Tag Archives: Discrimination

Biases cause errors in decision making

In light of my sharing an absurd (and biased) investigation about sexual harassment at CU, I am sharing this talk on biases.

Click Below to view the talk:

Creating a Level Playing Field

It’s an excellent talk and really made me think about my own judgments and biases. It shed light on how our judgements of people and their abilities may not necessarily be based in fact. I am not going to say much more because I think Dr. Correll says it best in her talk.

Below I have included a few links similar to studies she references, and then a few other resources on bias studies.

Links and Resources:

Constructed criteria: redefining merit to justify discriminationThis study looks at job discrimination in stereotypical male or female jobs

Gender and Race Bias in the Judgement of Western Art Music Performance

Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind Auditions on Female Musicians

Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students

Here is a collection of papers on biases complied by Columbia University:Gender, Unconscious Bias and Stereotype Threat

Here is an interesting testimony along the same topic:                                          How I Discovered Gender Discrimination

How a perpetrator gets away with sexual harassment at CU Boulder

Someone’s status of being “accomplished in his field” should never be used in an investigation.

***Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault. This post includes information from an actual university investigation. ***

You can walk through the halls at my university and feel like you are in a place of success. The walls are plastered with research posters and stories of accomplishments. For me, it is a dream school for research. I love what I study here, and engineering is one of my passions in life. Unfortunately, choosing to study here came with some unexpected things that I did not want or ask for.

Being a female in engineering, I’ve experienced a fair number of less than favorable encounters that range from awkward peers to sexual harassment. Not all women in engineering experience sexual harassment. Some have been lucky enough to avoid it and some are oblivious, but by graduate school there are a large number of us who have our stories. Most of the time we just roll our eyes and laugh it off. This is part of being a female in a male dominated field. We put up with a lot of obnoxious things and usually don’t report them. (A 2006 study showed that an astounding 69% of women in engineering experienced sexual harassment during their careers).

Yet, when I experienced something on the severe end of sexual harassment, it became necessary to report. Since I had evidence, I thought the case would be fairly straightforward, and that a resolution would be reached. Instead, I came away feeling less safe than I did before reporting.


The Incident

A group of us gathered at a place just off of campus to celebrate finishing a huge exam. It was early in the evening and constituted more of a mellow dinner gathering among adults than a party.  During the dinner, one of my peers that I didn’t know as well started touching my leg under the table, moving his hand under my skirt and up to my crotch. I quickly removed his hand, but he persisted and did this to me two more times. After the third time, I quickly got up and left the gathering for a bit.  I was shaken but I decided to go back and confront him about what he did to me. I thought physical and verbal communication would be enough to make a clear point that I wanted no part of his sexual advances. Still, despite removing his hands from me, and verbally confronting him, he persisted in his endeavors.  He would later that evening be so bold as to grab my breast and place his hand down the back of my skirt and underwear (which constitutes sexual assault).  To top it off, when I tried to go back to my office, he started following me. My only recourse was to run onto a bus and take it half a mile away just to get away from him.

The Evidence

Worrying for my safety, I drafted an email to him after the incident that briefly stated that he inappropriately groped me, and that told him to never touch me again. He left two voice mails on my phone apologizing, though I suspect he wanted me to be quiet about what happened more than apologize to me.

The Reporting

I was really scared to walk through the halls of my department, and I confided in a few people about what happened. They encouraged me to come forward to resolve the problem, especially since my assailant could do the same thing to other women. One person reported it to my university, and soon after that, an investigator from the office of student conduct contacted me.

I agreed to meet with the student conduct investigator to discuss options. A discussion of options turned out to be the investigator jotting down notes as I gave a short synopsis of events. At the end of the meeting the investigator said she would investigate the perpetrator. My meeting had suddenly turned into an investigation. I shared a copy of the email and the voicemails with the investigator, but after that I was never contacted again until the investigation was over.

Soon after the university “investigation” started, I learned from a third party that police have methods for investigating non-rape sexual assaults. Initially, I did not think of going to the police, because criminal punishment seemed extreme when all I wanted was a continued safe academic environment for me and for other students. Generally, women don’t run to the police every time they experience sexual harassment, even in extreme cases.

With encouragement from a third party, I talked to a police detective, who thought I potentially had a case. Unfortunately, the university investigation disrupted the opportunity for a proper police investigation. By the time I had gone to the police, my university had already handed over all of my evidence to my assailant and his attorney.

In the end, the solo university investigator decided that my assailant did not violate any university policy. The investigation was not only an insult to victims of sexual assault, but an insult to women in STEM fields as well.

