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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her various writings can be found on her portfolio site,



2015 has been quite the year in terms of elevating the issues of sexism in STEM to a national topic. Whether it was Nobel laureate Tim Hunt claiming that girls are trouble in the lab (and the amazing #distractinglysexy response from female scientists on Twitter) to the recent resignation of exoplanet researcher Geoff Marcey due to sexual harassment charges, it has been hard to miss the discussion about sexism.


On a much more positive note we are beginning to have a strong public dialog about how to address this issue.  As both a woman and a STEM PhD candidate I can definitely get behind the need to address these issues; I myself have encountered these attitudes and once had to report inappropriate behavior that was directed specifically at me. It was a difficult experience to be sure, but I managed to learn a lot from this incident and want to assure other students who experience harassment in graduate school that:


1)      you should not be subject to gender discrimination from anyone in your workplace


2)      you have options for how to deal with these situations


As students it may not always be clear what is and is not appropriate behavior because graduate school often gets treated as a limbo space between undergraduate education and the “professional” workforce. As a result it can be hard to know if what you are experiencing is harassment, or if you do know that you are being harassed it can be difficult to know how to handle the situation or who to talk to.


Graduate school is a professional environment and should be treated as such. Just because you’re not wearing a tie and suit does not mean that you deserve any less respect than any other professional worker. If you are not sure if what you are experiencing is harassment or just someone’s really, really bad taste in humor then start writing the incidents down. Keep a log of exactly what was said by who and when and notes on why it was inappropriate. Better yet, write it down and email yourself the notes so that they are time and date stamped. If over time you feel that the behavior has not changed you can decide to either bring up the issue with the individual (if you are comfortable doing so, this is usually a good approach for dealing with other students) or approaching a trusted mentor or your adviser for advice on how to deal with the problem person (which is a better approach if the problem involves someone in a position of power). In both cases you will want the concrete record of what was said and/or done and when it occurred so that you can see any patterns and make your case.


If you do not have a trusted mentor or someone you know that you can go to professionally discuss or report sexual harassment don’t forget the Title IX office on your campus. As a student, Title IX guarantees you the right to reasonable changes in academic, living, transportation, educational, and working situations and applies to all federally funded institutions in the United States. So if you are having a problem with someone on campus (or in the field if you do program-based fieldwork) you have the legal right to have the university accommodate you so that you continue to get your education in a harassment-free environment.


Change will only come to the system when we act like it has changed and stop tolerating old sexist attitudes in the workplace. So if you are experiencing harassment based on your gender don’t despair; do not be afraid to stand up for yourself and shut down this kind of insulting behavior so you can get the education that you came for.


Have you experienced gender-based harassment as a graduate student? How did you resolve the situation? Share your comments below.


[Image by PipetMonkey Blog and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]


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