived experiences of Black women in our Network who have reported wanting to leave STEM as a result of the harassment they face. With so few of us in the field, it is even more disheartening that so many of us are likely to experience bias and harassment that makes us want to leave the field.


Experiencing bias and harassment can also negatively impact our mental health and sense of self-worth and belonging. Women may feel added pressure to meet the expectations and fit the stereotypes of the men around them in order to avoid harassment (4). This can be stressful. Environments where bias and harassment are present can feel hostile and alienating, leaving many women feeling like they do not belong in STEM (5–7). This can be psychologically distressing and can lead to the development of depressive symptoms (4,8). Experiencing bias and harassment can negatively affect us in many ways, including damaging the way we see ourselves and our place in the world. 


What can we do if we experience harassment at work, school, or university?

Dealing with bias and harassment can feel very personal but it doesn’t have to be. People respond to discrimination in different ways. Some people prefer to ignore any derogatory comments or actions and push through, and others prefer to address their harassers. Whatever way you choose to deal with any harassment you face, always remember that you are not alone.


If you experience bias or harassment, it can be helpful to lean on your support network for comfort. This can be your friends and family or even a community like BWiS network! Spending time with the people you love and trust can help remind you that you are valued, loved, and entirely undeserving of any harassment you may have experienced. You can vent your frustrations to your support network and have your feelings validated. This can help give you the strength to get back out there and keep doing what you do best (2).


If you feel comfortable, you can confront your harasser and let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable and unwelcome. This can, unfortunately, sometimes come with some negative consequences, especially if your harasser is in a more senior position than you (4). If you choose to confront your harasser, it may be helpful to bring someone you trust with you to support you and act as a witness.


If you would prefer not to directly confront the person harassing you, you can also report them to the administration at your school, university, or workplace. Different institutions may have different methods for making complaints or reporting problems with your peers or colleagues. Their responses to a report of bias and harassment may also vary. Some places may try to mediate or resolve the situation by inviting both you and your harasser to talk to a neutral person. Other places may try to prevent any future harassment by enforcing implicit bias training. You may want to familiarise yourself with the processes that your institution has and the contact details of the best person to reach out to if you are harassed. It may also be helpful to keep a record of any harassment you experience and how it made you feel. Attaching evidence to your report can add credibility to your case and mean that it is much harder to ignore.



If you feel that the harassment is serious or threatening, you can also report your harasser to the police. You can call 101, report online or in person at a police station. If you would prefer that the person harassing you does not know that you are reporting them to the police, you can ask to remain anonymous. These pages on the Police UK and National Protective Security Authority websites provide some more information on what you should do if you are being harassed and how you can report harassment to the police. Police UK also provide some advice on how to protect yourself from harassment, here.


Lastly, if you experience bias and harassment and you find that no action is being taken against the offender, you can try to take yourself out of the situation. This may look like moving jobs, departments, or classes. This is often easier said than done and, in my personal opinion, should be considered a last resort. You should not have to make big changes in your life because of other people’s poor behaviour, however, you also don’t have to put up with ongoing harassment. If leaving is an option that is open to you, then it may be worth considering.


Experiencing bias and harassment can be discouraging and isolating. No one should have to deal with gender-based bias and harassment, and it is extremely unfortunate that so many of us do. If you take anything away from this blog post, please remember these 3 things:

  • You are not alone

  • You are deserving of your place and position

  • You do not have to put up with harassment

 

By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer


References

1.      Singh I. By the Numbers: Women in STEM: What do the statistics reveal about ongoing gender disparities? Yale Scientific Magazine. 2020

2.      Leaper C, Starr CR. Helping and Hindering Undergraduate Women’s STEM Motivation: Experiences With STEM Encouragement, STEM-Related Gender Bias, and Sexual Harassment. Psychol Women Q. 2018 Oct 23;43(2):165–83.

3.      Greska L. Women in academia: Why and where does the pipeline leak, and how can we fix it? MIT Science Policy Review. 2023 Aug;4:102–9.

4.      Flores C. Spotlight on Women of Color in STEM. Ind Organ Psychol. 2018 Jun 1;11(2):291–6

5.      Charleston LJ, Adserias RP, Lang NM, Jackson JFL. Informing Higher Education Policy and Practice Through Intersectionality. Journal of Progressive Policy & Practice. 2014;2(3).

6.      Clark SL, Dyar C, Inman EM, Maung N, London B. Women’s career confidence in a fixed, sexist STEM environment. Int J STEM Educ. 2021 Dec 1;8(1):1–10.

7.      O’Brien LT, Garcia DM, Adams G, Villalobos JG, Hammer E, Gilbert P. The threat of sexism in a STEM educational setting: the moderating impacts of ethnicity and legitimacy beliefs on test performance. Social Psychology of Education. 2015 Dec 1;18(4):667–84.

8.      Ireland DT, Freeman KE, Winston-Proctor CE, DeLaine KD, McDonald Lowe S, Woodson KM. (Un)Hidden Figures: A Synthesis of Research Examining the Intersectional Experiences of Black Women and Girls in STEM Education. Review of Research in Education. 2018 Apr 5;42(1):226–54.


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