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Study Documents High Female Sexual Harassment Rates in Physics Field

A majority of women who study physics have experienced sexual harassment, according to a new interdisciplinary report by the American Physical Society.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents, among the 471 undergraduate women who attended Society’s 2017 Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) and were surveyed for the report, experienced sexual harassment at some point over the last two years.

Along with the American Physical Society, the interdisciplinary collaboration involved the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Florida International University, Drexel University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The purpose of the report was to study the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment on women in male-dominated fields. Physics is one of the most male-dominated fields in comparison to other STEM fields.

“I wanted to quantify the scope of sexual harassment in physics to enable productive discussions that extend beyond personal anecdotes,” Lauren Aycock, the author of the study, said. “This study increases the visibility of the problem without relying on women who have experienced sexual harassment to tell their stories.”

The study found that 73 percent of respondents experienced gender harassment, which is often not categorized as cases of sexual harassment. The report observed significant professional and personal consequences on the victims as well.

Calling its findings a “wake up call,” the researchers have urged all physicists to curb incidents of sexual harassment and to improve the overall culture of physics by enrolling more women in physics and ensuring swift justice.

“If physics departments are to continue investing time and effort into making physics more diverse and inclusive, it is their duty to also make sure they work hard towards a cultural shift from within,” Miriam Deutsch, chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, said.

“I hope every physics department head in the country reads this article, distributes it to their faculty, and works to come up with a plan of action,” Deutsch added.

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