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Sexual Harassment Remains Common in the Sciences

More than three decades after laws were put on the books to fight gender discrimination in academic settings, the prevalence of sexual harassment in science-focused fields remains pervasive and largely unchanged, says a major national report released Tuesday.

Women in some science careers—ones in which trainees may find themselves effectively hidden away in laboratories, patient rooms or field sites—are particularly vulnerable to harassment because of that isolation, according to the report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The situation is worsened by workplace norms in which one boss or mentor can have an extraordinary influence over one’s career trajectory, the report says. Fears of retaliation, stalled career advancement or being labeled a troublemaker often keep harassers’ targets and bystanders silent. And institutional policies that react to individual incidents and focus mainly on legal liability, rather than promoting systemic equality and diversity in the workplace, are often at the heart of this problem, the report finds.

“I guess if you weren’t sure that sexual harassment is a problem, now you know. And if you weren’t sure that its existence was having negative consequences, now you know that, too,” says study co-author Beth Hillman, the president of Mills College.

The National Academies’ grim findings were covered in a 311-page document that reviewed the available research in this area and supplemented it with several new studies and public input. The study authors—an elite academic group that includes university presidents, deans and professors—came up with a series of recommendations that culminated in one overarching goal: Colleges must change their culture to protect students and employees alike, and to catapult themselves into an era of real institutional change. Simply having legal safeguards and a reporting system is not enough to combat sexual harassment, the study authors note.

“Organizational climate is the single most important factor in determining whether sexual harassment is likely to occur in a work setting,” the report’s authors write. Academic institutions, they add, often operate like their own jurisdictions with campus-specific policies that may obstruct transparency or action. Various entities including the federal government should consider what changes could be made to help address this issue, the authors say. Institutions, they add, must also recognize that women of color frequently experience more harassment than their white counterparts. “I think the real value of this report isn’t that it is saying anything new, but it is giving weight to things people have said privately or anecdotally and it gives numbers to this. It matters from university administrators’ perspective to have that data,” says Ayesha Ramachandran, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University who was not involved in the report and has spoken out about sexual harassment in academia. “People need to be empowered to call out what they see happening at all levels of an institution. This type of change will happen incrementally.”

Types of sexual harassment vary, the authors write. Sometimes it is overtly sexually coercive. But often people may engage in “gender harassment”—objectification, exclusion or hostility based on gender, the report says. A survey of graduate and undergraduate students in the University of Texas system found that overall about 20 percent of female science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of female medical students reported experiencing sexual harassment by faculty or staff. Another survey at the Pennsylvania State University System—across multiple disciplines beyond the sciences—found harassment was similarly widespread.

Kate Clancy, a co-author of the report and a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois who has studied sexual harassment in the sciences, says that the provost at her own institution requested to meet with her to discuss the panel’s findings, so she hopes that the report will lead to action on her own campus. One of Clancy’s major takeaways, she says, is “We would like to see people stop focusing on the Harvey Weinstein-type of sexual harassment—unwanted sexual advances—as the main type of sexual harassment. What is far more common is gender harassment,” she adds. “Making people feel like they don’t belong…excluding people from projects, emails or talks or making people feel less competent because of their gender—that’s all part of the legal definition of sexual harassment,” she says.

A great deal of data indicates the problem is common throughout academia. But the National Academies’ report, which focuses on science, engineering and medicine, paints a stark picture of significant harm to individuals and scientific disciplines due to harassment. When a female graduate student or postdoctoral researcher is treated inappropriately she has few options, the report says. “This is likely why women who experience sexual harassment in the sciences often report lateral career moves, taking lesser jobs, continuing a working relationship with their perpetrator or leaving science altogether.” And when these women do leave—whether they are graduate students, postdoctoral researchers or junior faculty members—the field as a whole suffers from of the loss of a trained individual, as well as her perspective and contributions. One study noted that when faculty leave an institution it can take up to 10 years to recoup that financial investment.

“Higher education is perceived, and in many cases accurately perceived, to tolerate sexually harassing behavior,” the report states. It adds there is no strong evidence that anti-sexual harassment training videos or online modules lead to behavioral change. Instead, the National Academies panel writes that institutions should engage in in-person, expert-led training that focuses on the specific population being addressed. There should also be more extensive orientation training for all individuals about what constitutes harassment, and better ways to report it—informally or formally—as well as clear assurances that people who report incidents will be backed up and supported. Professional organizations for various fields also have a role to play, the report says: they can help encourage change. In addition, the report encourages institutions to consider diversifying the one-on-one mentor relationship common in academia so that individuals work with multiple mentors—something that could be very difficult in the current system, since graduate students or postdoctoral researchers often work with individual project leaders.

Hillman and her colleagues write that harassment can lead to psychological and physical health problems, as well as economic harm. As one study cited in the report states, “When women were exposed to sexist comments from a male coworker, they experienced cardiac and vascular activity similar to that displayed in threat situation. This kind of cardiovascular reactivity has been linked to coronary heart disease and depressed immune functioning.”

The normalization of sexual harassment is currently passed down to people who enter into training settings with nonbiased views and respectful behavior, the panel found. “Watching the next generation of sexual harassers being formed, that was the worst part for me,” says one medicine faculty member quoted in the report.

Despite the bleak findings, “I don’t feel hopeless,” Hillman says. “I feel there is actually meaningful action we can take from this. It’s not a single policy we can announce where everything will be fine, but it is entirely possible to change and the steps to get there are pretty clear.” She points to the report’s various recommendations to support targets of harassment and create more diverse, inclusive and respectful environments in the future.

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