Sexual Violence and STEM disciplines on Canadian university campuses.

This blog post was shared with SASC Ottawa with the intentions of publishing on our website. We were given permission by the author to repost this information without disclosing personal information, but rather with the intent of educating the broader community about the nuances of sexual violence  on campuses and within the STEM field.


For graduate students in STEM, the power that supervisors hold over our lives is tremendous. In addition to financial support, supervisors control access to equipment that is necessary for our research, provide references that affects our career trajectories, and are often the only ones at the university that can provide any technical expertise on our research. Reporting sexual violence committed by a supervisor, committee member, member of the faculty or research staff is not worth the financial, research or career costs. Universities provide more protections to undergraduate student and tenured faculty/research staff than they do to graduate students, especially in STEM. Furthermore, cutting off ties with a research supervisor/collaborator, even another faculty member can result in reduction/removal of research funding and living stipends, delay the completion of a thesis, prevent publication of thesis research (which is the most important measure for hiring in STEM) and restrict access to future research collaborations and funding, especially if the perpetrator is a prominent and influential researcher. In most cases, tenured faculty/prominent campusesresearchers that perpetrate sexual violence towards others never face consequences in their home institutions, even if they are found guilty of sexual harassment, violence and misconduct.Sexual harassment must not be kept under wraps  Here is an example of the costs of reporting sexual violence in STEM and the dismal outcomes.Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions Here,  Retention Study on Work and Life Balance here, and Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Experiences of Academic Medical Faculty here are studies which show the extent of the problem in different STEM sub-disciplines.

The situation doesn’t get any better for female tenured faculty. Even if female researchers make it through the rampant sexism (overt and covert) to become tenured faculty, they continue to be left out of important administrative meetings and career advancing opportunities. One horrifying example of this was the presence of a “d*ck” club at a STEM department in a major Canadian university where male professors met for years to help refine research ideas, peer review major grant applications and form collaborations, explicitly excluding female faculty (in late 2000s!!!!). In fact, neither the female faculty nor the department administration knew about the existence of this club until a female faculty accidentally stumbled upon it. Many female tenured faculty that I know have talked about leaving their home departments and institutions because of sexism, harassment and sexual violence. Hope Jahren, a tenured geochemist and geobiologist writes about her experiences with sexual harassment/violence in STEM  here and here. 

One specific way in which Canadian universities are failing their STEM students and researchers is by having a lack of awareness, training and policy in dealing with sexual violence at off-campus field sites. In many STEM sub-disciplines, researchers will spend days, weeks and months at remote/isolated off-campus locations, often in international locations or places where there are no local populations (i.e. high Arctic/Antarctic/middle of forests) or interactions with local populations are limited (research field stations). At my home university, we have to identify, prevent and be trained in multi-day training workshops to deal with accidents and physical injuries during field work. However, there is no equivalent training  for identifying and preventing sexual violence at field sites. A recent survey of 666 field scientists of their experiences with sexual violence at field sites found 63% of women and 39% of men reported receiving inappropriate sexual comments and 26% of women and 6% of men reported experiencing sexual assaults. 50% of sexual harassment and assault were committed by superiors in the hierarchy, with women more likely to experience sexual violence from their superiors and men more likely to experience sexual violence from their peers. Sexual violence at field sites is especially problematic because the isolation means that the victim cannot escape their perpetrator after experiencing sexual violence. Reporting sexual violence without finishing an experiment or collecting the data required can result in at best, delaying thesis or research completion by many years, to loss of reputation and credibility (especially if the perpetrator is a tenured faculty member/well known research scientist/ field site administrator) which can destroy the victim’s career (one that they may have worked towards for decades). Additionally, if field research is being conducted in a different country, sexual violence may not be defined, recognized or prosecuted legally in a similar way as in Canada. It would be great if a provincial or national policy requiring universities to protect their students against sexual violence also extended this responsibility to off campus sites as well (with severe financial penalties for institutions that fail to do so). At the very least, training such as bystander prevention and Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act (EAAA )should be mandatory for everyone conducting field research just like first aid and physical safety training currently is implemented.