Fully three in four U.S. undergraduate women majoring in physics reported being sexually harassed over a 2-year period ending in 2017, according to a new paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research.
That year, scholars surveyed more than 450 undergraduate women attending conferences sponsored by the American Physical Society. They represented a significant chunk of female physics undergraduates, considering that in 2015—the most recent year for which data are available—1349 women received bachelor’s degrees in physics.
Questioned about specific forms of harassment, 68% reported experiencing sexist remarks such as “women aren’t as good at physics” or being treated differently, ignored, or put down because of their gender. Fifty-one percent said they endured sexual jokes; were the object of sexual remarks about their bodies, appearance, or clothing; or had their sexual activity discussed. And 24% reported receiving unwanted sexual attention.
The study found that experiencing harassment significantly predicted feelings of not belonging and of being an imposter, both of which are linked to students leaving scientific disciplines. Indeed, the harassment may help explain why only 18% of undergraduate U.S. physics majors are women. “Thirty years of literature [demonstrate] that the more women are harassed in a field, the more they contemplate leaving and ultimately leave,” the authors write, citing a landmark 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The first author on the new study is Lauren Aycock, a science and technology policy fellow with AAAS in Washington, D.C., which publishes Science.