APS in the #MeToo Era

By Warren Rogers, Roxanne Springer, and Sherry Yennello

With the release of the U.S. National Academies (NA) report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [1] and the increasing visibility of the #MeToo movement [2], this is a good time to consider the experience of women in our APS community. There is growing awareness of the damage that is done to individual careers as well as to our physics community when women are not treated with equity and respect. Here we want to discuss steps that have been taken as well as the work our community still needs to do. Gender norms, for better or worse, are part of human culture; managing the negative impact they can have is something that will take perpetual and continuing effort. We ask that APS members embrace this concept and make a commitment to help create an APS culture where personal integrity and physics excellence are celebrated, where those who unintentionally harass are mentored, and those who continue to harass are marginalized.

The NA report emphasizes that typically when the phrase “sexual harassment” is used, we think of explicit and unambiguous assault or coercion. But included in the range of behaviors the NA identifies as sexual harassment is “gender harassment”—actions and comments that demean or belittle women and/or call attention to them as sexual objects. The NA report states that the trauma of frequent gender harassment on women, as reflected in their physical and mental health and their likelihood of leaving the field, equals that of physical assault. This is the landscape we in APS, and as members of our physics community at our universities and laboratories, need to address.

To take a recent example, the theme of the 2018 APS April meeting was Richard Feynman's birth 100 years ago. A tremendous amount has been written about Feynman, his famous physics achievements, and his famous personality, including many essays on the long-running tension between our awe of his discoveries and our acknowledgment of the gender harassment he perpetrated [3]. This tension was heightened when Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a biography of Feynman and was an invited speaker at a session dedicated to Feynman at the meeting, was uninvited due to his alleged sexual misconduct toward women.

Sexual Harassment of Women image

Unfortunately, even today some people in our community think that if Feynman did it, it must be okay. It is not, and we hope in what follows to present some ways that the APS community can move forward.

Within our own subfields of physics, there is still much that needs to be done. When we asked Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) members to tell us about experiences at APS meetings that made them uncomfortable, we received two types of responses. The first type related interactions that made the responder feel diminished, demeaned, or unwelcome. The second type indicated that the responder had never witnessed any inappropriate behavior at APS meetings.

We think both viewpoints are sincere, and that this mismatch between experiences is one reason it is so difficult to create a welcoming environment for all women at APS meetings. When a large portion of a community has never felt unwelcome it is hard for people in that portion to believe that there is a problem. The NA report cites that “58 percent of women experience sexually harassing behaviors at work” [4]. This varies by field from 43 to 69 percent. A more recent survey found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men are sexually harassed during their lifetime, with 38 percent of women experiencing harassment in the workplace [5].

This happens in academia and it happens in Silicon Valley; to assume that it is not a problem at APS meetings would be naive and unreasonable. Since all APS divisions except for one have fewer than 20 percent women [6], such a small population means that the number of people being harassed is small, but the NA report finds that the climate in which women are a small percentage of a community actually increases the likelihood of any one woman being harassed [1]. These numbers may explain why we have APS members who never witness inappropriate behavior as well as members whose careers are completely derailed by harassment. It is also possible that some of our members do not recognize harassment when they see it. Even fewer in our community are minorities in race or sexual orientation, and yet harassment in these communities is higher than in the parallel “majority” category [7]. This situation is in complete conflict with our desire to make our APS community more inclusive.

Fortunately, the NA report identifies several remedies and explicitly advises that “Professional societies should accelerate their efforts to be viewed as organizations that are helping to create culture changes that reduce or prevent the occurrence of sexual harassment.” Steps that the APS community has already taken to address this problem include establishing a Code of Conduct (CoC) [8]. That CoC is currently operational for the March and April meetings. Critically, before anyone can register for these meetings they must agree to abide by the CoC. The annual DNP meeting has also implemented the CoC and registration agreement.

The DNP established an Allies program at its Fall 2017 meeting in Pittsburgh [9] after receiving reports of harassment of participants in the Conference Experience for Undergraduates. The Allies program visibly raises awareness of harassment at meetings and provides trained bystanders who serve as a resource to targets of harassment. In addition to this, the DNP Ad-Hoc Education Committee has sponsored workshops at the fall meetings on issues related to diversity and sexual harassment, addressing stereotype threat, implicit bias, and diversity in the workplace. At the Fall 2018 DNP meeting in Hawaii we will continue our Allies program. In addition, we are planning a workshop there on how senior DNP members can help improve the climate at our meetings.

