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Redefining Sexual Harassment

Since the 1960s, women have made sweeping inroads across professions and academic fields, achieving not just excellence but pre-eminence in a wide range of areas. These include medicine, psychology, veterinary science, biology, the law, journalism, and education. This year, the Nobel prize in physics was jointly awarded to Donna Strickland, a Canadian physics professor, for the invention of chirped pulse amplification, and her doctoral adviser Gerard Mourou.

Despite these massive gains, however, women have not made sweeping inroads in every field. Some remain stubborn outposts of male dominance. Such fields include mathematics, computer science, and, bringing up the rear, engineering, in which women only make up about 12 percent of the workforce.

For advocates of gender equality in the workplace, women’s persistent low representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a particular concern. Some have sought to blame it on the prevalence of sexual harassment in these fields, in spite of the fact that sexual harassment across all fields is declining. In 1997, the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 16,000 complaints about sexual harassment; by 2017, that rate had dropped to 9,800, a decline of 40 percent in 20 years.

Has STEM bucked this trend? A national report on sexual harassment in engineering was released earlier this year and was promoted recently at the October 19th at the Society of Women Engineer’s Conference. Entitled ‘Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’ (2018), it was produced by a committee of scientists belonging to NASEM (National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) and published by the National Academies Press. Its claims are stark, pronouncing that “50 percent of women faculty and staff in academia experience sexual harassment” and “20-50 percent of students experience such harassment from faculty or staff.” These claims are made in the present tense, indicating this is the current state of affairs.

News articles which promoted the report carried headlines like ‘Half of all women in engineering schools experience sexual harassment,and—

If this is true, it suggests that the faculty and staff of the institutions where these women are employed are guilty of serious neglect and major intervention is required to fix the problem. Which is exactly what several commentators have suggested:

It’s also what the NASEM committee has suggested. Its recommendations include making use of “egalitarian leadership styles,” developing “ways the research funding can be provided to the trainee,” as well as “focusing evaluation and reward structures on cooperation and collegiality,” and taking “explicit steps to achieve greater gender and racial equity in hiring and promotions…thus improv[ing] the representation of women at every level.”

In The People’s Law Dictionary, the definition of sexual harassment in U.S. law is as follows:

Sexual Harassment
n. unwanted sexual approaches (including touching, feeling, groping) and/or repeated unpleasant, degrading and/or sexist remarks directed toward an employee with the implied suggestion that the target’s employment status, promotion or favorable treatment depend upon a positive response and/or “cooperation.” Sexual harassment is a private nuisance, unfair labor practice or, in some states, a civil wrong (tort) which may be the basis for a lawsuit against the individual who made the advances and against the employer who did not take steps to halt the harassment.

The legal definition quite explicitly links the definition of sexual harassment to sex: “touching,” “feeling,” and “groping” and to harassing behaviour directed at an individual: “toward an employee.” It goes further, stating that the behaviour in question will instil fear in the targeted employee if they don’t comply with the harasser’s demands: “with the implied suggestion that the target’s employment status, promotion or favorable treatment depend upon a positive response and/or ‘cooperation.’”

If sexual favours are a condition of employment that is known as “quid pro quo” harassment and, legally speaking, is considered the most serious kind. Behaviours that create an intimidating environment are also considered serious—so long as the behaviours are severe and pervasive enough to constitute harassment in the eyes of a reasonable person. This is known as the “reasonable person standard,” (although in 2013 the US Departments of Education and Justice dispensed with this standard when it comes to sexual harassment.)

Legal definitions sometimes differ from layperson’s definitions. However, not in this case. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sexual harassment as “Behaviour characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.” The legal definition simply takes it one step further by adding that the target may consider their employment status to be at risk.

Neither the legal nor the layperson’s definition of sexual harassment was used for the report released by NASEM. The editors of the report—Paula A. Johnson, Sheila E. Widnall, and Frazier F. Benya—made an estimate regarding current rates of sexual harassment on the basis of a number of past studies, which they themselves helped to select. No original data was collected or analysed.

It is important to note that there is no consensus in the literature on sexual harassment. Like many fields of inquiry, it contains many internal and ongoing debates—about how best to measure sexual harassment and the best way to track such behaviours over time, among other things. In deciding which research to draw on, the authors of the NASEM report explain that they chose studies which define sexual harassment as consisting of not just sexual coercion, sexual advances and unpleasant and degrading comments, but also gender harassment. That is, sexist comments and “ambient harassment.” It is this definition that’s being used when the 50 percent claim is made.

The studies selected for the report used a questionnaire called the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ) to measure harassment. Questions in the SEQ include: “Said things to put women down, for example, that women don’t make good supervisors;” and “Treated you ‘differently’ because of your sex.” The authors of the SEQ define sexual harassment as “… unwanted sex-related behavior at work that is appraised by the recipient as offensive, exceeding her resources, or threatening her well-being.” Yet many items on the SEQ do not meet the “sex-related” part of that definition. For example, “Said things to put women down” has no relationship to sex.

The SEQ, which is considered the “gold standard” measure of sexual harassment by the NASEM editors, holds that different treatment according to sex is an example of sexual harassment. However, in another part of the NASEM report, not being treated differently because of your sex is also considered sexual harassment. For example:

…the “ideal worker norm” is pervasive in academia. As Leskinen and Cortina (2014, 110) explain in their work on a broader conceptualization of gender harassment (a type of sexual harassment): The ‘‘ideal worker’’ is someone who works full time and consistently over his or her lifetime and who takes no leaves for pregnancy, child care, or other caregiving responsibilities [Williams, 2000]. Employers value and reward the ideal worker, despite the inherent stereotypical sex-based expectations (i.e., workplaces are structured around male bodies) that this ideal endorses [Williams, 2008]. Conversely, some employers punish personnel who fail to meet the ideal worker norm; this notion of ‘‘family responsibilities discrimination’’ is gaining attention among lawyers and social scientists as a significant barrier to women’s employment and advancement [see Williams, 2008; Williams and Bornstein, 2008].

