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exual 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.

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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.

Megan Thielking/STAT Source: Consultant Report on the University of Texas System Campus Climate Survey.

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.

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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.

Megan Thielking/STAT The prevalence of female students — graduate and undergraduate — who reported being sexually harassed by faculty or staff. Source: Consultant Report on the University of Texas System Campus Climate Survey.

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.”

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  • During my time as a PhD student and later as a scientist in both academia and industry I had the unwelcome opportunity to note the surprising prevalence of such events.

    For instance, several cases of professors who maintained extra-marital sexual liaisons with their dependent graduate and post-doctoral students. It was (and still is) disturbing to have even been a witness to such behavior. The disgusting patriarchal abuse of power toward women in the sciences, and undoubtedly other professions, really needs to end.

  • I must have worked in a parallel academic research world.
    I got in trouble for doing/saying things (and still convinced were fully justified by their behavior, but willing to apologize once my “victims” will pass a polygraph test with flying colors) that are not even close to what you see countless times in tv shows of any sort or reported by the media.
    It feels, like everything in life, that who is at the top has a free card to misbehave, and their victims, or any woman really, then lash out to their peers for mundane events.
    And ironically, I was a “victim” of sexual harassment myself. However, unlike most women, I tried to handle the situation with balance and common sense. And when I was forced to inform the management of the situation, they went down hard …. by sending a generic email to the workforce reminding about sexual harassment.

    Gender discrimination, really sucks!

    • Sexual harassment sucks, no matter what your gender. I’ve faced it in every field I’ve worked, and have quit jobs because of it. When I finally graduated college and got a job in STEM, the environment was much better than the service industry jobs I worked during my college years. Not not-existent, but less blatant. That’s my experience as a woman in STEM, I don’t claim that’s the norm.

      You say yourself, “that who is at the top has a free card to misbehave”. I’m not saying this is true or not, but as those at the top are disproportionately male, that statement confirms what this study says. Not that women are the only victims of sexual harassment, but that sexual harassment is still a major problem, and women suffer the brunt of gender discrimination in STEM.

  • Excellent article, thank you for continuing to bring this painful subject to light. I also think that the granting bodies, NIH, NSF etc have to take a firmer stand on the recipients and associated indtitutions. The granting agencies all have guidelines that the grantees and grantees’ institutions have to sign off on but, but the granting institutions are very quick to declare that they “don’t get involved in the university’s/institutions’ business” when they are made aware of sexual harassment issues among their grantees/PI/Students. The granting institutions, the grantee institutions and the researchers have to be held equally accountable for their indiscretions and there should be consequences for these actions. Reasearch and professional societies must inforce strict rules about maintaining membership. Only then will the toxic research environment begin to change.

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