Sexual Harassment is a Problem in Physics

Title: Sexual harassment reported by undergraduate female physicists
Authors: Lauren M. Aycock, Zahra Hazari, Eric Brewe, Kathryn B. H. Clancy, Theodore Hodapp, Renee Michelle Goertzen
First author’s institution: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Journal: Physical Review Physical Education Research 15 010121 (2019)


As women are more likely to experience sexual harassment in male dominated fields, it may not be a surprise that sexual harassment is still a problem in physics. In addition to personal consequences, sexual harassment can also lead to professional consequences such as withdrawal from work and increased likelihood of leaving the job. Given that women represent only 20% of physicists, it is important to examine how the discipline’s culture and prevalence of sexual harassment are contributing to the lack of women in physics. The goal of today’s paper is to examine the prevalence of various types of sexual harassment among female undergraduate physicists and how sexual harassment affects the women’s sense of belonging and their experiences with the imposter phenomenon.

Since today’s paper is centered around sexual harassment, it is important to make sure we define what sexual harassment is. In the United States (where this research was conducted), sexual harassment is classified as a form of gender discrimination which is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To be considered illegal, the sexual harassment must be severe enough to create a hostile environment or result in an adverse employment decision, which means that an isolated incident is not illegal per se but can still have significant impacts on the workplace. Realizing this, the authors adopt a behavioral definition of sexual harassment where sexual harassment can consist of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention or gender harassment. Here, gender harassment means behaviors that convey insulting hostile or degrading attitudes about a specific gender and represents the most prevalent form of sexual harassment. To further understand sexual harassment in physics, the authors broke gender harassment into two categories, sexist and sexual. Sexist gender harassment is discrimination based on one’s gender such as the incorrect belief that women are less capable at math and science than men are. In contrast, sexual discrimination is discrimination that is sexual in nature without a sexual advance such as posting objectifying photos of women in an office. While it may seem that gender harassment is less severe than the other forms of sexual harassment, the increased frequency of gender harassment incidents means that the consequences can be just as serious.

To assess the prevalence of sexual harassment in physics, the authors recruited participants from the American Physical Society’s Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP) in 2017, of whom 1378 of the 1503 attendees identified as women. Given that around 1350 women completed an undergraduate physics degree in the most recent year in which data was available (2015), the researchers believed they were reaching a large fraction of women in physics. Before and after the conference, the authors administered a survey about the women’s experiences in physics, where the post-conference survey specifically asked women to describe how often they had experienced various types of sexual harassment on a scale of “never,” “once,”, “twice,” and “more than twice” (table 1).

Table 1
Table 1: The six sexual harassment survey items included on the survey, grouped into the type of sexual harassment they represent. (Table 1 in paper).

The authors also included questions about sense of belonging, which is the extent a person believes that they are valued, accepted, and legitimate members of the field and imposter phenomenon which is the internal experience of believing that one’s successes occurred not through genuine ability but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, and having manipulated other people’s impressions. The authors were intentional about using “imposter phenomenon” instead of the more commonly used term “imposter syndrome” to reflect that the imposter experience isn’t due to a “problem” with the individual as syndrome would suggest but is instead a result of the culture. The authors then used multiple linear regression to model how various experiences with sexual harassment would impact a woman’s sense of belonging and imposter phenomenon.

So what did the researchers find? First, they found that overall, 75% of the women in the study experienced some form of sexual harassment. As expected, sexist gender harassment was the most experienced form of sexual harassment (68% of the women in the study) followed by sexual gender harassment (51%) and unwanted sexual attention (24%). Full results are shown in figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The percentage of undergraduate women reporting each type of sexual harassment. Note that roughly 75% of the women reported experiencing some type of sexual harassment. (Figure 1 in paper).

When modeling how various forms of sexual harassment affect sense of belonging and imposter phenomenon, the researchers found that sexist gender harassment was the most significant predictor of a negative sense of belonging and a decreased sense of attributing successes to ability (a sign of imposter phenomenon). Alternatively, receiving recognition from others was a significant predictor of attributing successes to ability. Finally, experiencing sexual gender harassment was the most significant predictor of attributing success to good luck or other’s perceptions, another two components of imposter phenomenon.

The key findings of the paper can then be summarized as most undergraduate women in physics experience some form of sexual harassment. This sexual harassment, specifically sexist gender harassment, decreases a sense of belonging in physics and can lead to experiencing imposter phenomenon. As sense of belonging is linked to increase persistence in a student’s major and the presence of imposter phenomenon is linked to decreased persistence in a major, the results of this study have implications for the retention of women in physics. In addition, as the incidence of sexual harassment is related to amount of gender imbalance in the workplace, the incidence of sexual harassment may be reduced by increasing the number of women in physics and by having leaders who take sexual harassment concerns seriously. As the authors point out, addressing sexual harassment is required so that all people can participate in physics rather than just those who can “survive the gauntlet of sexual harassment and other cultural obstacles or who, by virtue of their identity, can bypass this gauntlet.”

Figures used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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