Sexual harassment takes a significant toll on women in academic science and medicine — and there’s no evidence that current policies are significantly helping to stem the issue, according to a sweeping new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The report is the product of two years of research into the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment in university and college settings. It found sexual harassment in academia is significantly more common among engineering and medical students than students in non-STEM fields. In one survey, nearly half of female medical students said they had been harassed by faculty or staff.
“Most of that harassment is not the Harvey Weinstein harassment. It’s the everyday put-downs, and exclusions, and belittlings. It’s all of the ways of making women feel unwelcome,” said Kathryn Clancy, a member of the committee that produced the report and a University of Illinois anthropologist who has studied sexual harassment in science.
Victims interviewed for the report said they had skipped professional meetings and social situations, dropped out of research projects, and left jobs, just to avoid harassment. They described being mortified, devastated, and outraged in some cases. Many didn’t formally report their harassment, often for fear of retaliation. And some who did said the drawn-out proceedings drained them of precious time and energy to do their work.
“It’s not just an everyday experience. It’s illegal,” Clancy said. The report detailed cases of gender harassment, which generally involves hostility, exclusion, or other discrimination based on a person’s gender, as well as cases of unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.
The authors laid out ways to begin to address the issues, including recommending that sexual harassment be treated as a violation of research integrity and urging state and federal lawmakers to consider prohibiting confidentiality agreements when a harasser is sanctioned and reaches a settlement with an employer.
The way “confidentiality agreements are developed and executed, that enables harassers to move to other institutions,” said Dr. Paula Johnson, the president of Wellesley College and an author of the report.
The report comes as academia grapples in a new way with the impact of sexual harassment in light of the MeToo movement. On Monday, the Salk Institute announced that Inder Verma, a prominent cancer biologist at the California research center, had resigned after multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Verma stepped down in early May as the editor-in-chief of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
And in October 2015, astronomer Geoff Marcy resigned from University of California, Berkeley, after BuzzFeed revealed that a university investigation had found he had violated the school’s sexual harassment policies.
The NASEM report also comes as some scientists are calling on the organization to consider its own policies. Both Verma and Marcy are members of NASEM, which is considered one of the most prestigious professional societies in science and which advises the U.S. government. Members are elected to lifetime terms, and there aren’t clear steps in place to remove them for harassment.
“To not do anything about it … is abominable,” said BethAnn McLaughlin, a neurology researcher and professor at Vanderbilt University who started a petition urging NASEM to revoke the membership of anyone who’s been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation, or assault. Nearly 3,500 people have signed it since early May.
“By removing these individuals from the NAS community, we can begin to repair [the] damage done by these individuals, restore the NAS community to a place of prestige and acknowledge we can and will move forward with a commitment to providing environments that foster scientific discovery,” the petition reads.
In a May statement, NASEM said it takes sexual harassment seriously — and that it has started talking about the “standards of professional conduct for membership.” The organization said it would use the newly released report — which it commissioned, but was produced by an independent task force — to re-examine its own policies.
‘Plugging up holes in a sinking ship’
Sexual harassment is more likely to happen in workplaces where there are more men in leadership roles, which is the case in academia, the authors of the NASEM report found. It can also start early in a student’s career.
About 20 percent of female science students and 25 percent of female engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate, said they had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff, according to survey of students commissioned by the report’s authors and conducted by the University of Texas system. It was even more common among medical students — 47 percent of women in medical school said they’d been sexually harassed by faculty or staff.
Penn State University conducted a similar survey and found even higher rates: 33 percent of undergraduates, 43 percent of graduate students, and 50 percent of medical students reported being sexually harassed by staff or faculty.
Data on how sexual harassment impacts women of color or people with marginalized identities are generally sparse.
There also aren’t hard data on how many women leave their institutions or even their fields due to sexual harassment. But there’s little doubt it comes with both an emotional and financial cost — at a time when significant resources have been invested in efforts to attract women to STEM fields.
Training science professionals is expensive — it’s estimated that the “cost” that goes into educating a person who has just obtained a Ph.D. in STEM fields is as high as $500,000.
Without a better system for addressing sexual harassment, many women in academia say they’re left trying to look out for one another. Clancy said she often gives people advice about what to do when they face sexual harassment, but that does little to address broader, systemic issues in science.
“It’s like I’m trying to plug up holes in a sinking ship and I ran out of fingers and toes a long time ago,” she said.
The foundation to move forward
Johnson and her co-authors said it’s critical for colleges to do more than just comply with the laws such as Title IX and Title VII, which have led to policies and procedures that might protects universities but don’t do much to stop harassment.
Among their 15 recommendations for employers: hire a diverse staff, including in leadership roles; be more transparent about sexual harassment policies and how misconduct allegations are handled; and better support victims of sexual harassment.
Clancy said encouraging victims to come forward and report harassment does not necessarily cause the behavior to stop or allow them to get back to work.
“Our current reporting mechanisms don’t allow that to happen. They’re constantly mired in this reporting process, and in the meantime, they’re being retaliated against,” she said.
The authors also suggested colleges could consider breaking up the power structures that can enable sexual harassment.
“So fundamental to academic science engineering and medicine is that adviser-trainee relationship,” said Johnson. “But that singular relationship comes with a very specific power dynamic.”
Johnson said there could be ways to diffuse the power that hierarchy gives advisers, perhaps by establishing mentoring networks or changing funding systems so that a trainee isn’t fully dependent on a single scientist for her funding.
The report also recommends sexual harassment be treated as a violation of research integrity. The authors acknowledged that notion may invite opposition but said they believed sexual harassment undermines the accountability, good stewardship, and fairness that’s supposed to drive science.
Clancy stressed the responsibility to tackle sexual harassment doesn’t rest solely on universities — scientists have to play a part, too.
“Working hard to create a better environment for your lab is going to lead to your doing better science,” Clancy said. “And I think that we’ve missed out on some amazing discoveries, some really outside-the-box ways of thinking about the world … because of the people who have been pushed out.”