It looks like the authors of the NASEM report considered it sexual harassment if an employer treated a female employee differently because of her sex and sexual harassment if an employer failed to treat a female employee differently because of her sex. The former is considered patronising, while the latter is inconsiderate. In light of this, NASEM’s estimate that only 50 percent of women experienced sexual harassment begins to look quite conservative.

The SEQ—and sexual harassment literature more broadly—has been criticised in the scientific literature for its broadness and lack of precision. In a paper published in Law and Human Behaviour in 2004, three academics wrote:

[T]he SEQ is a flawed instrument and…its positive features have been greatly exaggerated. It does not seem to measure anyone’s definition of sexual harassment, including that of its own developers. Even if the SEQ measures only psychological harassment that raises another important question: what is psychological sexual harassment?

We believe it is a mistake to consider the SEQ (in its various incarnations) a measure of sexual harassment. If [it] claims to be measuring sexual harassment, it needs to be operationalized in a manner that is consistent with someone’s definition of sexual harassment, whether that is a legal or a lay definition of sexual harassment, or even the researcher’s own definition.

Such limitations are not mentioned in the NASEM report, although the authors do acknowledge that when the definition of harassment is expanded to include sexist comments and “ambient harassment” the incidence goes up:

The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment involves some form of gender harassment (the put-downs of sexual harassment that include sexist hostility and crude behavior). Unwanted sexual attention is the next most common form of sexual harassment, and only a small minority of women experience sexual coercion.

For instance, Schneider, Swan, and Fitzgerald (1997) analyzed data from two samples of women: factory workers and university faculty/staff. In both samples, gender harassment was by far the most common experience: 54–60 percent of women described some encounter with gender harassment, either with or without unwanted sexual attention. In contrast, sexual coercion was rare, described by approximately 4 percent of women in each sample.


In another study, Leskinen, Cortina, and Kabat (2011) analyzed survey data from two samples of women who work in highly male-dominated sectors: the military and the law. Focusing only on data from women who had encountered at least one sexually harassing behavior in the prior year, they found that 9 of every 10 people who experienced sexual harassment had encountered gender harassment with little or no unwanted sexual attention or coercion.

It could be argued that stretching the term to include behaviour that does not fit the legal or layperson’s understanding of sexual harassment presents no problem—as long as the most serious types of sexual harassment (unwanted advances and sexual coercion) are not overlooked. The more capacious definition is simply an attempt to capture all instances of unwelcome and unpleasant conduct, whether of a sexual or a non-sexual nature, since it’s this conduct which makes STEM workplaces unpleasant environments for women which is claimed contributes to the lack of gender parity in these fields. However, if the authors of the NASEM report are using a broader definition than the one used to measure sexual harassment in other fields—which they are—they cannot then claim that it is more prevalent in STEM than elsewhere.

The authors have another argument for including things like “ambient harassment” in their definition, which is that the reports they included in their survey only asked women about harassment they’d experienced in the last 12-24 months—although that argument is tantamount to an admission that they were worried that if they stuck to the more conventional definition they wouldn’t be able to come up with the headline-grabbing numbers they were hoping for. “An initial challenge in conducting survey research on sexual harassment is that many women are not likely to label their experiences as sexual harassment,” they write.

In 2016, University of Melbourne psychologist Nick Haslam published a seminal paper on the phenomenon of “concept creep” in psychology. Haslam proposed that several categories of meaning had expanded within psychology over a period of several decades, and that this expansion had occurred both vertically and horizontally. These categories included abuse, trauma, mental disorder, bullying and prejudice. The expanding definition of sexual harassment, therefore, sits inside part of a larger, more general trend.

Haslam says this process is often driven by worthy goals—and no doubt the same could be said of those who’ve expanded the definition of sexual harassment. Driven by the goal of promoting equal opportunity for women in the STEM fields, gender equality advocates have sought to broaden the meaning of the term to capture milder and more subtle behaviours they believe contribute to keeping women out. But do they? And is there any evidence that women are more likely than men to experience hostile behaviour of a non-sexual nature in the workplace?

Sexist comments and “ambient harassment” are, by their very nature, more ambiguous than a boss’s groping or demands for sexual favours. What might be ambient harassment to one person may go completely unnoticed by another. Likewise, what may be perceived as a sexist comment by one person might not be by another. But perhaps what is most note-worthy about the definition of the NASEM report’s authors use is that neither intention or the subjective interpretation of the target matter when it comes to sexual harassment. Even when women do not consider “ambient harassment” to be sexual harassment, this view is overridden by the researchers. In the sexual harassment literature, what counts most is the view of the researchers carrying out the surveys, who interpret and label women’s experiences for them.

In the NASEM report, behaviour that is classified as sexual harassment need not be about sex, need not be distressing, need not be interpreted as sexual harassment by the person on the receiving end, and may not be directed at a person at all.

For some, this expansion of the definition will represent progress—an expansion of what Peter Singer has called the “moral circle” in which we empathise with people we haven’t empathised with before. Certainly, in the context of university and workplace governance, having administrators empathise with those who have little power may be a good thing. Nevertheless, as Haslam points out, “concept creep may release a flood of unjustified accusations and litigation, as well as excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes.” Additionally—

[C]oncept creep can produce a kind of semantic dilution. If a concept expands to encompass less extreme phenomena than it did previously, then its prototypical meaning is likely to shift in that direction. If trauma, for example, ceases to refer exclusively to terrifying events that are outside normal human experience, and is applied to less severe and more prevalent stresses, then it will come to be seen in a more benign light.

