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On 12 June, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) in Washington, D.C., USA, released a long-awaited report examining sexual harassment in academia. The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, highlights the toll that sexual harassment takes on science, by damaging research integrity, driving talented researchers out of the field, and widening an already severe gender gap. And it concludes that institutions’ existing sexual-harassment policies are largely ineffective, because they are structured to protect institutions rather than victims.

An endemic issue

Over the course of this study—which was launched in 2016 to examine research on sexual harassment and determine how to prevent it—national discourse on the topic has surged in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The report was prepared by the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine and was sponsored by several U.S. scientific agencies, including NAS, the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Among the report’s findings are some sobering statistics. A survey conducted at one university found that about 20 percent of female science students, more than 25 percent of female engineering students and over 40 percent of female medical students had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff. Previous research has found that 58 percent of women faculty and staff in all disciplines of academia have experienced sexual harassment, and women of color experience more harassment than white women.

The most common type of sexual harassment, according to the report, is gender harassment—behaviors that communicate that women do not belong or are not respected. More often than not, institutional policies do not recognize this form of harassment, and it goes unaddressed because it is seen as a less severe form of harassment compared with unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion (the other two forms of sexual harassment identified in the report). The study recognizes, however, that when an organization has a pervasive environment of gender harassment, other forms of sexual harassment are more likely to occur.

Grim outcomes

When women experience harassment in the workplace, the professional outcomes, the report finds, include declines in job performance and satisfaction, increases in job stress and even withdrawal from the institution. For students who experience harassment, outcomes include greater truancy, dropping classes, receiving lower grades and even dropping out, according to a study commissioned by the committee that interviewed women who had experienced sexual harassment at least once in the last five years.

Marcia McNutt, the current (and first female) president of NAS, said in a video address accompanying the report that “Even as more women enter science, engineering and biomedical fields and assume faculty or leadership positions, the evidence suggests that far too often women end up being bullied or harassed out of career pathways in academia.” McNutt went on to argue that the ultimate result is “a shameful waste of human resources,” and that women who experience harassing behaviors have their professional and educational accomplishments undermined in the process.

Climate change

The report also suggested that current approaches, including training, to address sexual harassment have not resulted in a decline in harassing behaviors. Instead, the study offers four evidence-based recommendations for preventing and addressing sexual harassment at the organization level:

  1. Integrate values into the system: Policies and procedures should reflect the values of diversity, inclusion and respect, especially during hiring, promotion and tenure decision making.
  2. Change the power dynamics: The potential for abuse is too high with everything wrapped up in a single advisor/advisee relationship. Instead, institutions should encourage advisor networks and provide independent funding options.
  3. Support targets of harassment: Many women don’t even report harassment out of the rightful fear that it will hurt their career. Alternative ways to access support services, even without a formal report being filed, are necessary.
  4. Improve transparency and accountability: Organizations need to disseminate to the community the consequences of harassment, while still respecting victims’ privacy. This should be backed up by investigations into incidents and by holding people accountable.

“Too often sexual harassment policies and training efforts are narrowly focused on meeting legal and avoiding liability requirements,” said McNutt. “Instead, academic and professional organizations need to create a climate that prevents harassment from occurring in the first place.”

Is it enough?

The NAS report appears to take a step on the road to implementing change and fostering a safe and inclusive work environment in the academic sciences. Still, the publication has met with some backlash—with some critics questioning why NAS itself has not done more to acknowledge and penalize known harassers in its own ranks. An online petition at Change.org, for example, exhorted NAS to “revoke the honor of [NAS] membership bestowed on individuals who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation and assault”—and had, as of the time this story was being prepared, attracted more than 3,800 signatures. 

Some respondents on Twitter likewise raked the Academies over the coals:

Yet the report has also spurred more positive reactions from some women, and has inspired women to share their stories on social media using the hashtags #ScienceToo and #MeTooSTEM:

On another note, some critics argue that the NAS report lacks teeth. Committee co-chair Sheila Widnall, institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has acknowledged that it falls to organizations to implement the recommendations put forth in the report. “Ultimately, success in addressing this challenge will require strong and effective leadership from administrators at every level within academia,” said Widnall, “as well as support and work from all members of our nation’s college campuses – students, faculty, and staff.”

To download the full report and access supplementary infographics and videos, visit http://sites.nationalacademies.org/shstudy/index.htm.