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Bias, Harassment Drive Women from STEM Jobs: Survey

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More than half of respondents claimed they have been the victim of gender bias.

Nearly half of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions who responded to a recent survey said they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.


Nearly half of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions who responded to a recent survey said they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace; nearly two in 10 alleged the harassment rose to the level of sexual assault.

Additionally, 61% of female STEM professionals in that study sample claimed they have been the victim of gender bias, in the form of unequal treatment with respect to employment opportunities such as promotions, pay, benefits, raises, and privileges based on their sex.

Those are the results of a Web survey on "Sexual Harassment, Gender Bias, and Pay Equity Gap in STEM Professions" conducted by Boston-based research firm Information Technology Intelligence Corp. (ITIC) of 1,100 women STEM professionals worldwide. The survey focused on three areas of discrimination in the workplace: sexual harassment, gender bias, and unequal pay.

The survey found sexual harassment in the STEM workplace commonplace and recurring. Almost a third  (32%) of survey participants say they've experienced "several or multiple incidents/episodes" of sexual harassment involving different people at separate businesses/organizations throughout their careers. The women similarly described gender bias incidents as "persistent and ongoing."

The survey respondents represented a wide range of professions: academicians, analysts, C-level executives, engineers, marketing managers, mathematicians, researchers, reporters, salespersons, software and hardware developers, and scientists. They ranged in age from 18 to over 70. The majority (82%) of respondents hailed from North America, while 18% were based elsewhere.

ITIC also conducted interviews with two dozen respondents to gain deeper contextual information and first-person anecdotal insights into the women's experiences.

None of the survey participants received any remuneration for their participation.

Among the other top survey highlights:

  • Among the 49% of women STEM professionals who say they've experienced sexual harassment or gender bias, 68% (366) did not make a formal complaint, compared with 24% (129) that complained to corporate management and/or Human Resources. Of those who said they've experienced sexual harassment or gender bias, 51% (275) opted only to confide in friends or colleagues; 23% (124) eventually elected to leave the company.
  • An extreme majority (87%, or 957) of survey respondents reporting having experienced sexual harassment and gender bias in the workplace said those inequities were inflicted on them by men. Another 6% (66) claimed they were sexually harassed by female colleagues or superiors, and 7% (77) said their harassers were both men and women.
  • Some 39% (429) of survey participants said they are paid less than male counterparts who hold the same job title and responsibilities, while 24% (264) said their salaries are equal to those of their male counterparts. The remaining 37% (407) of women STEM professionals surveyed were "unsure" of how their salaries compare to that of their male peers.
  • Among the 429 women STEM professionals who said their compensation is less than that of men with the same job titles and responsibilities, the largest group (62%, or 266 respondents) claimed they are paid 6% to 20% less than men. Some 12% (51) said their pay is 1% to 5% less than their male colleagues receive, while another 24% (103) said they're paid 21% to 40% less than men for performing the same jobs; 2% (9) said they're paid 41% to 50% less than men.

A significant 74% (814) of the women STEM professionals surveyed said dealing with sexual harassment and gender bias issues has been a fact of life throughout their careers, adding that biased attitudes persist today, even in the #MeToo era of perceived heightened awareness.

Sexual Harassment

The survey asked the women STEM professionals to enumerate the specific types of sexual harassment they had experienced. Responses included verbal harassment such as lewd jokes, crude language, inappropriate comments about a woman's appearance, orintrusive questions about a woman's personal life. Such harassment can includepressure to have sex in exchange for pay raises and promotions, andcan progress to outright physical assaults that involve kissing, groping, and attempted sexual intercourse

As Exhibit 1 illustrates, 49% or 539 women out of the overall survey population of 1,100 claimed they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Of that group, the largest portion (53%) claimed they were pressured by male peers, supervisors, or company executives to have sex in exchange for promotions or pay raises.

Additionally, 38% of those women who said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace also alleged male co-workers or superiors had physically harassed or assaulted them.


Exhibit 1.

