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EDITORIAL: Google walkouts highlight the lack of women in STEM

Google employees walked out across the world Thursday in protest of the company’s disregard for sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The Google walkout brought employees from its headquarters in Mountain View, California, as well as Zürich, Switzerland, and Tokyo, Japan, out into the streets at 11:10 a.m. local time.

The protest came after a New York Times investigation about sexual harassment and its handling at Google. The company has lacked transparency in this department. Google has remained silent about the three executives who have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past 10 years.

Andy Rubin, the inventor of the Android, was accused of having coerced an employee into oral sex in 2013 while he was working at Google and was asked to resign after an investigation found the accusation to be credible. Rubin received $90 million when he left Google in 2014.

The walkout also protested gender and racial discrimination and forces us to ask the question, are women in STEM safe? And if not, why not?

If the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements have taught us anything, it’s that sexual harassment and sexual assault are pervasive issues affecting every corner of society. But women in STEM seem to be even more likely to be taken advantage of.

STEM fields are male dominated, and men make up the vast majority of positions of power today, putting women at risk. Coming forward may jeopardize their career, and in a field with overwhelmingly male mentors, women may be harassed by the individual with the most influence over their career.

A recent study from RTI International showed that women who experience sexual harassment in fields in sciences, engineering and medicine face long-term, negative effects on their careers, scientific productivity and opportunities for advancement.

None of this is likely aided by the fact that stints at tech companies are short. Professionals stay with companies less than three years, on average. The short-lived nature of tenure in this field makes it difficult to hold offenders accountable after they’ve switched jobs. If victims of misconduct don’t come forward quickly enough, they lose their window to do anything about it.

One long-term way to address the issue is to get more women in STEM. If women can get an equal hold of these fields, not only will they not be outnumbered, but women will also fill more and more of the positions of power that may have been abused. This starts early because young girls need to be encouraged to pursue STEM, reassured of their competence in a field where they may not see many role models that resemble them.

Organizations like CEWiT at IU help keep women engaged in STEM as they grow older, and the reality of the workforce becomes more apparent. It’s not on women to brave an unsafe work environment, though.

Offenders must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of how great some may find their contributions to society. Extra education on appropriate workplace conduct would not hurt in this industry.

So often, men do not understand that what may be a joke to them can be degrading, dehumanizing and even threatening to women. We need to teach young people what is and is not okay before they enter the workforce. Educating women in STEM isn’t enough. We need to be educating everyone on consent. While we need more women in STEM, the battle is not won when we send a thousand more women toward enemy lines, it’s won when we defeat the enemy.

The Google walk-out comes as no surprise to some. To others, it’s a reminder that even the most seemingly progressive of companies will put corporate interests before those of workers, even in the midst of sexual misconduct allegations. Either way, Google must be held accountable, offenders must be held accountable and we must hold ourselves accountable.

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