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Sexual harassment in STEM workplaces

February 24, 2022

In recent decades, the number of women and gender diverse people in STEM-related fields has been increasing. These folks are making important discoveries and spearheading progress in their industries and academia. For example, Dr. A.W. Peet is a tenured physics professor at the University of Toronto who focuses their research on the subatomic structure of space-time. Peet also co-chairs the physics department’s Inclusivity Committee and plans to continue their advocacy work until LGBTQ+ people feel as welcome as heterosexual and cisgender people on U of T’s campus.[i] Expanding the gender diversity of STEM fields also expands the diversity of perspectives able to offer answers and breadth to new problems.

Entering a traditionally male-dominated field presents a unique set of challenges for those who have been historically excluded from STEM industries. One of these challenges is workplace sexual harassment and violence. Workplace sexual harassment is defined by the Occupational Health and Safety Act as “(a) a course of vexatious and unwelcome comment or conduct against a worker because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, and (b) an unwelcome sexual solicitation or advance by a person in a position to confer, grant or deny a benefit or advancement to the worker.”[ii] Gender-diverse people and women are subject to higher rates of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Data shows that in natural and applied sciences, 32% of women compared to 12% of men experience sexual harassment at work.[iii] And while companies have legal responsibilities to prevent and respond to instances of harassment and violence in the workplace, typical measures are consistently ineffective and continue to enable cultures of harm.

Workplace sexual harassment and violence can have serious impacts on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing, as well as their professional development.  Experiences of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace are associated with negative outcomes, such as decreased job satisfaction, withdrawal from work, worsened physical and mental health, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  In addition, misogyny and harassment in the workplace are linked to decreased organizational commitment and diminished career progression.[iv]

A lack of data on workplace sexual harassment and violence against gender diverse, LBT women, and Two Spirit people demonstrates the need for stronger governmental support for advocacy for safe and decent employment. Almost half of LGB workers have experienced harassment in the workplace based on their sexual orientation and about 90% of transgender and gender-variant employees report experiences of workplace harassment and violence based on their gender identity and expression.[v] Dr. A.W. Peet has first-hand experience with workplace harassment, sharing in a 2019 interview with The Varsity, “the amount of transphobic harassment I’ve had… as a consequence of being an out trans person in the last few years is more than all of the misogyny that I’ve ever experienced as a presumed woman in physics for over 20 years.”[vi]

International data indicates that LGBTQ employees are less likely to report workplace harassment and violence because of a lack of appropriate policies.[vii] Additionally, a recent survey conducted by WomanACT found that fear for one’s safety was a major reason for underreporting.[viii] It is up to policymakers and advocates to push for evidence-based and trauma-informed action to be taken in STEM industries, including prevention and response measures such as climate assessments, training, communication, reporting systems, policies and procedures that are trauma-informed. Trauma-informed practices promote environments of accountability, collaboration, transparency, healing, and recovery.[ix] Advocating for more effective policies is a step in the right direction. Evidence-based workplace solutions have the power to alleviate and eliminate barriers to reporting and help make STEM workplaces a safe and harassment-free environment for women and gender-diverse folks.  

The Supporting Safe STEM Workplaces project is working with STEM industry partners across Canada to create safer workplaces through policy development, capacity building and improving access to legal supports and resources for victims of sexual harassment.


[i] Aziz, M., & Raveendran, R. (2019, October 7). In the spotlight: Dr. A.W. Peet. The Varsity. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://thevarsity.ca/2019/10/06/in-the-spotlight-dr-a-w-peet/

[ii] Government of Ontario. (2020, June 12). Workplace violence and workplace harassment. ontario.ca. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://www.ontario.ca/document/guide-occupational-health-and-safety-act/part-iii0i-workplace-violence-and-workplace-harassment

[iii] Statistics Canada. (2021). In 2020, 1 in 4 Women and 1 in 6 Men reported having experienced inappropriate sexualized behaviours at work in the previous year. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/daily-quotidien/210812/dq210812b-eng.pdf?st=SHXeWOgC

[iv] Willness, C. R., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007). A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology, 60(1), 127–162. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2007.00067.

[v] Bucik, A. (2016). Canada: Discrimination and Violence against Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Women and Gender Diverse and Two Spirit People on the Basis of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression. Egale Canada Human Rights Trust in partnership with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association – North America Region (ILGA-NA).

[vi] Aziz & Raveendran, (2019, October 7).

[vii] Bucik (2016).

[viii] WomanACT (2021). Uncomfortable workplaces: WomanACT survey shows fear of backlash, stigma, and inaction. GlobeNewswire. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/11/22/2338841/0/en/Uncomfortable-workplaces-WomanACT-survey-shows-fear-of-backlash-stigma-and-inaction.html

[ix] Ending Violence Association of BC. (2019). Gender-Based Violence, Harassment, and Bullying: Workplace Policy Guidelines for Response and Prevention.


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