Tag Archives: Women in Engineering

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.

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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”

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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.

More Research on Attracting Girls to STEM Fields

New research shows that women are more likely to take STEM classes if they are in a community with female role models in STEM fields. This is certainly helpful knowledge for getting young girls to try out science and engineering.

Now, the issue of getting women to stay in these STEM fields remains, as women still drop out of these fields at higher rates during various points in their careers.

Grandma Got STEM

 

Grandma Got STEM

You should check out this blog. You know you want to…

 

Declining Female Interest in STEM Fields

In the most recent years, the gender gap in STEM interest has been increasing.

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop surrounded by papers with equations scribbled all over them. Believe me, I wasn’t pretending to be a savant for the world’s attention. I went to a public place so that I would stop saying aloud “Ugh, you moron, you don’t know any of this.”

To my surprise, a woman stopped me on her way out and asked if I was majoring in math. I looked up and responded with a hint of defeat that I was trying to study engineering. Then I asked if she had previously studied math.

She responded that she had, and then proceeded to tell me about all of the different options it gave her, and about the different jobs she had which finally led her to the marketing of accessories (she pointed to a purse she had with her). We had a short discussion about all of the opportunities that having a background in math and science offers you. It doesn’t force you into one single career; it opens a road to opportunity.

Yet, in the United States, it seems we are still stuck in the belief that math is hard, or that it is reserved for only the smartest students. Believe me, you don’t have to be a genius to learn processes that go with math and science.

Pursuing an education in STEM doesn’t shovel you into a basement corner where you have to sit and endlessly pump out math equations, or drink coffee and write computer code all day. STEM fields teach you a way of thinking. Of course, there are engineers who will go into “hard-core” engineering, just as there are English majors who will devote their lives to researching a single form of literature from a very specific time period and geographic location. Certainly, there are people who have specific passions and talents in life, and pursue education based on this. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, many people want an education leading to a career of sorts that contributes to the world in a positive way and provides a stable income. My concern is that young women are being discouraged from educational paths that provide this because they are mislead about what studying the sciences or engineering entails.

The Interest in STEM Fields

Below is a plot of male versus female interest in STEM fields. You can see the whole report here.

The gap in STEM interest between high school freshmen males and females has been increasing.

Seeing that the overall interest in STEM has been increasing makes me incredibly happy. It is wonderful that students are becoming more interested in STEM fields. Many new and upcoming jobs have some component of science or engineering. Just look at how often we use computers and modern technology outside of what is considered “the engineering world.”

What is disappointing is that female interest in STEM fields has been declining since the class of 2010. In fact, the gender gap in STEM interest is steadily increasing. In addition to the declining female interest, the study also states “since the graduating class of 2000, African American interest in STEM majors/careers has dropped by nearly 30%.”

Engineering and science are fields that should include everyone. The skills learned allow for numerous career paths from medicine to business. While I think it is excellent that we see an increasing interest with male students (specifically Caucasian men), I must ask, what is it about our culture or the way that we are currently portraying engineering and science to high school students that is causing women and African American students to have a declining interest in more recent years?

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.

Females

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.

Males

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.

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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.

Thoughtful Children’s Toys

I think this is a beautiful idea. While there is still argument about whether or not women are better at verbal skills and worse at spatial reasoning due to cultural upbringing or nature, designing children’s toys to give young girls more options in life helps them benefit in many ways. Creating an engineering toy that blends with what young girls in our current culture are interested in is brilliant. That’s what the creator of GoldieBlox is doing.

Female Engineers Can’t Be Emotional

The women I know in engineering are strong, and pride themselves on being logical and levelheaded. In fact, I find it’s a common issue for female engineers to try and detach themselves from emotions. We chastise ourselves for feeling sad or upset. I’ve heard women tell me emotions are useless and annoying on many occasions.

Why is that?

There is a stereotype that women are more emotional and thus weaker because of their emotions. Even though this is ridiculous, and men have the same emotions, women are judged for it. Studies show that women presenting emotion are more likely to be seen as emotional, whereas men displaying the same emotion are thought to have a reason for it. This reminds me of one of my favorite comics that points out if a woman does a math problem the wrong way then girls suck at math, and if a male does it then it’s just him that sucks at math. If a female shows emotion, people jump to the stereotype. As I mentioned in a previous post, stereotypes can affect people and their interactions with others. The emotional stereotype is just one more stereotype that women in engineering are trying to overcome.

In addition to the stereotype, women are more often trained to think that showing emotion will get them called crazy. The Good Men Project has an excellent article on gaslighting called “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” which discusses the conditioning of women to think they are crazy. In the field of engineering, there is an even larger bias against emotions due to the analytical aspect of engineering, so this acts as a double negative to women who show emotions on top of the already existing emotional woman stereotype.

To call a female engineer crazy is a strong insult and can devastate her career and the perception of her within the field. This insult essentially devalues women, their integrity, and their ability to think logically in a field dominated by logical problem solving. No one will want to work with you or associate with you if you are thought to be “crazy.” Sadly, it seems that emotions and the term crazy are associated together if you are a woman. So, if you show emotion, you are at risk of being labeled an emotional or crazy woman.

This “emotional woman” stereotype extends its tenacious tendrils into the depths of engineering beyond just an individual to devalue the work that women do as a whole. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard male students tell me, “women go into the offices of professors all the time and cry to increase their grades, it’s soooo unfair.” It’s funny, because I don’t ever recall hearing about any of my female peers crying for a better grade. The irritating part of this assumption about women is that it comes and bites us even when we are not showing any emotions at all.

Don’t Cry About Your Grade Little Girl

I got to experience the stereotype when I went to ask for a grade in a class during office hours. Generally, I am a very quiet and serious person. In fact, I have an excellent poker face, and during the years while I was taking classes I preferred to put this on during all of my office hours with male professors. I never wanted to be perceived as flirty or emotional, just serious.

The professor told me my grade, which was a harsher grade than I had expected. He seemed to be aware of the harshness of the grade, and before I had a chance to open my mouth to respond or ask why I was graded that way, he added in an uncaring and slightly demeaning voice, “Are you okay? You look like you are about to cry.”

My grade was just a grade. I was not going to jump for joy about it, but I was also not terribly upset. In fact, I really didn’t have much of an emotional response aside from wondering what I was graded down on. However, when I left the office I was speechless. His comment was so unexpected and out of the blue that I couldn’t even think of a response. Now, with more experience under my belt, I can think of plenty of comebacks to a rude comment like that. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same awareness then as I do now.

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Is there a way to stop the perception that women are more emotional than men? It seems this is something deeply ingrained in our culture. Completely shutting it off overnight is not an option, but talking about it might start the ball rolling for the future.