Professor Becca Barnes, Fighting Sexual Harassment in STEM

While there are many reasons for the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields—including inadequate maternity leave and an “old boys club” culture—there are also high incidences of sexual assault, especially in field settings. Professor Rebecca Barnes, from the Environmental Science Department, works to shed light on this issue as well as other barriers to access for women and people of color. In an interview with Barnes, she quoted a recent report that “51 percent of women working in a scientific context have reported being harassed or assaulted.” These incidents tend to occur in the field or lab, often isolated and informal settings. This informality breeds a sense of uncertainty, a blurring of lines between professional and personal.

Barnes argues that because of this gray area, it is imperative that people working in STEM fields should be trained on issues of sexual harassment and assault. While Barnes has long shown her commitment to the diversification of STEM through her involvement with the Earth Science Women’s Network, she was also recently granted funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Barnes will take part in the ADVANCE program, which “is designed to foster gender equity through a focus on the identification and elimination of organizational barriers that impede the full participation and advancement of all women faculty in academic institutions.”

These organizational barriers are especially unique at Colorado College, where nontraditional classrooms create gray areas in the relationships between professors and students. While Barnes did not insinuate that incidences of assault are common on CC’s campus, she did point out that the potential for harassment or exclusive comments grows larger when faculty and students spend a lot of time together in a nontraditional setting. Furthermore, professors have little to no training on what constitutes sexual harassment. Through the ADVANCE grant, Barnes and other professors around the country are working to change that. Along with professors from Brown, University of Wisconsin, California State, and other universities, Barnes will create a training module that will eventually aim to educate professors across all departments.

Barnes stated that many trainings “focus on getting drinks and the creepy hand in the cubicle.” However, in a university setting, these cautionary tales fall flat. It is imperative to have field-relevant examples in which professors can identify any biases and change their behavior to make their field of study more inclusive. Barnes gave me one such field-relevant example. If a male and female student go out alone during dawn to study a specific animal that is active at that time of day, you are asking the female student to take on more risk. It is important that professors are aware of that so they can create a space for students to pick their own partners. That way, no one is forced into a situation they are uncomfortable in.

Barnes also stressed the importance of intersectionality and how, at CC specifically, class schedules can place particular pressure on low-income students. One way in which this occurs is on field trips wherein a student must pay more for food than they may have if they stayed on campus. Or, students with jobs are unable to work because of long field trips. It is these sorts of challenges that professors should be aware of.

CC prides itself on its experiential learning and nontraditional classrooms. However, these blessings can also be a curse when they exacerbate existing barriers to access. The training created by the NSF’s ADVANCE program will target such barriers to access. Professor Barnes is asking the uncomfortable questions about the implications of the teaching methods here at CC. She often uses paper cuts as a euphemism for micro-aggressions. “We can change the inadvertent paper cuts,” she says. But first, the College has to expose professors to their implicit biases and how they may manifest in the classroom.

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