Sexual harassment rampant in science, culture change urged

June 12, 2018 by Lauran Neergaard
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Sexual harassment is rampant in academic science, and colleges and universities that train new scientists need a system-wide culture change so women won't be bullied out of the field, a national advisory group said Tuesday.

In fact, it's time to treat sexual harassment as seriously as research misconduct, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded in recommendations aimed at U.S. institutions of higher education and the groups that fund them.

While women are still outnumbered by men, universities are recruiting more women to science-related fields than ever before. The new report makes clear that pervasive sexual harassment puts those gains at risk.

"If we are losing talent in science, engineering and medicine, then that is something that is detrimental to our country and quite frankly to the world," Wellesley College President Dr. Paula Johnson, who co-chaired the report, said in an interview.

Assault or unwanted sexual advances are making #MeToo headlines but don't tell the whole story, the report found. Most common in science is what the National Academies termed gender harassment, a hostile environment rife with sexist commentary and crude behavior that can negatively impact a woman's education and career, as well as her mental and physical health.

"Even when the sexual harassment entails nothing but sexist insult without any unwanted sexual pursuit, it takes a toll," said University of Michigan psychology professor Lilia Cortina, a member of the committee that spent two years studying the problem. "It's about pushing women out."

How common is sexual harassment in science education? The report cited a University of Texas system survey that found about 20 percent of female science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of female medical students said they had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff. In a similar survey in the Pennsylvania State University system, half of female medical students reported such harassment.

Minority women experience "a double whammy of discrimination," Cortina added.

The hierarchical nature of science can make it difficult to report and root out such behavior, with scientists-in-training often dependent on a single high-profile mentor for research funding, job recommendations and fieldwork in remote locations.

To escape the denigration, women may change majors, advisers or labs and sometimes just drop out, Cortina said.

Sexual harassment "has long been an open secret" in science, as aerospace researcher Sheila Widnall, an MIT professor and report co-chair, put it Tuesday.

Despite attempts to address harassment in recent years, most academic policies and training consist of "symbolic compliance" with anti-discrimination law that doesn't have much impact, the report found. Those policies typically rely on a woman filing a formal harassment complaint before the institution takes any action to improve educational or working conditions. The report said women rarely file those reports because they think, correctly, they'll face some form of retaliation.

Among the report's recommendations:

—An organization's climate is the single most important factor in whether sexual harassment is tolerated. Colleges and universities should promote greater gender and racial equity in leadership positions and stress diverse, inclusive and respectful environments.

—Institutions should find alternatives to the traditional hierarchy, such as mentoring networks, so that students and junior faculty aren't dependent on one supervisor.

—Colleges must protect targets of harassment from retaliation and convey that reporting the problem is "an honorable and courageous action."

—Colleges should spell out escalating consequences for sexual harassment, with discipline based on an investigation process that is fair to both sides rather than focused on the institution's liability.

—Congress and state legislatures should consider prohibiting confidentiality agreements and other actions that shield harassers.

Explore further: Chemists speak out on sexual harassment in academia

More information: … .aspx?RecordID=24994

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5 / 5 (5) Jun 12, 2018
Good to see this being addressed. We're forcing half of our population and half of our most talented scientists to go through a gauntlet of trials before they can contribute to science. The sooner and more thoroughly we solve that, the better.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2018
As much as it needs to be tackled in the scientific world, sexual harassment is simply a global, epidemic issue for the male side of our ape species. Hopefully those that engage in the method of observation/measurement can do a better job of it, but really this is a universal plague.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2018
Thomas Dolby was the first to identify this problem.
Whydening Gyre
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 12, 2018
I think perhaps the actual definition of "sexual harassment" has changed.
I have a scientist daughter who doesn't seem to be having any issues. If anything, she has an advantage...
1 / 5 (2) Jun 14, 2018
WG, I hope you are crediting your daughter's predecessors and the males supportive of women professionals effort to overcome and diminish male depredation?

Cause complacency and ingratitude are not at all attractive qualities.
Jun 14, 2018
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Jun 14, 2018
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1 / 5 (2) Jun 14, 2018
And evidently what men are all to often incapable of? Is too treat women with respect and honesty, kindness and loyalty, generosity and empathy.
Jun 15, 2018
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Jun 16, 2018
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1 / 5 (2) Jun 16, 2018
Oh and ZB, when you blame the deities for the XY chromosomes being an inferior mutation of the XX? Please be sure to credit my Stupid Design Theory. I'm getting it trademarked.
Jun 17, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
1 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2018
ZB, I'm confused. Are you upset because she dresses better than you do? Or are you upset because she is more interesting than you are? Or are you upset that she is more imaginative and inventive than you are?

Please clarify what is triggering your infantile tantrum.
Jun 17, 2018
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