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Women of Color Scientists Report Rampant Sexual and Racial Harassment in Workplace

A recent study found that in astronomy and planetary science fields, “women of color experienced the most hostile environment, from the negative remarks observed to their direct experiences of verbal and physical harassment.”

This conclusion is set out in a new report by the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, which builds upon other findings showing that women of color face the “double jeopardy” of experiencing both gender and racial discrimination/harassment at work.

The study’s findings on sexual and racial harassment

Woman ScientistThe study surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists between 2011 and 2015.  By far, women of color reported the highest rates of discrimination, including verbal harassment and assault.

To illustrate:

40% of women of color working in astronomy and planetary science fields report feeling unsafe at work because of their gender, and 28% felt unsafe due to their race.

The study also covers an area of employment discrimination that is sometimes overlooked:  intersectional discrimination.  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act Title “prohibits discrimination not just because of one protected trait (e.g., race), but also because of the intersection of two or more protected bases (e.g., race and sex).”  EEOC Complaint Manual Section 15.

This means that, for example, discrimination against African American women is prohibited “even if the employer does not discriminate against white women or African American men.”

The interplay between glass ceiling/promotion discrimination and harassment

As seen in other professional fields, such as the financial and tech industries, the lack of women in the workplace–particularly in positions of power–often cultivates a work environment in which gender discrimination and sexual harassment is allowed to fester. Put another way, glass ceiling and promotion discrimination often precipitates discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

The report makes clear that women of color and white women are “underrepresented in the physical sciences to a far greater degree than the social or biological sciences.”  And the women surveyed report “a troubling picture . . . of low support, isolation, stereotype threat (feeling at risk of conforming to stereotypes) . . . .”  This in turn requires them to “develop strategies and expend significant mental resources to stay in their respective fields.”

Likewise, this sexual and racial harassment caused other problems, including that:

18% of women of color, and 12% of white women, skipped professional events because they did not feel safe attending, identifying a significant loss of career opportunities due to a hostile climate.

This verbal and physical harassment is more likely to impact the ability of women of color “to build networks, achieve insider status/increase their power, and receive mentoring.”  And a hostile work environment similarly “keeps numbers low for women and people of color generally, and women of color especially, which increases the risk of stereotype threat [and] underestimation of performance,” among other issues.

These effects are often tied to signs that your employer may have a glass ceiling.

Steps to combat sexual harassment and discrimination

If you believe you’ve been harassed or discriminated against because of your gender, what can you do? If you want to preserve your ability to challenge this discrimination in court, you should consider the following options:

  • File a written complaint and follow your company’s policy for submitting internal complaints;

  • You may also want to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Their website has helpful information on how to file the complaint and, although you cannot file the complaint online, you can file in person, by telephone, or by mail.  Depending on where you live, your complaint must be filed within 180 or 300 days of the discriminatory act.  If you have any questions about whether the EEOC is the right place to file, use their online assessment center, which will help you decide if the EEOC is the correct agency,

  • Talk about your legal options with an attorney. Given time bars that apply to discrimination claims, it is vital to get the right advice as early as possible in your case.

** If you are a federal government employee or a state or local (city, county) government employee, different complaint filing procedures may apply.  The EEOC’s website has a handy online assessment tool that provides information on how to file a complaint.

© 2018 Zuckerman Law

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About this Author

Eric Bachman, Discrimination Attorney, Zuckerman Law Firm
Of Counsel

Eric Bachman is Chair of the Discrimination and Retaliation practices at Zuckerman Law and has served in senior positions at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.  Bachman’s wins include a $100 million settlement in a disparate impact Title VII class action, a record-setting Whistleblower Protection Act settlement at OSC, and a $16 million class action settlement against a major grocery chain.  Bachman holds extensive litigation experience, including trials in federal and state courts, and has also set important...

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