#UsToo: How Unions Could Fight Harassment in STEM


How Unions Could Fight Harassment in STEM

by Zachary Eldredge & Colleen Baublitz

Volume 22, number 1, The Return of Radical Science

This article is co-published in the Full Stop Quarterly‘s special issue on graduate student organizing. Check out their fundraising campaign here.

In the summer of 2018, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a report about a critical issue in the sciences: sexual harassment.1 All too predictably, they found that gender-based harassment is pervasive (especially for women of color), that this harassment has material consequences for the careers of women in the sciences, and that existing approaches are failing to address this problem. This report’s existence is itself significant; dissemination of these hard truths by a prestigious institution at the top of the scientific establishment is an important step toward solving these problems. NASEM also recommended several ways universities might begin to rebuild the scientific work environment to make it safer for all of its participants. These suggested adjustments, which include better data collection, culture change, and reworked institutional leadership, could all help combat the pervasive sexual harassment documented in the report.

However, NASEM neglected to consider an existing tool that meets many of their recommendations within the current institutional framework: graduate student unionization. Unlike many of the other recommendations, unions offer a fundamental rebalancing of power, support for targets of harassment, and greater transparency and accountability from university administrations. When we examine the state of reforms in other scientific institutions, such as grant-making agencies, we see that top-down solutions have failed to change the prevailing culture or to provide equality of opportunity to marginalized groups. Within the space of graduate education, unionization offers an entirely different kind of solution—one that scientific institutions ought to support, if they wish to make real progress on this issue, among many others.

That women and minorities are structurally disadvantaged in the current scientific environment cannot be denied. According to the NASEM report, over 50 percent of female faculty and staff and 20-50 percent of female students experience sexual harassment. It occurs in science, medicine, and engineering, and is nearly blind to academic standing—women faculty are subject to harassment from their students as well as from fellow faculty. NASEM directly links this to a hierarchical, male-dominated structure of the field, in which institutions turn a blind eye to the prevalence and impact of sexual and gender harassment.

The NASEM report does recognize the key fact that true change will require the fundamental re-orientation and re-empowerment of those affected. The document’s most direct recommendation on this point is number five: “diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty.” NASEM recommended building networks of mentors or collective advising mechanisms, so graduate students are not dependent on a single person (their advisor) for funding and professional support. But these methods simply shift power around among those who already have it; they therefore neglect the potential for more direct power redistribution by allocating it from the bottom up. To this end, NASEM also suggested that agencies fund students directly instead of funnelling their livelihoods through faculty. But it is difficult to imagine how long it might take to implement such a radical change, especially in federal agencies that may already struggle with bureaucratic gridlock for much smaller adjustments.

Within our existing framework, unionization offers a model for building graduate worker power in which students can assert their own interests, rather than merely hope that spreading responsibility between existing managers will result in better behavior. Such an approach has the potential to transform an entire university in one stroke, re-imagining the relationship between students and faculty such that we lend credibility to student perspectives by default.

Transferring power to students allows them to shape institutions to fight for their values and to address other major flaws in the academy. Graduate student unions are already taking active stances2 on anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, organizing for racial equity (e.g., at Yale),3 and, indeed, fighting sexual harassment on campus.4 At the University of Michigan,5 the graduate student union incorporated the essential work of diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy as paid positions in their negotiated contract.6 This is revolutionary: the acknowledgement that this labor—what academics often regard as “service”—is worthy of resource allocation. Without payment for the time and effort invested in inclusive initiatives, we risk under-prioritizing the steps needed to address this obvious shortcoming. A new approach is clearly warranted. Take the geosciences as an example: Nature Geoscience recently noted there has been no progress in improving racial diversity in over forty years.7 Across the country, academics work toward anti-discrimination measures and justice for students, and generally, they do it for free. Unions highlight that another way forward is possible.

Recommending student unions would also avoid a confusing contradiction that arises later in the report, when NASEM suggests that universities encourage “strong leadership.” Such calls support precisely the hierarchical models that enable cultures of harassment and domination. At the same time, models intended to foster the right kind of leadership are incredibly fragile. People in leadership cannot be everywhere at all times, nor can they act as reliable allies to students in all situations. We see this pattern in universities that find it easier to ignore or bury sexual assault accusations than to confront them publicly, for fear of bad publicity. Even “good leaders” eventually must leave their institutions, whether due to retirement or simply a normal career move. This means that structures that rely on individuals will be periodically cast into disarray as new individuals must be found, or previous responsibilities are simply allowed to disappear. This highlights the shortcoming of any path forward that fails to structurally subvert academic hegemony. If we rely on the benevolence of administrators to lead us out of the current mess that is academic power relations, we will end up right back where we started.