Analogously, if sexual harassment is redefined so it includes an unintentionally sexist joke then a boss pressuring his intern for after-hours massage may come to be viewed in the same light—as a risqué joke. This risks trivialising actual sexual coercion.

But what is most surprising about the NASEM report is the authors’ dismissive attitude towards women’s actual perceptions of their own experiences. If women themselves do not interpret inappropriate comments and “ambient harassment” as sexual harassment, then what is it about the behaviour that makes it so? And if the researchers’ definition of sexual harassment varies from the legal and the layperson’s definition, what makes the research definition a more accurate term for research purposes? If the category of behaviour that is described is different to the legal and layperson understanding of the term, then why not create another separate category altogether? Or why not call it “gender harassment” rather than “sexual harassment”? All of these questions are left un-answered.

It seems apparent that the authors of the report deliberately enlarged the definition of harassment in order to come up with the figures they wanted. These startlingly high rates are then used to shoe-horn in policies and recommendations that benefit a subset of politically active individuals within the STEM fields – and create jobs for harassment consultants and diversity trainers. The interventions themselves may not actually work, in the sense that they may not create a less hostile workplace environment for women or encourage more women to enter STEM fields, but they will at least benefit those who advocate them and their political allies.

The downside is that any research findings on sexual harassment will automatically be viewed with suspicion in future.

And trust in the sciences, and NASEM in particular, is diminished when this type of advocacy is presented as objective science. But perhaps the most ominous consequence will be that the recommendations of the NASEM report are implemented, soaking up a lot of time and resources that won’t actually benefit women.


Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon


  1. Dai Anto says

    My wife has a Masters in one engineering discipline and a second in another. In a 40 year career she has heard a variety of obscenities and off colour jokes as part of the educational and work environment. At no point in her education or career has any instructor or colleague made any direct of indirect comment or action she considers to be sexual harassment. Perhaps, given the findings of NASEM she was singularly lucky.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Nope, she was sexually harassed per their definition.

    • V 2.0 says

      Yup. Software engineer with two X chormosomes here. In twenty years of working on teams where I am the only woman I have yet to be sexually harassed. I almost feel like I’m missing out on some sort of quintessential female experience :D. #NotMe

      • XY Software engineer here(20+ years) . I have seen some of my male co-workers make the occasional inappropriate joke. Usually not aimed at anyone. In the case where it was everyone else made sure he knew that was very inappropriate. I would not have been privy to the traditional quid pro quo harassment; so I cannot comment on the prevalence of that.

    • Johan says

      Modern day shit…A never ending complaining story. Just imagine living in the middle ages…or just about anytime. No running water or washing machine. Most of your children died. Now we talk about inapproptiate jokes…I’m buying earplugs.

  2. Hannah Lee says

    In Contrast to the previous Post about the MeToo, this is a cogent article about the phenomenon of concept creep- The Fact that a Ginger Man asked if he could masturbate in front of you is, privately qualitatively NOT the same as a physical assault, (to take the Louis CK example). Equating a Joke in bad taste with an actual assault diminishes real actual harm with actual crimes. Saying but, ‘The Partiarchy’ or ‘White Privilege’ just indicate how Un-Serious you are….

    • Dai Anto says

      You seem to miss my point which admittedly largely anecdotal. As with many such studies, such as Koss’s 1 in 4 study of campus sexual assault, which which was buttressed by her subjective opinion of respondents answers, and has become in some quarters, a reflection of American rates as a whole, the opinion of NASEM does not reflect an accurate accounting.

      This, however, is not the difficulty. The credibility of professional organizations is is another matter. You may call it concept creep but I might cite the opinion of a friend. “I no longer believe anything reported in the news.” Poorly researched media reports are not concept creep but a reflection on how news has become entertainment using dubious sources. I have yet to read in the ASHREA Journal and similar professional engineering publications that which is reported by NASEM.

      Perhaps someone might refresh my memory as to the book published a number of years ago by a former editor of the New York Times that media was the greatest threat to democracy. Concept creep is merely a subset of that.

  3. A researcher who over-extends, and thus trivializes the definition or scope of an offence diminishes support for the real victims of that offence, properly defined. .

    • Indeed. It’s one thing for the “social meaning” to expand and cover more objectionable behavior, and another if it’s tied into the law. Being gross, callous or just a bit off are not crimes, though we as a society should be able to disapprove of such behavior.

  4. Andrew says

    “In 2016, University of Melbourne psychologist Nick Haslam published a seminal paper on the phenomenon of “concept creep” in psychology. Haslam proposed that several categories of meaning had expanded within psychology over a period of several decades, and that this expansion had occurred both vertically and horizontally. These categories included abuse, trauma, mental disorder, bullying and prejudice. The expanding definition of sexual harassment, therefore, sits inside part of a larger, more general trend.”

    Western societies have fallen into the trap of regarding things like sexual harassment and racism, and the response to these things, as being analogous to the eradication of infectious diseases by vaccination. Every last trace must be wiped out of existence. In the U.K., even minor racial slights such as referring to Pakistanis as “Pakis” have been policed out of existence. Concurrent to this, Pakistani rape gangs (in PC terminology “Asian grooming gangs”), who target non-Muslim girls and women, have been allowed to operate virtually unopposed for many years, as part of the racism eradication program. The result is a growing and not-quite fully suppressed resentment of British Muslims, as well as the blatantly racist attitudes of the gang members toward their victims.

