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Science's #MeToo Moment

The US House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Research and Technology conducted a hearing yesterday on sexual harassment and misconduct in science, Gizmodo reports.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va). "Since the advent of the #Metoo movement, Comstock has — perhaps unlikely — emerged as one of the leading voices within Congress demanding reform," Gizmodo says. "Earlier this December, she also led a House committee hearing on combatting sexual harassment in Congress."

The hearing contained testimony by experts on protecting victims of harassment and abuse and improving the reporting process at universities and research centers. "There was also a clear request by the government: Let us know when universities aren't being honest about their suspected predators," the article adds.

In her opening statement, Comstock lamented the many "brilliant women and their ideas" that may have been lost to the STEM fields because of harassment, as well as the careers and earning capacity that were lost to the women, themselves.

The National Science Foundation's Rhonda Davis highlighted the agency's recent decision to set up a database where students and faculty members can directly report claims of sexual misconduct to the NSF, Gizmodo says. Earlier this month, the NSF also began requiring institutions to report when researchers funded by the agency have been found to have committed sexual harassment.

According to Gizmodo, American Geological Union Executive Director Christine McEntee proposed several measures to ameliorate the problem, such as establishing universal standards regarding sexual misconduct, better training for bystanders to step in, a more transparent reporting process to protects victims from retaliation, and reforms to improve the overall environments of labs and universities. 

But others who gave testimony, like anthropologist Kate Clancy and former university administrator and attorney Kristina Larsen pointed out that there's still a disconnect in what is considered to be actionable when it comes to sexual harassment, Gizmodo says. The case of Harvey Weinstein is obvious, Clancy noted, but added, "While the come-ons are the type of behaviors we see in articles about and in sexual harassment trainings, the majority of sexual harassment are in fact the put downs. These are the kinds of behaviors most women in the workplace have experienced at least once in their lifetime, and many experience everyday. The offensive remarks, subtle exclusions; requests to make coffee, yes, but also starting rumors, sabotaging promotions, or ruining a career."

She specifically pointed to the case of Boston University geologist David Marchant, who was accused by his former graduate student Jane Willenbring of repeatedly sexually and physically harassing her during research expeditions to Antarctica. Boston University's investigation found that Marchant had sexually harassed and demeaned Willenbring but didn't affirm her allegations that Marchant pelted her with stones, blew volcanic ash in her face, or pushed her down a rocky slope, Gizmodo says.

"More important than anything else, Clancy often repeated, is a need for universities and scientists, especially those in power, to examine and change the broader culture surrounding science," Gizmodo adds. "'It's like we think rudeness and cruelty are the same thing as being smart, without noticing that we direct these cruelties more at women than men, more at women of color than white women, more at sexual minorities than straight folk,' she said."