A recent Georgia State University (GSU) study found that female college students majoring in STEM fields are more likely to experience sexual assault than those not majoring in STEM.
The study – published in the early online edition of the journal Journal of Interpersonal Violence – analyzed survey data from 318 undergraduate STEM majors at five US institutions of higher education.
According to the study, women in gender-balanced STEM fields (chemistry, mathematics, and biology) reported the most sexual violence, nearly three times more rape than in gender-unbalanced STEM fields, and more than in predominantly male STEM fields (engineering, physics, and computer science).
The study found that for every rape attempt among all other women, women in gender-balanced STEM fields faced 3.4 rape attempts.
“Increasing women’s participation in STEM is critical to advancing gender equity, but our study suggests that more targeted sexual violence prevention needs to be considered that goes beyond typical campus approaches,” said Dr. Dennis Reidy, lead author, associate professor in Georgia. State School of Public Health and Director of Community Engagement and Outreach for the Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence.
In addition, the findings are consistent with a “backlash” effect, where improvements in gender equality are associated with increased violence against women, said Dr. Laura Salazar, study co-author and professor at the School of Public Health.
“We have to first recognize that there may be a problem, and that recognition has to come from leadership,” Salazar said. “Professors, department chairs, deans, and other institutional leaders can take steps to promote women’s equity in their programs.”
The study authors said their study did not assess the relationship between the women and their attackers, so it was unclear who the perpetrators were and whether any specific conclusions could be drawn about the male counterparts.
“This study shows that there is a problem, but it doesn’t really look at why. This is really the next step in this line of research,” said Dr. Leah Daigle, co-author and professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “If you see equal numbers of women and men in your classrooms, you might think that women are, by definition, being treated fairly,” she added. “But that’s not what our study shows.” It should be a wake-up call for people to realize that even if people are not in a minority group, they can still be at risk of discrimination and harm.”