The Investigation

Often times I hear people ask how perpetrators of sexual violence don’t get found guilty even when there is evidence. To help aid in the understanding of this, I have decided to include some excerpts from the investigative report. It is important to remember that these items are things that the investigator felt were important to the overall investigation. Quotations denote direct quotes that the investigator included in the report.

My assailant has many opportunities in his future

“Respondent loves his field and is accomplished in his field.”

He “does not want to lose the 11 years of work he has put in to get where he is now”

“He thinks there are lots of opportunities in his future.”

“He is concerned about the possibility that professors won’t want to hire him based on these allegations.”

In one of the emails my assailant sent to the investigator, he mentioned the hard work he was doing. While the entire work description was not included, the investigator felt that the following information was relevant to the investigation:

“Respondent proceeds to state how hard he has worked in his field and how dedicated he is to that”

***Note to reader: I am also getting a PhD in engineering, just like my assailant. I am also accomplished in my field. This was never mentioned. The report didn’t mention how having my assailant in my department would affect my research and my leadership opportunities. My safety and learning environment did not appear to be of importance during the investigation either.

What does it say to victims in prestigious fields when perpetrators can use their success in those fields to cover up sexual harassment? What does it say to all the good successful people who would never use their careers as a way to cover up sexual harassment?

My assailant is married

This is apparently very important information to put in the report because we all know that married men never ever cheat. Obviously.

“He and his wife are close and often in communication when they are apart.”

“Respondent and his wife have been married for one and a half years. Their families are very far away so they are very reliant on each other.”

“I asked Respondent if he finds Complainant attractive. He said no, and that he is attracted to women who are physically similar to his wife. Respondent’s wife and Complainant are physically dissimilar.”

“he and his wife are Catholic. They text while apart.”

Furthermore, my assailant was able to use his wife as a witness even though she was not present during the assault at all. She submitted a long statement, which was included in the investigative report.

My assailant was allowed to have an attorney

“He was accompanied by an attorney advisor”

*** Note to reader: I was never ever given this opportunity. I went in to discuss options with the investigator alone, and then the investigator started an investigation during our meeting. There was no follow up, or even an opportunity for me to get a lawyer or have someone present with me.

My assailant was able to change his story

Despite my assailant previously apologizing in response to an email that described some of his sexual actions, my assailant changed his story and called what he did “hand play.” The investigator wrote:

“they had “hand play” which Respondent described as “not sexual in nature””

That term seems like something an attorney would come up with…

The investigator went off of impressions

Regarding my assailant:

“I find his reaction to the email suspect. I am also concerned about the fact that respondent did not tell his wife about the email from Complainant when he received it, since he emphasized the closeness they share. Despite this issue, Respondent gave an overall impression of credibility based in part of his verbal and nonverbal symptoms and attitudes during our interview”


I write this as an educational piece for the public. Sexual harassers and abusers often go free or just get a slap on the wrist.

While CU Boulder continually works on improving the investigative process, some problems still exist with addressing people who perpetrate sexual violence and harassment. Sarah Gilchriese is not alone. There are more victims here, and sometimes our assailants go unpunished.

It is a problem that only one single investigator listened to my story and made a decision about the outcome of the investigation. There were no precautions in place for situations where the investigator is biased towards one person based on their academic credentials, or the investigator does not take thorough notes during the interviews. It creates a frightening situation for victims who come forward about perpetrators who are successful in prestigious fields of study. Furthermore, it was also disturbing that my evidence was handed over to my assailant and his attorney without getting the police involved. In fact, university investigators do not notify the police in these investigations.

My experiences leave me conflicted. I want to know what I should tell young women who would like to study engineering at CU. Do I tell them that they might have my assailant as a TA or a mentor? Do I tell young prospective students that if they get sexually harassed or assaulted to hope that it isn’t by someone who is “accomplished” in their field?

Through the tears and pain and being terrified, I chose to stick with my PhD program because I did not want to throw away all of my work, and because I love what I am doing. It has come with sacrifices, such as not feeling safe on campus, and avoiding any events where my assailant could come into contact with me and repeat his actions. Thankfully, some members of my university have attempted to ensure my safety and to create an academically fair environment for me.

Yet, there is one thing that still very much upsets me. After an investigation like mine, perpetrators learn that they can hide behind their careers and success and no one will believe their victims even if there is evidence. That is wrong.


Editors Note: This story is told from the perspective of a female in engineering. However, sexual harassment and sexual violence affects women and men on college campuses and beyond. According to the CDC, about half of women and 1 in 5 men experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. For more resources, you can visit the RAINN website.