***Based on a sample size of 539 STEM women respondents who reported
having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Source: ITIC 2019

Survey respondents were forthcoming in recounting the types of sexual harassment and gender bias they experienced. Among the first-person anecdotal comments:

  • "I experienced several instances throughout my career, but the worst occurred when I was 24, and a 75-year-old family-member of the company's owners pinned me against a wall and shoved his tongue down my throat and groped me. The owners didn't believe me when I told them, and I soon left the firm."
  • A mid-level manager at a Silicon Valley technology hardware firm said one instance of sexual harassment she experience took place at the office Christmas party, where "One of the ownersdressed as Santa Claus. I was made to sit in his lap to get my bonus check. This only happened to the women." 
  • A woman sales manager for a technology consulting firm based on the East Coast said a male executive on one of her customer accounts began making unwanted advances during sales calls, and forcibly kissed her at a professional dinner engagement. She reported the incident to the company's vice president of sales, who refused to take action. "He told me to deal with it [the harassment] because it was an important client."

Gender Bias

Gender bias is also a pervasive issue, with 61% of the women polled affirming they had experienced workplace bias.

Gender bias can take many forms, ranging from being asked inappropriate questions during the interview process to Positional Bias (segmenting jobs and titles on the basis of gender, as when only women can fill receptionist or support positions, or only men can be managers or engineers) to the Glass Ceiling, where women are passed over for promotion and are relegated to training coworkers/peers/ subordinates, who are then promoted ahead of them and above them.

As Exhibit 2 details, the two most prevalent types of gender bias cited by 61% or 671 out of the total 1,100 survey respondents were  "inappropriate workplace conversations that were offensive and/or demeaning and made the woman feel uncomfortable" (reported by 53% of those respondents and "unequal pay" (reported by 49% of those respondents) .

Exhibit 2.

*** Based on a sample size of 671 women STEM respondents who claimed
they were victims of gender bias in the workplace.

Source: ITIC, 2019

Many survey participants were frank and forthcoming in detailing their experiences.

A Hispanic/Latino content marketing manager at an IT Technology services provider in Bakersfield, California said she has experienced and witnessed "positional bias when it comes to both gender and race." She explained, "Even in teams where a woman has a managerial role, women are often expected to act as 'secretary'[in meetings] more than males in lower positions. Men still feel comfortable making generalizations about women and minorities in the workplace, with no negative consequences."

In addition, she recounted how her superior, a male executive vice president, routinely cracked jokes about transsexual persons and ethnic minorities during business meetings, seemingly oblivious to the notion his remarks were offensive. "This EVP made what he thought were funny, witty remarks, like 'trans [sexual] is on trend" and 'today I learned of a new thing called Afro-Latino.' I sat there in disbelief. It was very uncomfortable." 

To documentary producer Cheryl L. Bedford,"The intersection of racism and sexism makes it even tougher to get a fair shake." Bedford runs the Los Angeles-based non-profit organization Unite, which specializes in assisting women in diverse fields in launching inclusion and diversity projects. Bedford says she's experienced a wide range of discriminatory practices in the workplace, including,"I estimate I'm paid 20% to 30% less than my male counterparts for doing the same work. Women just have to keep shining a light on these inequities and keep fighting."  

However, overall, 91%of the women STEM professional survey respondents who alleged experiencing sexual harassment either "took no action" (40%) or opted to only "confide in friends or co-workers" (51%). However, approximately 24% of the women STEM respondents who reported experiencing harassment did file a formal harassment complaint with upper management or their respective firm's Human Resources department, while 2%  of those who claimed they were harassed retained an attorney and filed legal action against their companies and the alleged harassers, and 4% the women alleging harassment elected to file a formal complaint with a government agency such as the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission or a State Commission Against Discrimination.

Many of the women STEM professionals who did not take action said they stayed silent for fear management would retaliate by making their working conditions more difficult, and potentially block their career advancement. "Taking action would have been career suicide. I chose not to take any action so that I could continue to work," said one woman who is now an independent hardware consultant running her own Silicon Valley-based firm.

Another woman product market manager recalled, "On the one occasion, 10 years ago, the sexual harassment was severe enough, I did bring a formal complaint about my boss to HR, and I was fired. Maybe that wouldn't happen in the post-#MeToo era, but it's pretty pathetic that we are still in this place."

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, a Boston, MA, USA, IT consultancy.


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