    Thus the attempt by British society to eradicate racism as though it were an infectious disease, has paradoxically led to more racism, not less. What are the chances that the program to eradicate sexual harassment will suffer the same fate?

    • Peter from Oz says


      There isn’t any social problem that can’t be made worse by social workers, academics or government. All three thrive on the existence of ”problems”. We need to choke off the funds to these people, so that they move into something productive.

    • Greg Allan says

      “Thus the attempt by British society to eradicate racism as though it were an infectious disease, has paradoxically led to more racism, not less.”

      The impetus for change always seems to come from those with the least understanding of human nature. The best way to get people to do anything is to tell them it’s impossible or forbidden.

    • michael spurek says

      While racism is a problem, it is not “the” problem. Racism is a “result” of ignorance and stupidity regarding race. Remove the ignorance and stupidity regarding race, and racism disappears with it. If one believes race determines character, then their belief is based on ignorance and stupidity. If one believes a race, or a group of people have no right to exist, their belief is based on ignorance and stupidity. Before any problem can be solved, the problem must be properly defined and recognized. Ignorance and stupidity are our real enemies.

  5. Lee Floyd says

    Are we sure this report isn’t another deliberate spoof? Poor data, subjective interpretation, sensationalist reporting…and a political bias. Either that, or the West and it’s academics need to sit down and have a long talk…..

  6. This looks very like the approach used by advertisers who invent a new problem which they just happen to have the solution for.

  7. The defintion of sexual harassment to include behaviour which is not classified by the ‘victim’ as sexual harassmenet is continuing in the tradition established by studies of rape which define rape as including events which are not classified by the ‘victim’ as rape. The reason in both cases is a deliberate and rather cynical inflation of the figures as part of a strategy to denigrate men and increase womens priviliged position in society.

    An element within the defintion of sexual harassment that has also changed not covered by the author is the requirment for the behaviour concenred to be persistent and repeated. Clearly this is not required for major infractions but must be present for the minor or supposed ambient cases.You cannot, or should not be able to, harass someone with a single ill-chosen joke or remark, it shoudl require behaviour that persists despite requests to desist. This element has been dropped but without it any social misjudgement places a man in a hazardous situation and can be used as eveidence of an environment hostile to women when it is simply one filled with human beings who occasionally misjudge their audience.

    It would be interesting although I think ultimately quite destructive if the same criteria were applie dto men working in prediominantly female environments. My admittedly anecdotal experience is that women feel free to express things to men that would be considered wildly inappropriate the other way around and that touching and sexualised comments to an dabout men are commonplace. I don’t want a world where both men and women are constantly fearful of being accused of sexual harassment but one where they both can be comfortable and respected in the workplace. I think this has become more not less difficult in the last few decades.

    • Uncle Jack says

      Regarding the last paragraph:

      I have worked for nearly three decades in engineering, mostly in a big U.S. corporation. Averaged out over that time, perhaps 20% of the workforce around me were women. I have experienced and observed many instances of repeated inappropriate touching of myself or male colleagues by female ones as well as many more cases of verbal sexual harassment by women (or, at least it would be called that if a man did or said the same thing to a woman). In all that time I’ve been aware of only two rumors of men sexually harassing women and one of those two rumors entailed that the harasser had been severely reprimanded by a manager. One could possibly speculate that, because of the apparent double standards, male harassers have learned to act more secretly, without any witnesses around, etc. So there might have been more male-on-female sexual harassment going on than I thought. On the other hand, one could extrapolate my observations of female-on-male sexual harassment to a hypothetical situation were women would make up about half of the workforce… In any case, in my observation, there is an almost grotesque double-standard when it comes to sexual harassment. (Note that I am not talking about sexual assault like rape.)

      • It could be your “experience” shows that you don’t see harassment equally when applied towards women versus men (confirmation bias).

        • Uncle Jack says

          @david of kirkland

          It could be, of course. All kinds of things could be. But that doesn’t make them necessarily so. Let’s take another example:

          During some film festival appearance regarding the TV series “Bates Motel,” lead actress Vera Farmiga was sitting, on the dais, to the right of her 19 younger co-star Freddie Highmore. At one time, while making some point, Ms. Farmiga put her left hand, for a little while, on the right upper thigh of Mr. Highmore. On rolling camera. (This can be seen in one of the bonus features on one of the DVDs containing that series.) But nobody seemed/seems to find that inappropriate. Wasn’t there a high-ranking male British government official who had to resign because he had once had put the hand on the thigh of a female colleague sitting next to him during some dinner or some such event? Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing that the latter should be tolerated. In my mind it is absolutely unacceptable. I just want to point out the double-standards.

          • Peter from Oz says

            Yes, there is a double standard, but with good reason.
            Let’s be honest, no man inds if a woman touches him. He understands that there is no sexual meaning to it. Men on the other hand are larger, more sexually intent beings. Women are thus wary of being touched by men. As it is usually the man’s role to make the first move in any romantic relationship, a woman can’t be sure if being touched is about a sexual advance or not. The best thing therefore is for men not to touch until they can be sure that the woman is comfortable with it, either as a prelude to romance or just an acceptance of friendship.
            The idea that men and women are the same in this area is one of the great blights of our time. The latest wave of feminists, even they though they don’t know it, are actually groping (pun not intended) there way towards understanding that traditional sexual morality is a better protector of women than sexual libertinism.
            When it comes to people equal and alike are two different things.

          • ccscientist says

            Peter from Oz says that men don’t mind being touched, so it is ok if women touch them. If I find a woman attractive, I absolutely do not want her touching me since i am married. For this reason I find work places where everyone goes around hugging to be dangerous also.

