ATLANTA—A new Georgia State University study suggests that college women majoring in STEM fields are more frequently victims of sexual assault than their non-STEM counterparts.
Within science, technology, engineering and math, the researchers expected that women in male dominated STEM majors (engineering, physics and computer science), would experience more sexual assault than women majoring in non-STEM fields and gender-balanced STEM disciplines (chemistry, math and biology). Surprisingly, the data suggest the opposite is true. Women in gender-balanced STEM majors reported the most sexual violence.
“Increasing the participation of women in STEM is essential to advancing gender equity, but our study suggests the need to consider additional targeted sexual violence prevention that goes beyond typical campus approaches,” said lead author Dennis Reidy, Associate Professor in the Georgia State School of Public Health and Director for Community Engagement and Outreach for the Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence.
The study, published in the early online edition of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, examined survey data from 318 undergraduate STEM majors at five institutions of higher education across the United States. It found that women in gender-balanced STEM fields experienced nearly three times (2.86) more rapes than those in non-gender-balanced STEM fields. For every attempted rape for all other women, those in gender-balanced STEM fields experienced 3.4 attempted rapes.
Evidence of a “Backlash” Effect
School of Public Health Professor and study co-author Laura Salazar noted that the results of the study are consistent with a “backlash” effect in which gains in gender equality are associated with heightened violence against women.
“We have to acknowledge first that there might be a problem, and that acknowledgement has to come from leadership,” Salazar said. “Professors, department chairs, deans and other institutional leaders can take action to promote equity for the women in their programs.”
Salazar has developed an evidence-based program known as RealConsent that has been shown to be effective in preventing sexual violence perpetration among male college students. She is currently assessing the effectiveness of a similar program for women.
The authors note that their study is the first to explore differences in sexual assault across STEM and non-STEM majors and also within STEM majors.
The authors stressed that their study did not assess the relationship between women and their perpetrators. They emphasized that it unclear who the women were victimized by and that it would be unjustified to draw any conclusions about their male peers majoring in STEM fields. They emphasized that their study is the first to explore differences in sexual assault across STEM and non-STEM majors and also within STEM majors. Much more research is needed to better understand the experiences of collegiate women majoring in STEM fields, they said.
“This study demonstrates that the problem exists, but it doesn’t really explore the why. That’s really the next step in this line of research,” said co-author Leah Daigle, Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology in the GSU Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.
“If you see an equal number of women and men in your classes, you might think that, by definition, the women are 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 when people are not in the minority in a group, they can still be at risk for discrimination and harm.”
Associate Professor, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
School of Public Health
Reidy worked as a scientist in the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for eight years before coming to Georgia State in 2018. His research focuses on informing, developing, and evaluating innovative interventions to prevent violence and associated delinquency outcomes (e.g., substance use, risky sexual behavior, mental health, etc.) and promote health and well-being. He is particularly interested in investigating cross-cutting risk and protective factors to inform the development of prevention strategies that will impact multiple health outcomes.
Professor, Department of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences
School of Public Health
Salazar focuses her research efforts on understanding and improving significant inequalities in HIV experienced by racial, sexual and gender minority populations. She has also focused her efforts on the intersecting epidemic of violence against women. Her research in this area has examined mediating mechanisms that explain the connection between violence and HIV outcomes, identifying the socio-ecological risk and protective factors related to sexual violence perpetration as well as determining the effectiveness of a range of intervention approaches in reducing intimate partner violence, teen dating violence and sexual violence. Her web-based program (RealConsent) was found to be effective in preventing sexual violence perpetration among male college students.
Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology
Andrew Young School of Policy Studies
Daigle's most recent research focuses on recurring victimization, sexual victimization of college women, and the correlates of victimization. Her other research interests include the development and continuation of victimization across the life course. On these topics, she has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles that have appeared in outlets such as Justice Quarterly, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and Victims and Offenders. In addition, she is author of Victimology: A Text/Reader (2nd ed.), Victimology: The Essentials (3rd ed.), co-author of Criminals in the Making: Criminality Across the Life Course (2nd ed.), Victimology (2nd ed.), and Unsafe in the Ivory Tower: The Sexual Victimization of College Women, which was awarded the 2011 Outstanding Book Award by the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. She was the 2020 recipient of the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Victimology Bonnie S. Fisher Career Award, which is given for significant contribution in the area of victimology over the course of the lifetime.