Anthropology professor testifies before U.S. Congress

Kathryn Clancy discusses sexual harassment and misconduct in the sciences

Kathryn Clancy fielded questions before a U.S. House subcommittee about sexual harassment and misconduct in the sciences.
Kathryn Clancy fielded questions before a U.S. House subcommittee about sexual harassment and misconduct in the sciences.

Kathryn Clancy, professor of anthropology, has testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in a hearing devoted to sexual harassment and misconduct in the sciences.

The hearing, held by the Subcommittee on Research and Technology in Washington D.C. on Feb. 27, explored how science agencies and research institutions handle sexual assault allegations and incidents, as well as how this impacts the participation of women in science.

“I was intimidated, of course, but at the same time — it was weird —I felt really strong,” Clancy said. “I’ve been working on this issue for a really long time and I’ve been collaborating with people who’ve been doing this a lot longer than me. I’ve learned immensely from the expertise of other people over the last couple years, so I just felt comfortable speaking from experience and speaking from expertise.”

Clancy has published multiple papers on the prevalence of sexual assault against women both in field research and in university research labs. She gives talks across the country and works directly with universities to improve the climate and culture for women in science.  

“It’s not enough to say we need mandatory reporting, or a better reporting structure, or to convince more women to report, because how do you report the little slights? How do you report being constantly left off emails? How do you report never being included in collaborations? Those are really hard things to adjudicate in some formal, legalistic way,” Clancy said. “So there’s really more work to be done in terms of changing the culture, rather than hoping we can sort of legislate it or legally put all of this away.”

Clancy, along with Rhonda Davis, head of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Christine McEntee, executive director of American Geophysical Union, and Kristina Larsen, an attorney, voiced their testimony one at a time for the Research and Technology Subcommittee, followed by questions from Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia), chairwoman of the committee, and other members as well.

Comstock asked if women in the sciences should be creating checklists to help them prevent challenging work conditions from damaging their careers. Clancy said the question was well-intended, but she countered that principal investigators and bosses themselves should be the ones creating checklists to prevent sexual harassment.

“They’re the ones who need to be thinking if they are being intentional in the culture they’re creating,” Clancy said.

Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas), vice president of the committee, asked Clancy why she thinks so many women leave science, and if other factors should be noted aside from workplace misconduct.

“A lot of people assume that women leave science because they want to start families, or they just can’t cut it,” Clancy said.

However, Clancy had a real-life example that speaks to why this isn’t the case— her own seven-old-month baby in a room adjacent to the hearing.

“I explained to him I actually had to bring my baby with me to the hearing. I literally had in the next room my baby being watched by a nanny,” Clancy said. “Research has shown there is a motherhood penalty and there is such a thing as motherhood harassment. But it’s not motherhood per se or wanting to start a family that makes people want to leave science, it’s the fact that they are made to feel less than — it’s all these little slights.”

While Clancy emphasized to the committee that there needs to be an overwhelming culture change rather than drastic legislative change, she believes the hearing is beneficial for spreading awareness.

“I’ve been publishing this research since 2014, specifically in the sciences, and it’s gotten a lot of media attention and a lot of scientists have been outed in the past five years,” Clancy said. “At the same time, there’s something about when a congressional hearing is convened about the topic that it takes on a different significance. My hope is that it puts universities on notice a little bit. The majority of this harassment happens at universities — the culture of compliance, the fears of litigation, and centering all of their Title IX and anti-harassment work around those issues — are clearly failing women, over, and over, and over again.”

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Samantha Jones Toal