          • Peter from Oz, I completely disagree with you. You write “no man minds” if a woman touches him—Based on what? *You* don’t mind? If you have a boss who can fire you at will, and she goes around spanking your butt or putting her hand on your thigh at a business meeting or when she calls you into her office, and you have zero desire for her to do so, don’t tell me that’s peachy with you because you’re bigger physically than she is. That’s just rubbish.

            It’s always about power and sexual flirting. It has literally nothing to do with size nor with doing moves (and many women make the first move anyway). The power has to do with worry you will be blocked from promotion if you don’t do x or y, or worrying you can’t properly work because you’re feeling uneasy from raunchy comments about your rear end, or worrying you’re not able to network because all the other gender bonds after work.

      • Greg Allan says

        “Note that I am not talking about sexual assault like rape.”

        There’s a grotesque double-standard where that’s concerned too.

  8. E. Olson says

    If men are such pigs in schools and the workplace, why don’t more woman start their own businesses and schools and hire/admit only women? I would think such business and schools would be highly profitable given that woman work for only 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, and without all that sexual tension and abuse, no doubt these women only enterprises would be much more productive. Yet the very opposite always occurs – women protest, sue, regulate, and vote to get access to “boys” clubs (Boy Scouts, Augusta Golf club) and “male” occupations (STEM, combat units) where they claim they are abused by male toxicity and rape culture. Why do women continually follow such destructive practices instead of going their own way and showing the superiority of female intellect, work ethic, and matriarchal culture?

    • E. Olson I agree. Now confused men are invading OUR spaces. They protest a production of the Vagina Monologue because it makes them feel excluded, just as women have gained access to men’s spaces only to demand they change. Payback is a bitch.

      • Greg Allan says

        “Vagina Monologue”

        I’d protest any such production because sexually abusing a thirteen year old is not a “good rape”.

    • Same story for those who wish to pool their resources into a socialist paradise…they are free to do this now in a free country, but don’t, and then look to impose it on all instead.
      Free people are not forced to buy from any company, nor work for any company, nor live in any specific place, but rather than compete and invest, they prefer to coerce.

    • peanut galley says

      The same reason some women post suggestive pics of their T and A, then get upset when some random dude says something to the effect of “Yo, I’d like get all up on that.”

    • E. Olson,

      I see your point here, it’s something I’ve often wondered about politics as well. Women complained that government is an all boys club, but women rarely bothered to take the risks and other trade-offs many of them expect of their male partners in their careers. Women also make up slightly more than half the voters. They seemed to want men to lead but they also want to call it sexism when they do just that.

      I consider leadership and career risk-taking expectations to be a burden on men more than sexism against women. So I agreed with the feminist goal of more women in positions of power, though for slightly different reasons. The old boys club might still be a barrier, but I believed the biggest barrier to be that women just don’t like this kind of risk and ambition as much as men, on average.

      However, we do see a huge upsurge in women in politics lately. It’s been like a feminist wet dream. I’m happy to see this. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe women really do want political power and the downsides that accompany it, but until now there have been too many barriers?

      And this goes to your point as well. Maybe women do want to start their own businesses and hire more women. Anecdotally, I’ve seen some examples of just that in recent years. But maybe starting businesses still has barriers for women as well? Many successful business owners formerly worked in senior positions of major firms, so if women are having trouble making it into these senior positions, maybe that’s partly why there aren’t as many women starting businesses?

      I suspect this is at least a little true, and I do still think women don’t crave power, wealth, and their associated risks as much as men do, on average. It’s boneheaded to demand equality of outcome, but we should certainly ensure equality of opportunity, so everyone who wants the big cheese has the same shot at getting it. Then maybe men can get a break as well.

      • Peter from Oz says


        I like your comment, which I think is a well-balanced take on the question at hand.
        I have always had the impression that we have to let time take its course in these matters. it seems to me that conservatives’ views are mischaracterised by those who think that change must be accelerated through urgent social and governmetal action. I don’t think any conservative thinks that women should be denied a choice about pursuing any career. Conservatives just want things to happen organically. I look forward to the day when nobody makes a fuss when a woman takes up any role. But so-called progressives seem to thrive on the belief that no matter how things have gone they have not gone far enough.
        This leads conservatives thinking that somehow progressives are subject to a great deal of projection. This progressive fear of offending or harming members of victim groups looks to conservatives like it veers towards a condemnation of members of other groups.
        Progressives are causing more problems than they solve.

  9. I’m am shocked, shocked to discover the gender commissars are promulgating unadulterated propaganda. The real sin is that they are not engaging in the Big Lie, they should start claiming that 98% of woman in STEM have been sexually assaulted by white fraternity guys. Being way too modest.

  10. Anglosaxon women are another type (Victorian period still working through??) than French and other continentals. Catherine Deneuve wrote a reaction to #MeToo (with other less well known madames) that men should continue with their masculine rights to pester women. Yesterday I came across a column in a Women Glossy, written by an indoctrinated young female, I think she is.
    Advice to young men how to contact girls and women in the #MeToo era. If you like a certain lady, thinks she is attractive and charming, have an interesting talk with her, you might casually (but on purpose?) touch her arm or shoulder, but should ask her consequently whether she appreciates this gesture and agrees with it. For me, as a somewhat older male,such changes in approach would mean the end of every romantic flirting and conquesting adventures in the amoureux field.

    Sorry for not adequately reacting on the STEM and gender issue.

    • And why is that so? (thought afterwards). Because you are forcing the lady to come forward with a categorical answer, which means…. gone the whole mysterious gaming, just evaporating into the atmosphere, the administration remains. Yes, no, don’t know, all just formal treacle.