Is Science Sexy?

Sitting in the audience I cringed a bit. Why was this even being discussed? Should I be upset, or should I be enthusiastic that someone was discussing how society should view women in the sciences?

Ira Flatow gave a talk at AGU in which he brought up the viewpoint that science is becoming sexy. The talk was centered on making science more accessible to everyone and getting people more interested in science. He is well known for his NPR Science Friday, and he was now giving a talk to a large audience of scientists at the American Geophysical Union, a conference comprising of between 15,000-20,000 attendees. The response of the audience was quite telling.

During the talk, a clip of the highly controversial “Science. It’s a Girl Thing” video was played. This takes place during the video link at 39:05 (the talk video is at the bottom of this post). Listen carefully to the response. You can hear some of the men sitting near the front of the audience screaming “woo” and “yeah” after the video plays. Listen closer though. There are women whose voices are drowned out. One woman I was sitting near screamed out “BOO!” and several were joining suit.

Why was the video so controversial?

The video promotes the stereotype that young women are just interested in make-up and sexy things and being sexy. Ira did point out that this video was controversial and showed another clip of the Barber Lab Quartet saying that this is how many scientists think women in the sciences should be viewed– as in, smart, creative and fun.

Is science sexy?

A few of examples of famous scientists were used as examples of how science is “sexy” in the talk. They included a young Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Bobak Ferdowsi. Do I think they seem like freaking awesome people? You bet. Do I hang up posters of them in my room because they are sexy? Um…NO! In this instance, they were getting called sexy because they seem like cool people who are well-liked by society, and have done interesting things.

While Ira had some excellent points about getting people more interested in science, I was not as enthusiastic with his examples of why science was becoming sexy for women. These included a science site that teaches girls about physics by explaining things like how much pressure a high heel exerts on the ground, science cheerleaders, and Danica McKellar writing books for girls about why math doesn’t suck and why they should stick with it. Danica is also seen as a cool role model because she is good at math (she got a degree in it), she gives great advice, and she is still desired by men (she has posed in men’s magazines such as Maxim).

I am not upset with what these people are doing. Using cultural views of women may be necessary to get some women interested in science and learning. I don’t want the doors to be closed on anyone because they can’t look past a stereotype (like girls are supposed to be hot, and girls like fashion and high heels).  I also think that it may be one way to fight the view that you have to be ugly or unfeminine to go into the sciences if you are a female. These women are fighting back to show that that just isn’t true, and this may help more young women to not be turned away from things like engineering and physics. Since we place such a high value of attractiveness of young women, many young girls may be turned away from something that is perceived to be for ugly women.

What is upsetting to me are the stereotypes themselves. We have a stereotype that women like fashion and being sexy. Additionally we place high beauty standards on young women. This conflicts with the stereotype that women in the sciences are not attractive. Now the two have to fight it out in a culture war devoted to the appearance of women.

My Takeaway from the talk-

What Makes a Scientist “Sexy” to Society?

Here are two examples given in the talk of people who are making science sexy.


Women are “sexy” if they have posed in Maxim. Danica’s scientific contribution as a mathematician is writing motivational books for girls about math. You can still be sexy and like math. She is great at math, and men find her attractive.


Men in science are “sexy” if they express their uniqueness, seem like cool, decent people, and do or say incredibly intelligent things. Bobak shows his individuality with a sweet Mohawk, and became famous after being seen with it in the control room for the Mars Curiosity rover landing.


It seems like we have a discrepancy in what is considered “sexy” for women versus men in the sciences. The word sexy for men in the sciences means they are cool or have made some sort of interesting science contribution. The word sexy for women in the sciences means they are sexy in a sexual way.

Maybe the conflicting stereotypes about women in the sciences being unattractive and the cultural expectations on female beauty will eventually cancel each other out to the point where we can quit talking about the appearance of women in the sciences, and we can start focusing on the interesting scientific contributions of women.

Why does everything have to be sexy?

I really do like the idea of showing that scientists and engineers are normal people who range from athletes to writers to models to musicians. There are projects out there devoted to showing that scientists are just normal, relatable people, for example, This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. Showing that scientists are normal people may spark interest in the general population and show that science is something we can all make an attempt to understand.

I realize that we are currently living in an environment filled with sexual images and objectification. We have to work to promote science and education within this environment. It’s not easy. However, I don’t think the answer is to throw more sex at something to make it attractive. Sex may sell an image, but it’s not going to cause people to appreciate science the way we would like. We need to be a bit more creative than that. After all, science shouldn’t be about being sexy, it should be about the general population recognizing that science is for everyone. We should all be excited about new ideas and discoveries that can improve the quality of life and move our society forward.