The NA report emphasized the influence professional meetings and organizations have and that “... they have a responsibility to join academic institutions in addressing sexual harassment ... Sexual harassment in academic science ... cannot be addressed in higher education if the standards of behavior are not also upheld in these off-campus environments.”

Of the NA suggestions the APS has yet to implement we advocate:

  1. Broadening the Allies program to encompass all APS meetings.
  2. Offering bystander training at APS meetings.
  3. Considering “harassment-related professional misconduct” [1] when choosing award and fellowship recipients [10].
  4. Partnering with Callisto [11] to aid in collecting data.
  5. Requiring a pledge to abide by the APS CoC not only at every APS conference registration, but for membership renewal.
  6. Including sexual harassment as a form of research misconduct [10] in the APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct [12].
  7. Administering regular surveys to APS members to measure our progress.

The NA report states, “Research also shows that, by far, the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment is the organizational climate ...” The influential role APS leaders play in shaping this climate cannot be overstated, but every APS member also has a responsibility. Few of us have the experience to respond appropriately in the moment, and some of us don’t recognize harassment even as it is happening. If your home institution offers training, please sign up for it. Bystander training is an effective way to respond to incidents of harassment [1]. This training will allow more of us to be equipped to positively influence potentially harmful situations as we witness them. The next time you see or hear something that looks like harassment, please do something. If you are at an APS meeting you can say something yourself or you can contact an APS representative at your meeting. Please be part of creating the inclusive and respectful culture we all want in our community.

Warren Rogers is Blanchard Chair and Professor of Physics at Indiana Wesleyan University, an APS Fellow, and recipient of the 2018 APS Prize for a Faculty Member for Research in an Undergraduate Institution. Roxanne Springer is Professor of Physics at Duke University and an APS Fellow. Sherry Yennello is Regents’ Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University and an APS Fellow.


1. The NA report is available at go.aps.org/2BxeinG.

2. Ohlheiser, A., “The woman behind ‘Me Too’ knew the power of the phrase when she created it—10 years ago,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2017: go.aps.org/2Bzxkd8.

3. See, for example, go.aps.org/2NbKazE. For a nicely balanced way to think about our flawed scientific role models, see “Rethinking our Physics Heroes,” Nat. Phys. 14, 769 (2018): nature.com/articles/s41567-018-0263-0.

4. Ilies, R. et al. “Reported incidence rates of work-related sexual harassment in the United States: Using meta-analysis to explain reported rate disparities.” Personnel Psychology 56, 607 (2003): dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2003.tb00752.x.

5. See the NPR story at go.aps.org/2o1wf4w (Note: these numbers are for sexual harassment so those for total harassment will be higher).

6. Statistics are available at go.aps.org/2MKNl4j.

7. rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.

8. Code of conduct for APS meetings: aps.org/meetings/policies/code-conduct.cfm.

9. The Astronomy Allies program created by the American Astronomical Society was highlighted in the NA report. See also APS News, December 2015: go.aps.org/2nXcdrM. The DNP Allies program was created by the DNP ad-hoc Committee on Harassment Prevention, chaired by Prof. Filomena Nunes of Michigan State University.

10. The American Geophysical Union does this. For more, see go.aps.org/2Nduo7G.

11. Callisto is a non-profit organization that develops technology to combat sexual assault and harassment. See their website at projectcallisto.org.

12. APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct are available at go.aps.org/2MqpZlf.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

August/September 2018 (Volume 27, Number 8)

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2018 APS General Election Results
An Evolving and Leading-edge Journal with a Rich History
Interdisciplinary Excellence
2019 APS Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research Awarded to Bertrand I. Halperin
Spectra Takes on San Diego Comic-Con
First Group of Fundamental Physics Innovation Awards Announced
Missile-Defense Systems May Risk Space Warfare
American Institute of Physics CEO Michael H. Moloney
Top Undergrads Vie for Apker Award
U.S Physics Team Returns from Lisbon
PhysTEC Announces the 2018 National Teacher of the Year
This Month in Physics History
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FYI: Science Policy News from AIP
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