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Peer reviewed behaviour – What can the STEM industries learn from #MeToo

Peer reviewed behaviour – What can the STEM industries learn from #MeToo

By Dónall Breen - 31 October

Whilst Hollywood initially bore the brunt of the #MeToo movement soon after the tech sector and professional services’ firms faced the spotlight. Recently Google said they have fired dozens of employees over accusations of impropriety.

But in the background, another major industry has been grappling with its cultures and values. Employers in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) world have increasingly found themselves under the microscope. However, to their advantage, they can learn from the reactions of other sectors to deal with these issues in a proper manner, some ideas of which are described below.

STEM is not being unfairly targeted. Story after story have emerged from the male dominated sector of inappropriate and inexcusable behaviour. And this is not a recent phenomenon. Back in June 2015, almost two years before anyone knew of #MeToo, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt was widely criticised for a speech he gave at the World Conference of Science Journalists in which he claimed that scientists should work in gender segregated labs as women in laboratories “fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry”. At the time only 13% of people working in STEM occupations were women.

Since Hunt’s comments, the number of women in STEM occupations has increased to 23% and there is a general upward trend on this statistic. However, problems persist. Earlier this month, at a workshop organised by CERN, Prof Alessandro Strumia said that "physics was invented and built by men, it's not by invitation" (entirely unrelated of course, he also explained how he should have been hired for a recent position he’d applied for over the successful female candidate). He has since been suspended from CERN.

Separately, a former CSIRO scientist claims there is systemic harassment in the Australian government science agency and says she was hit on the bottom with a riding crop and asked if she was a prostitute. That case is ongoing.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that a third of women in biomedical research have experienced sexual harassment and almost two-thirds have experienced some form of gender bias when trying to advance professionally.

Despite these disappointing news stories, STEM industry leaders have the advantage at looking at other areas which have successfully reacted when faced with these issues. Unsurprisingly, there is no silver bullet to solve deep rooted problems, but there is a wide range tools to use, some of which are described below.

First, appropriate training is at the forefront. A ten-minute talk during induction just isn’t going to cut it anymore, but practical, professional and structured training of employees on the themes of unconscious bias, sexual harassment and discrimination, bullying and victimisation at various points throughout their career. This has been quite common in the tech sector where companies have come to realise that employees need to be shown where the line is. Time’sUp published a very helpful video in this regard.

Second, the professional services sector has led the way in devising processes to ensure there is a channel for victims to come forward and complaints to be investigated properly and fairly. Many companies have come to realise that a few pages in the employee handbook have been entirely ineffectual in combatting this issue and real change of mindset is required. Sexual harassment is not an ordinary issue and responding to it requires a unique approach.

Finally, change must come from the top down. Managers and decision makers need to start leading by example in what culture should prevail in the working environment. This has been most clearly demonstrated in the entertainment industry where there has been a zero-tolerance approach to impropriety. The fall of dozens of famous faces has shown fewer and fewer people can be described as beyond reproach. This drive by industry leaders has made a real impact on cleaning up the image of Hollywood and is an important driver of change.

As certain as the laws of physics is the fact that the STEM industry will not be the last stop of the #MeToo movement. But it is an important one. As more and more women move into the jobs formally occupied by men, the need to ensure a safe and inclusive environment for all is more important than ever. It has been more than 100 years since Marie Curie won the Nobel prize. Let’s hope the next Nobel winning idea isn’t trapped in the brain of a woman discouraged from pursing her passion.