NASEM offers the striking, but perhaps unsurprising, finding that Title IX is completely ineffective in providing support for students who face harassment or abuse. Rather, relying on Title IX serves to shield universities from legal liability. As a result, NASEM recommended improved support for targets of harassment. Here, again, we want to emphasize the profound difference that a negotiated union contract can offer survivors through a formal grievance procedure, access to an external and neutral arbitrator, and improved healthcare. Because Title IX resources are managed through the university, students again face a structural disadvantage in reporting.

The failure of these Title IX policies, which are meant to require measures for gender equity in education, is also abundantly clear in the realm of funding. Many funding agencies have simply not complied with Title IX requirements. To comply with Title IX and to enforce it, federal funding agencies that provide money to academics are required to collect data on the gender parity of the grants they award. However, branches of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and NASA have all been found in violation of Title IX compliance by not maintaining gender records, with all of these agencies claiming that they did not collect data on gender when it comes to who applies for and receives grants from their agencies.8 Despite this limited data collection and poor record keeping, a governmental investigation was still able to show that some DOE and DOD agencies had significant gender disparities in grant funding.

Through a union, students often have the opportunity to access a more transparent investigative process because of the formal grievance procedure and a union-provided neutral arbitrator. The structural makeup of this process better serves the student because they are offered an avenue for recourse that is not administered by the very party that has thus far permitted their vulnerability and exploitation. Although not all grad unions have yet won the right to collectively bargain (thus inhibiting access to a negotiated external grievance procedure), student unions nevertheless serve as a powerful tool in reducing student vulnerability to targeted retaliation and for pressuring universities to improve their procedures for supporting victims of discrimination, harassment, and assault. Unions have a long history providing legal representation and advice to workers who find themselves in disputes with employers, including in academic settings. Instead of navigating a labyrinthine, university-determined grievance process on their own, access to union representation ensures that students who speak out are offered guidance and support in reporting harassment, abuse, or bullying.

For a case study in how this occurs, we can look to recent reports from the University of Connecticut.9 There, student organizing was largely driven by issues relating to pay and healthcare. However, when a new sexual harassment policy was put into place, the union demanded and won the right to seek third-party arbitration in harassment cases. This was stridently opposed by the university, which sought to keep all such harassment cases under its own jurisdiction. Within just a few weeks of the new policy coming into place, the union was able to step forward and advocate for one of its own members facing harassment. Without a union, this student would have been pushed into the university’s own system without her own support network. Because she was in a union, she had a group behind her with the institutional power and muscle to ensure that her interests were represented and that she was respected and supported as a student and scientist.

One of the most important aspects of negotiating a contract is to secure benefits for students, such as healthcare—especially mental healthcare. Although many universities have some type of on-campus mental health resources, access to these is often difficult or limited for students. This is especially concerning considering that research clearly shows that there is a mental health crisis in graduate education.10That mental health burden falls most clearly on women, people of color, LGBTQ students, and other marginalized groups—precisely the targets of harassment as identified in the NASEM study. By speaking up for the interests of students at large, graduate student unions ensure that a robust safety net exists for the most vulnerable students when they need it, so that they can begin the process of healing after harassment.

Mental health protections are important because we know that environmental drivers push women and other minority scientists out of academia. The data on attrition from research science is stark.11 Women constitute 50 percent of the Ph.D. degrees in STEM, but only 21 percent of STEM full professors, meaning that many women are succeeding in their chosen research field and then leaving. When asked, women cite reasons including hostile environments or family priorities that they feel are incompatible with a STEM career. A wealth of research shows that hierarchies in the academy, from faculty search committees that hire professors to the “objective” bibliometrics we use to evaluate candidates, are biased against women. Of course, the pervasive sexual harassment found in the NASEM report also plays a role in undermining women’s careers in science. When all of these factors are combined with the grant and funding discrimination, which occurs in an environment where already only 20 percent of grant requests from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are successful, it is clear that the culture of science as a whole is systemically, top-to-bottom stacked against underrepresented groups attempting to join the field.12 Many women leave STEM academia at the professor level because of hostile male- and white-dominated environments, gender and racial bias in hiring, daily sexual harassment, and gender and racial inequality in research funding.