  11. Another terrific article, Ms. Lehmann, thank you. I would suggest that the piece could have been much stronger if it, or a future article, took the next step and proposed practical solutions. For example, I suspect the vast majority of us would approve of a set of SH rules that included clearly observable and verifiable behavior. If one person at work puts their hands on another person’s breasts, that’s sexual harassment. Of course, intent is important. If a man in a hall suddenly turns and unintentionally and briefly brushes against a woman’s breasts simply because he did not see her, any system of practical rules would have to allow this. As to verbal sexual harassment, the one thing I am sure cannot be a part of the definition is the perception of the recipient. The ‘victim’ does not get to define harassment for themselves, it has to be an objective standard. How about we just say “no discussion of sex” at work? (Yes, obviously it’s a bit more complicated in a fertility clinic or women’s studies department). Whatever the definition is, I think we cede ground to the crazies if we don’t make our own logical, reasoned, fair counter-proposals.

    • Asenath Waite says

      @General Tsu

      I agree. I think clearly defined rules need to be established involving workplace conversation, behavior, and possibly dress and other factors. This may seem oppressive and might reduce morale in some cases, but it seems like the only solution given what is happening. Complaining about the situation and trying to shame people into policing their own behavior is not going to work. Moreover, it seems clear that in general there is a wide range of what people consider to be acceptable and unacceptable workplace behavior, such that even if people did attempt to police themselves, they would be operating under conflicting standards. We need this stuff spelled out and formalized to minimize future problems.

  12. Stuart Whitby says

    I’m an engineer. We’re generally too logical an lacking in emotional intelligence to care much about your biology; only that you can actually do your job and contribute professionally and socially.

    As for comments relating to gender being considered sexual harassment: hair colour, nationality, height, weight (unless you’re massive, then you’re left out – sorry – and surrounding weight jokes stop), beliefs, dietary preferences… they’re all fair game for verbal sparring. That’s not abuse, though it can be taken too far, in which case proper form is to bring it up publicly and directly and without rancour with the perpetrator (generally “You’re going too far, cut it out now.” works just fine). We try to be inclusive by taking the piss out of anyone, including ourselves, for anything. And yeah, that would include your sex. To do otherwise would to be to exclude you from the team. And we’re not generally a mean enough group to want to do that.

    Show that you’re too much of a prude to take that kind of banter and I hope you wouldn’t last long there. Because banter in a working environment is a two-way thing, and if you have no ability to stand up for yourself with grace, humour and humility and instead have people walking on eggshells around you for fear of causing offence then you bring a downer to the whole place, and you’ve caused the loss of a pleasant place to work.

    I encourage any woman who wants to work in the STEM field to train up and join. But only if you freely and truly choose to – and if you bring a version of yourself that others want to be around.

    • ccscientist says

      Most of my friends are engineers. The sparring and banter can be hilarious. The point is that you can earn points by having a rejoinder to an attempt to poke you. One of the guys said my field wasn’t a real (ie heavy math) field and my come back was so funny that he high-fived me and everyone was laughing. You have to be able to take a joke in the real world. Women can be way too sensitive.

    • Area Man says

      I worked at a number of restaurants in my younger days. I am aware of no working environment more verbally brutal, vulgar & consequently hilarious than a large kitchen. Teams that work in high pressure situations develop camaraderie & respect is earned through a demonstration of competency. If someone isn’t a team player it just doesn’t work on an individual or group basis. Those who are delicate or who complain don’t last long, but the women I’ve seen working on the line who can give it just as well as it’s given are appreciated as much as (if not more than) the other men.

  13. From now on, when my daughter tells my son, “Girls rule and boys drool,” I’ll tell her to quit sexually harassing her brother.

  14. Jezza says

    It is extremely difficult to compel women to stop being women. In my seventy-odd years I have NEVER heard, or heard of, a woman stand up for men in a dispute between the sexes, with the sole exception of Bettina Arndt. We have endured fifty years of constant smear and denigration, and (positive) discrimination in the workplace, to the point where many less emotionally robust males have killed themselves. Life just wasn’t worth living. Do they care? or are they just unaware of the misery that they cultivate? Feminists and women in general still pose as victims while relentlessly savaging anything male that they can’t manipulate to their own benefit. Does anyone believe them anymore? On further consideration I think they are willfully blind to the fact that men and women are different, and will ever be so. It is extremely difficult to compel men to stop being men.

    • Eisso Post says

      Only Bettina Arndt? What about Karen Straughan, Janice Fiamengo, Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, Cassie Jaye, Ceara McCord, Diana Davison… There is hope.

  15. Just as political correctness has made everybody and everything everywhere “racist”, which is getting old and ineffective lately, we now are moving on to every man and everything male everywhere is guilty of sexual harrassment. This is the disturbed and destructive obsession of the New Left. They are not well, and seem to be on a self-indulgent lifelong journey to discover alleged injustice, even where none has ever existed, and, pretty soon they will eat their own. No one is safe from this ridiculously phony hypersensitivity and humorless infantilism.

  16. Its all total nonsense. I spent from 1972 to 2012 in academic institutions, from raw under-performing undergrad to full prof. The only harrassment, including possibly sexual, was from a truly nasty FEMALE superior who was pretty much ambidextrous in her preferences. Bald advice from the staff association got me through that period.

    Throughout my career, men advised and gave practical help, and never even hinted at sexual favours in return. They were interested in promoting talent, regardless of gender. Most, but not all women jealously protected their fiefdoms from other women and maybe helped men in their careers.