The video below shows Ira Flatow’s AGU talk.

Why are there not more females in academia?

If there is a belief that women’s brains are different when it comes to science and engineering, then how does that affect the perception of women who are already in the area of study?

There is no question that we lack women in academia in many fields. In academia, women are still the minority in publications. Even with increasing numbers of enrollment of women in STEM fields, only a small fraction of publications are written by women across many fields. Part of the issue is that far fewer women want to go into academia or research than men. While 72% of women start off wanting to pursue research as a career upon entering a PhD program, 61% of men feel the same way. Yet, at the end of a PhD program the number of women drops to 37% while the number of men only drops 59%. This is a huge gap and drop in interest.

As a graduate student, I can think of many different reasons why one would not want to go into academia, or continue into research. There are the politics, the competitive environment, obnoxious university policies, long work hours from teaching and getting research funding, but in the end these things seem that they would drive both men and women away. There may be other subtleties to look at when approaching this gender imbalance as well. While I have had some female professors outright tell me they have never experienced any form of harassment during the time of their professorship, I’ve also heard many female voices from the other end of the spectrum saying harassment is a huge problem for women at universities. I’ve found some interesting reads on this subject.

When men and women were both asked why there were fewer women in fields such as physics, the responses were different. A study from Rice University sheds light on whether gender leads to different interpretations of discrimination and why women may choose to leave a field. An excellent blog post sums up some of these findings. The study showed that it was the women who were more likely to say discrimination was a reason for women not choosing fields such as physics. Men were more likely to cite differences in the brain between men and women for the different choices. This study exposes some of the issues surrounding discrimination and its potential for keeping women from advancing in male dominated fields such as physics. It’s a concern when the target gender is far more likely to cite discrimination as a factor for not staying in a field than the majority gender in a field. Furthermore, if there is a belief that women’s brains are different when it comes to science and engineering, then how does that affect the perception of women who are already in the area of study?

The Stories

There are some excellent websites out there which allow for people to put forth some of the problems women in academia face. These websites give some great insight into what it is like for women in academia, and are not just limited to the STEM fields.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me
What is it like to be a woman in philosphy?

Are Women Valued Less for the Same Work? Part 2: Wage Gap

The wage gap seems to be something that is thrown around a lot these days. There is the famous statistic that women make 79 cents of the dollar that every man makes. The straight comparison is concerning, but is it realistic?

The Skeptics

There are arguments against the 79% statistic. This video link sums up many of the arguments out there. These range from women choosing lower paying jobs to women having babies and wanting more time to spend with the kids. Yes, there are women who choose to work part time to spend more time with kids. There is nothing wrong with choosing to spend more time raising children, although we should be more accepting of men who choose this route as well. Certainly, the female role in the family may account for some of the wage gap, but can we assume it fixes everything?

A More Realistic Comparison

A recent study compares male and female college graduates one year out of college. This is a demographic where child rearing is not yet a large factor in career choices. Still, just one year out of college, female students were earning 82% of what male students were earning. Now, I know what you are thinking. The women chose lower paying majors and the men chose higher paying career paths just as many skeptics argue, right? Wrong! In fact this was a wage gap that was seen across all disciplines, even the female dominated field of education.

In a study by PayScale, the salaries of men and women were compared. A wage gap was clear between the two, but then adjustments were made for hundreds of factors. These adjustments allowed for a more reasonable comparison, for instance a male nurse and a female nurse at the same work level, or two engineers at the same level. These adjustments actually did correct for the wage gap in lower level jobs, but there is still a distinct wage gap in high-level management positions. Women who have made it to the top make 87% of what men do, and there do not seem to be factors which account for this.


There is more to the story though. When adjustments are made for an apples to apples comparison, it accounts for people at the same job level. Where a contributor to the wage gap may lie is in promotions and specific positions. For example, engineering companies have very specific engineer levels and pay grades within those levels based on numerous factors. Of course if you compare a male and a female at the same engineer level and pay grade they would be paid exactly the same. Where the problem may lie is that women and men are not climbing the pay grades at the same rate. Could women be promoted to higher up positions less often than men? A great piece in the Economist discusses how women are actually far and few between in executive and CEO positions.

There are probably many factors that lead to differences in pay and women making it to higher paying positions. Still, it makes one stop and ask, “Why are there still differences?”