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Discrimination and harassment in the STEM workplace

Discrimination and harassment along lines of gender, age, and ethnicity continue to pose major problems for the STEM industries, according to the 2021 STEM Survey by SRG and New Scientist Jobs.

As the main areas of employee concern in the survey demonstrate, the industry still has a long way to go to ensure across-the-board happiness and security for the STEM workforce.

The report surveyed STEM 2,400 employees from across industry and academia in Europe and North America. It found that workers from all STEM industry sectors were affected by discrimination and harassment. In the UK, almost a quarter said they’d faced some form of discrimination or harassment at work — a similar figure to the 2020 survey’s data. Meanwhile, the figure for the US and rest of Europe stood at around 30% — representing an increase from the previous year.

Reports of discrimination and harassment were highest in academia at 40% and lowest in the biotechnology sector at 16%. The other sectors covered were pharmaceuticals (18%); clinical/laboratory (22%); engineering (24%); medical technology (17%); and chemicals (23%).

Gender

Perhaps unsurprisingly, experience of discrimination is heavily gendered. Women reported more discrimination than men across all geographies — a huge area of concern given that more men answered the survey in both the US and mainland Europe (US: 59% male, 38% female; mainland Europe: 61% male, 38% female). In the UK the weighting was more balanced, with respondents being 47% male and 52% female.

Gender inequality is already a much publicised problem for STEM, and this year’s survey demonstrated the scale of the problem. Of the types of discrimination faced, nearly half (43%) of overall respondents said they had been targeted due to their gender. For female respondents, this frequently involved experiencing instances of sexism and misogyny from male colleagues, in addition to gender biases about their ability.

According to one female respondent, she faces “sexist comments frequently and also inappropriate comments about how I look or my body.” Meanwhile, another said that she and her female colleagues are “constantly fighting and losing against the ‘old boys club’.”

Career opportunities also appear to be lacking for some women. As one respondent said: 

“I feel I have been offered less progression after three years than my peer, who just started and is male, after six months. He is included in wider company emails, events and meetings that I am not — even though it is integral to my role to be so.”

While many STEM businesses have made great strides towards more equitable salaries, the gender pay gap remains a huge issue. According to the survey, the UK’s gender pay gap in STEM is a sizeable 19% — while men are earning around £3,500 more than the UK average STEM salary of £43,424, women earn £4,000 less than it.

Some men also felt discriminated against because of their gender. One male respondent felt his career progression had been stunted due to female colleagues receiving preferential treatment: “I am not a woman and therefore regularly lose out to female candidates that are less qualified but enable employers to reach their legal gender quota.”

Age & ethnicity

30% of survey respondents saying they had been targeted on the basis of age. Like older workers, young workers aged between 20 and 25 also felt discriminated against, with one saying: “although not intense, as I am much, much younger than most of my co-workers, it is quite evident that the way I used to be spoken to especially was very dumbed down.”

For the first time, this year’s survey gave UK respondents the option to state their ethnicity. 80% of respondents were white, 11% Asian, 3% Black, and 4% of mixed ethnicity. The remaining 2% selected “other.” Generally speaking, this composition is on par with the UK’s wider population. 

Despite the ethnic breakdown being more or less representational of the wider population, 24% of survey respondents report being discriminated against at work due to their ethnicity. As one worker said of some of their co-workers, “they see the colour of my skin before my skills [and] abilities in carrying out the tasks… I [have] been treated as an outsider sometimes. They make you feel you are less intelligent and I think this is not right.

Exclusion and/or perceived unfair treatment were commonplace issues for respondents who reported ethnic discrimination in the workplace, with some saying they have been completely ostracised from the rest of their team or company on the basis of being from a different country. 

Other findings

Further grounds for discrimination included sexuality and disability, which made up 8% and 9% of respondents respectively. 35% of respondents cited discrimination or harassment for reasons not listed, selecting ‘other’. This could suggest experiences that encompass multiple bases for discrimination, such as both age and gender.

Though these results seemingly paint a negative picture of the sector, we should also dwell on the positive: 70% of all respondents stated that they were happy in their jobs. Given that the survey gave people the freedom to report on past experiences, some of the negative feedback may have occurred outside their current roles.

The 70% job satisfaction figure may also suggest that instances of discrimination and harassment, though a problem, did not significantly infringe on respondents’ jobs. Similarly, respondents may not have factored discrimination and harassment into their assessment of overall satisfaction.

Food for thought

Regardless of the reasons behind some of the survey results (which are no doubt multifaceted and complex), one thing is without ambiguity: discrimination and harassment remain a huge problem that the STEM sector needs to tackle. With so many respondents citing some form of bias as an issue in their workplace, existing organisational structures and anti-discrimination measures appear to be proving mostly inadequate.

Ensuring that people feel properly secure and valued in their place of work should be a priority for employers and companies. First, by appropriately dealing with incidents when they are raised, and second, implementing effective policies to protect workers from mistreatment and bullying in the first place. 

This piece is based on an article that originally appeared in the 8 May 2021 print edition of New Scientist magazine. You can read the digital version here.

Read the 2021 STEM Survey now >

For more industry insights into the dynamic world of STEM, stay tuned to the SRG blog


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