  17. jimhaz says

    I have the same view as Paul Murany’s tweet. For any report dealing with sexual/gender matters, I first find out the authors names and google their images. Where they have a history in the field – I do not bother reading the article. They’ve already become professional complainers due to the silo effect, so I know the report will not contain reliable info.

    Evolution/devolution always takes time to flow through a species. I admit that true sexual harassment was once a significant issue, but I no longer believe it is. What exists now is limited to a certain sort of arrogant person – like Trump for instance – and is not widespread, or at least not widespread enough to garner the attention it does.

  18. ccscientist says

    “Ambient harassment” can be in the eye of the beholder. A person who is always looking for offense will find it. In an engineering office, male conversation will dominate, and I have heard feminists claim that guys talking about sports or video games is harassment and excluding behavior because women don’t like those things. This is not harassment.
    “Unwanted sexual attention” is very very deceptive. This does not involve quid quo pro, but just that some guy in the office or on campus asked the girl/woman out and she didn’t like his attention. Of course this is a catch-22 because the only way the guy can find out if she will say yes is by asking. As has been pointed out, STEM types can be obtuse and socially awkward (but have a very low divorce rate once married) and thus their attention may be “unwanted”.
    I work with scientists and engineers. Very upright and proper. BUT they are still guys and do like a dirty joke now and then.

    • Greg Allan says

      “Of course this is a catch-22”

      When it’s only men who are expected to initiate only men can get it wrong.

  19. Jezza says

    I never had much success with women: I always took “no” for an answer.

  20. Peter from Oz says

    It is a very important point that sexism and sexual harrassment are different things. It stems from this that sexual harrassment is no evidence for a charge of misogyny. Just because a man wishes to have sexual interaction with a woman doesn’t mean hates all women. He may in fact like women and want to sleeep with them.

  21. Jezza says


    Some women in Australia started their own financial business, catering exclusively to women and staffed entirely by women. A woman ran off with the funds. Ha ha. True story, occurred in the last century. In Western Australia. It will be in the records somewhere. (My sloppy research exposes me as a non-academic.) I still think it’s funny.

  22. It is hard to say how expanding the classification of “sexual harassment” to get the headline “50 percent of women faculty and staff in academia experience sexual harassment” is going to encourage more women into STEM…

    • LosPer says

      Ostensibly, they wanted to create a burning platform for systemic change…and to start a “conversation” around a large cultural “problem”

  23. Burlats de Montaigne says

    As a useful footnote let’s consider the position of that most thoughtful and consistent of feminist spokespeople on this subject Jessica Valenti

    Food for thought there, I’m sure you’ll agree.

  24. Debbie says

    For example, “Said things to put women down” has no relationship to sex.

    Huh? Is this a sex/gender definitional thing? Or maybe you’re using ‘sex’ as a verb? Otherwise, how can persons saying things to put down everyone in an entire sex not be related to sex?

  25. Aaron says

    The editor-in-chief of a well-respected biology journal (the Journal of General Physiology, or JGP) has responded to this same study in an alarming manner:

    “New JGP policy to include women on every review team:

    As Editor-in-Chief, I am accountable for the fairness of every review and every decision made on behalf of JGP. Therefore, as of mid-July, 2018, JGP policy now requires that the review team of every paper includes at least one female reviewer. About half of all papers we review have two reviewers and half have three. Thus, by the end of 2018, our goal is to achieve 40% representation of women among JGP reviewers and to reach parity by the end of 2019. This is a significant change, doubling the participation of women in the JGP review process essentially overnight.”

    This policy seems like another worrying sign of the capitulation of the scientific community to identity politics. It would be absurd for a scientist to say that the validity or importance of a scientific finding depends on the gender of the researcher who made the discovery. So choosing the gatekeepers that evaluate the scientific merit of a research finding before it is published should likewise not be based on identity, but rather on expertise in the field and ability to identify weaknesses in the data or conclusions. This type of policy will eventually start to undermine the legitimacy of the scientific method if it takes root and expands.

    The other irony is that reviewing papers is mostly thankless and anonymous work that doesn’t do much to advance your career, so in saddling the women in the field with all this extra work this policy could actually have a net-negative effect on that group. The editor-in-chief admits that women are only 18% of the senior authors (the professors who lead the research group and who would also serve as peer reviewers for others’ work) that currently publish in this journal, but she still wants to increase women’s share of the review work to “parity” = 50% (which is therefore actually ~3 fold more reviewing than would be expected to contribute based on the publication rates).

    • Asenath Waite says


      That is very concerning, and will inevitably lead to instances wherein the most appropriate reviewer for a submitted manuscript (based on having the greatest expertise in the specific field of study under review) will be passed over for a less appropriate reviewer based on sex. This weakens the rigor of the peer review process overall as, having less complete knowledge of the subject matter, the reviewer in this scenario will be less equipped to identify problems in the manuscript. This just seems like an absolutely terrible idea and I really hope it doesn’t catch on with other journals.

      As for the extra work, the PI will probably just pass it off to her postdoc to review, anyway.

    • I think if every journal article that is published has a person who is a probable party member reviewing it, many things will never be published that might subsequently need to disappear. In this way, we will weed out reactionary capitalist pseudoscience and the revolution will blossom in its glorious totality.

  26. Walter says

    What a fantastic article! Immensely amused by the paragraph ending with “begins to look quite conservative.” Quillette is the greatest.

  27. Etienne Béïque says

    Great article ! Keep up the good work, miss Lehmann ! You’re a source of inspiration for all of us !

