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A geologist’s Brief But Spectacular take on calling out harassment and sexism in science

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Jane Willenbring is a geologist who solves problems related to the Earth's surface.

In 2020, she was featured in a "NOVA" documentary called "Picture a Scientist" found on PBS Passport. She and two other women shared their experiences in the sciences, ranging from brutal harassment to years of subtle slights.

Tonight, Willenbring gives her Brief But Spectacular take on making science more diverse, equitable, and open to all.

Jane Willenbring, Geologist: I'm a geologist, and I study how landscapes change.

When I was starting to do my master's degree, one of the things that I was so excited that I was going to get to do is to actually go to Antarctica. And then, when we finally got there, the thing that was most challenging to me was the behavior of my graduate adviser.

Every day, there would be some comment about who I had had sex with. He would call me a slut and a whore. It was just very difficult to keep my spirits up during that period. And so I remember it was just very difficult to navigate that situation.

He told me that if I said anything about it, that I would never have a job in science. That was really hard. I was pretty vulnerable at the time, because I really needed to get this degree, and I needed to get a letter from him to -- so that I could go on to get my Ph.D. And so I just kind of had to suck it up.

And that's basically what I did for over a decade. I did not realize how many women who are doing field science experience this kind of behavior. Over half of them experience sexual harassment during field work.

One day, my little girl said, "I want to be a scientist, just like you." And she was 3 years old. And that little comment from that little girl just triggered me. That night, I decided to file a Title IX complaint against my former adviser.

Other women came forward as a result. He filed an appeal. Then, the president of the university actually stepped in and said: Nope. We are firing him. He is no longer going to be working at this university.

He had had a glacier named after him in Antarctica, and they actually decided to rename the glacier. I actually don't know what he's doing now.

When you talk to people about how to improve academia or STEM for women, you hear a lot about, like, oh, we have to get more women interested in science and math. I feel like we should we should take a step back, and stop asking how we can get more women interested, and sort of protect the women and people of color and people with disabilities and LGBTQ persons who are in science already.

I have done a lot of work since submitting the harassment complaint, to try to make it so that my daughter has a better science life than I did.

My name is Jane Willenbring, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on calling out harassment in the sciences.

Judy Woodruff: Jane, thank you for your courage for sharing it with us.

And you can watch all our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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