Ethics in Research: Sexual Harassment

I’m not sure how many of you non-scientists know of the journal PLOS One. It’s an open access, freely available journal online. Here is the link for the site: www.plosone.org/ I would suggest that you peruse the journal, taking in all of its useful information! Some individuals regard the ability to gain access readily on such topics as biology, genetics, and physiology (among others) to be a success of the internet. Please note, this journal is not wikipedia or webmd; these are articles written by scientists, for scientists, concerning original studies and analyzed data. This point of contention for some scientists that disagree with PLOS.

In order to be published in a high impact journal, an article goes through a rigorous peer-review process. This process is defined by peers selected both by the authors and the journal editor reading and critiquing the work. This can take both time and a lot of energy by the reviewers but holds to the validity of the journal and the work published in the journal. PLOS is a peer-reviewed journal but because it is readily available to any readership does not have the clout as such journals as Cell or Science.

Regardless of the contention of the journal, there are many interesting articles published, one of which I chose for this Ethics post. This article’s topic concerns harassment and assault in the field. A link to the article is here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0102172

Perhaps before reading the rest of my blog it would be wise to read the article, but fair warning, it’s a lot of science!

I’m not going to go into great deal about the plot of this article. If you want that, read the abstract (thank God for abstracts)! So I’m just going to jump directly into some comments about this work. To preface, however, I will not be critiquing the study, just commenting on the results gathered, the figures generated, and some of the quotes from the work.

As a female in science, the underlying theme of this work speaks volumes. This theme is fairly well captured in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph of the Introduction: “A hostile work environment is not only harmful to productivity and psychological well-being, but reduces job satisfaction and increases job turnover.” This is probably one of the best stated ways to convey the repercussions of harmful environments to employees. Moreover, this is not just applicable to scientists but to anyone in the working world. Gender discrimination, harassment, and assault can rear its ugly head in science, social science, or honestly any industry. It’s unacceptable, and is disgusting. Unfortunately, it’s a reality. But, this article only covers those working in science in the field.

A statistic that is brushed over but stated appears on page 4 in which only 18% of respondents who reported harassment are satisfied with the outcome of their reporting and 19% of those who reported assaults. That is less than a quarter of the respondents who reported. Translation: 82% are dissatisfied. I’m shocked the authors did not state the higher numbers. Regardless however, that is such a low percentage! But leads to another question: why are such huge numbers dissatisfied?

Another striking data point is Figure 1. This figure report the “Frequency of Inappropriate Comments at Field Site.” The finding is visually conveyed, but when you look at the numbers, the majority of both women and men never or rarely experience inappropriate comments. By this data point, further exacerbated by the previous paragraphs point, provides that the most telling aspect of this study are those that have experienced inappropriate comments and report them and are dissatisfied by the conclusions. I’m personally really glad that not many instances of inappropriate comments are reported. But, it’s those that do happen which make me upset at the system. The system of reporting is put in place to protect those that unfortunately have to deal with instances such as these, and they need protection.

Lastly, oh Figure 3. I hate to sound like a child, but there is so much pink! Pink means women, and the number of pink dots are so depressing to men. Yet, what was encouraging to me is not that it looks like women are experiencing more sexual harassment/assault than men (that’s not surprising), but that women outweigh male trainees (sited in the article). Females in STEM programs have had a really challenging time, but it’s encouraging for me to see that the males are outnumbered by females.

My last point will be addressing the last section of the article: moving forward. How are this situations combated? If anything is learned through this piece, it’s not as though individuals need to know what not to do, but it’s the processes that are put in place after inappropriate actions are done that need to be fixed. The mechanisms by which institutions recognize that assaults and harassing situations have taken place and making certain the person committing the crime is brought to justice should be the first act. Also, encourage people to come forward. Individuals should not have to deal with the psychological drain that surrounds harassment. I’m a woman in science, and I don’t know what the mechanisms are in my institution to contact if I experienced anything wrong. Let alone if I was out in the field. It’s unfortunate that it even happens, and it shouldn’t. Hopefully publishing in PLOS One helps bring this issue to light, and I hope the amount of people who read this article.

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