  28. Eisso Post says

    I agree with many reactions that there are a lot of double standards. But instead of being strict to both sexes, I’d prefer being more relaxed to both sexes. Sexual harassment may really have meant something sometimes, but it has more and more become the equivalent of what conservative puritanical christians call ‘sinning’, except that only heterosexual men seem now to be capable of this sin (there used to be double standards against women, but now it is the opposite.) Of course, if someone makes clear she doesn’t like your behaviour, just stop it, but nothing is objectively ‘inappropriate’ or ‘degrading’, it is a question of taste and cultural standards.

  29. Thylacine says

    The same concept creep has occurred in the area of intimate partner violence. Activist researchers want the problem to be both widespread and serious; so they design their survey methods to catch trivial transgressions in order to prove that the problem is widespread, and then focus on the tip of the iceberg that is serious. But there is a third desideratum for those involved in this kind of activist research: the problem must be gendered (or racialized, or whatever). That is, the problem must be “violence against women,” and any data that is inconsistent with that conclusion is kept hidden. When the entire range of intimate partner violence is considered, it is not gendered: men are as likely to be the victims as women are.
    Translating this lesson to sexual harassment research, you end up finding that men are as likely to be the victims as women are – although they might not perceive themselves as such. If an inappropriate sexual joke is told to a group of engineers, then 4 out of 5 of them victims of this harassment will likely be men, but only 1 out of 5 will matter.

  30. Paulo José says

    Wow! I’ve heard in my professional life women complaning about their female superiors, with many of them saying they’d prefer to have man as their boss, supervisor, etc. It’s amazing the quantity of women, per said definition, that has perpetrated sexual harassment at other women!
    Who knew!!!
    (I didn’t).

    “Confusion will be my epitaph.
    As I crawl a cracked and broken path
    If we make it we can all sit back and laugh.
    But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying,
    Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

  31. Paulo José says

    I see other trend at work parallel to this one.
    There are fewer women in STEM because of sexism and gender stereotypes and the like. Because there are no differences between man and women, not even in interests, right?
    Or so they say…
    But once there are enough females in STEM, they’ll begin trying to introduce a ‘female point of view’ because science is patriarchal and so on…
    You just wait for it!

  32. Orion Buttigieg says

    Interesting read and equally interesting comments.
    The observation of “concept creep” is also interesting and does seem to be turned to 11 with anything in the SJW universe.
    Sexual harassment and it’s worst case scenario – rape – are control mechanisms by the perpetrator.
    “Control mechanisms” can have several flavors not the least is the myriad of tactics used to bully an employee, male and female alike. Females will leverage the position of authority to abuse just as much. I’ve personally been on the receiving end of utterly deplorable behavior and when I went to management (eventually HR), they all but refused to consider my complaint serious. Included evidence of defamation/slander.
    If defamation/slander at a level that eventually costs you your job isn’t harassment then I’m not sure what is, it certainly appears to fall into the NASEM definition.

  33. Juliet Balfour says

    I don’t agree, Ms. Lehmann, because it’s important to keep your eye on the ball when removing barriers to equality. In this case, the ball is the objective of making the STEM fields welcoming to female participation. I don’t find your piece helpful because your issue with the studies may be simply resolved by a definitional change. Take the word “sexual” out of “sexual harassment”. It seems clear to me that workplace harassment is a potential problem for both men and women. Nobody should have to endure harassment in their working day. People can harass with words and with actions. Workplaces have cultures and these cultures can be hostile to certain groups. It’s never easy for victims of workplace cultures to bring their harassment to light but in the case of women, thankfully we now are at a point where society’s ears are more open to hearing of incidents. Anyone been following the lawsuits of women in the Canadian military? Probably also a very live issue in the US military.

    And honestly, I read through the comments to date above mine and I have to say, the overall tone is chilling.

    • Andrew says

      “Workplaces have cultures and these cultures can be hostile to certain groups.”

      What sort of culture would exist and in an organization in which forced association (employment) and promotion has to occur to meet diversity quotas? In which genuine promotion candidates often have to be overlooked, due to their incompatibility with preferred sex distributions? What sort of customer and general public culture would develop in regard to organizations that consist of men, women, and “equal opportunities”?

      “Nobody should have to endure harassment in their working day.”

      What you can do in that regard is to stop advocating for policies that contribute to it.

    • Jay Salhi says

      ” the ball is the objective of making the STEM fields welcoming to female participation.”

      Why do you assume they are not? Is veterinary medicine hostile to men because 70% of the people entering the field these days are women? Women earn more degrees than men at every level: bachelor’s, master’s and PhD. For whatever reason, women choose certain fields of study over others. You cannot change that with social engineering. Indeed, in countries with the most progressive policies towards women, participation in STEM decreases. Give women more choices and they choose not to study STEM.

    • Eisso Post. says

      In short you’re saying: I’m all for identity politics, other opinions are not helpful and even ‘chilling’ and it is better people don’t express them. You don’t really add anything substantial to that, not very original, opinion. It sounds like you’re not really used to other places than echo chambers.

  34. Asenath Waite says


    The underrepresentation of women in academic science is typically attributed, both in scientific literature and in the media, to sexist hiring. Here we report five hiring experiments in which faculty evaluated hypothetical female and male applicants, using systematically varied profiles disguising identical scholarship, for assistant professorships in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, men and women faculty members from all four fields preferred female applicants 2:1 over identically qualified males with matching lifestyles (single, married, divorced), with the exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference. Comparing different lifestyles revealed that women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers and that men preferred mothers who took parental leaves to mothers who did not. Our findings, supported by real-world academic hiring data, suggest advantages for women launching academic science careers.

  35. Kenneth says

    STEM is a crock. Spatial thinking should rule regardless of gender.

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