The statistics on grants that fund scientists’ work in the United States are worth lingering over. While female and minority scientists face many obstacles, grants provide an easy and direct way to examine how material resources are withheld from these demographics. The NIH, the largest funder of biomedical research in the country, has itself documented the bias in its own grant programs; women receive only about 30 percent of NIH grants.13 And although women experience similar success rates to men when applying for a grant, on average they receive only 80 percent of the amount men are awarded after their application is approved. All of this refers to grant applications by working women scientists, who already experienced the gauntlet of undergraduate and graduate environments which expose them to harassment and often push them out of the field before they even reach the stage in which they would be applying for grants.

It is important to consider, too, the stark racial disparities in grant awards and other metrics. African Americans are 10 percent less likely to receive NIH grants than their white counterparts. This does not account for the fact, again, that by the time scientists are applying for grants significant racial filtering has already asserted itself—only 1.4 percent of grant applications originated from African Americans. Taken together, not only are women and especially women of color prevented from entering the field, but they are also discriminated against in access to grant funding once they have managed to achieve the success in the field that would allow them to start applying for grants. Grant applications thus provide a glimpse of the full problem of representation in the sciences: not only do we train fewer scientists from marginalized groups, but those scientists are then excluded or disadvantaged when it comes time to fund their work.

NASEM called on universities to conduct the necessary research to gain a more complete picture of the environment at their schools and to identify viable strategies for building safer academic departments. If such research relies on faculty to self-police, it will not be effective. Even if faculty from another university are involved, professional ties across institutions are likely to make objective research difficult. Truly effective research requires the counterbalancing interest of student power, intimately involved in all assessments. We already witnessed that some of the most effective resolutions to our situation come not from others, but from ourselves. Graduate students at the University of California-Berkeley gathered independent analyses and surveys of their own mental health situations to advocate for better-organized responses and more attention to the issue.14 These self-studies are made possible by locally organized graduate student structures. This is one more example of a place where NASEM’s recommendations, although laudable on their own, would be greatly strengthened by pairing them with a rigorous program to build student power in the form of graduate student unions.

NASEM has joined many other major scientific institutions in attempting to address the problem of underrepresentation in the sciences. However, it’s difficult to envision success through a top-down approach from scientific leadership, as it leaves the responsibility for changing the professional scientific climate in the hands of the institutions built by the current culture. In 2013, women comprised only 10-12 percent of NASEM. This demonstrates that the current composition of scientific leadership is not well suited to the task of correcting the culture. Similarly, the NIH initiated programs like the Research Center Minority Institute and grants specifically for underrepresented minorities to increase their participation and grow research capacity. Such efforts, while laudable, are not sufficient to achieve the organic and sustained change in the scientific culture required to increase the number of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. These top-down approaches are vulnerable to pressure from other, less well-meaning structures, such as the current presidential administration. For instance, the Trump administration proposed15 in 2017 that NIH receive a 20 percent budget cut (while a 12 percent cut is proposed16 for the 2020 fiscal year budget). This would have had widespread ramification for gender and racial equality in the sciences. Should those cuts move forward, it remains to be seen whether or not the NIH’s commitment to equality will be enough to save its equity-focused grants from the chopping block. Ultimately, we must build structures that prioritize equality in ways that cannot be influenced by such bureaucratic fluctuations. Because it is the culture and make-up of U.S. science that needs to change, bottom-up approaches that fundamentally change the culture of academic science are essential.

As scientists who aim to address the root causes of harassment, we know that the way science is conducted is not apolitical, but rather takes place within a larger society. While we applaud NASEM’s work in recognizing the scope of harassment in academia, we know that a true solution to the problem cannot simply consist of self-regulation by those at the top of the system. Calls for more data and institutional leadership can only do so much: we must also change who holds power in our universities and who is subject to that power. Real, material changes in these dynamics can only occur by empowering the groups that are, all too often, victims of harassment. Collective institutions like unions subvert structural hegemony within our existing framework to advocate for the interests of graduate students and early-career researchers. By giving unions long-overdue acknowledgment through institutions like NASEM, we can expand what students have already accomplished through union organizing. We can begin to build student-focused frameworks for the fight to eradicate inequities that lead to harassment.

About the Authors

Colleen Baublitz is an organizer in the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC-UAW Local 2110) and a member of the Science for the People NYC chapter and Labor Working Group. She is a third year Ph.D. student in environmental science, conducting research along the intersection of air quality and climate change. Colleen can pontificate all day about the underlying structural conditions for STEM workers, especially graduate students, or spend just as long showing you pictures of her cat Athena. She is committed to bottom-up organizing for a stronger labor movement and a radically just future.

Zachary Eldredge is Ph.D. candidate in Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, where researches quantum information theory. He is active in Graduate Student Government and is a member of the campus pro-graduate student labor organization Fearless Student Employees as well as the UMD chapter of Science for the People.


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