Amid rampant sexual harassment in science, academies aren’t ejecting abusers

Sexual harassment is widespread within the scientific community, and policies and institutional safeguards to address the problem are more effective at reducing liability than protecting members and changing harmful work cultures, according to a long-awaited report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report, released Tuesday, June 12, is two years in the making.

In an opening statement broadcast at the report’s public release today in Washington, DC, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, called it a “landmark” study arriving at the “right moment” amid the international Me Too movement against sexual harassment and assault. Yet the academies own policies regarding harassers within its ranks may highlight the challenges ahead for effecting change.

The extensive report outlines the grim scope of sexual harassment in the academic sciences, engineering, and medical fields, as well as numerous recommendations for prevention. Reviews of scientific analyses and surveys revealed that more than 50 percent of women faculty and staff and 20-50 percent of women students in the three fields had encountered or experienced sexual harassment. These rates are higher than in other sectors, including industry and government jobs. Academic positions were second only to the military, which had a sexual harassment rate of 69 percent.

The data revealed that gender harassment—a type of sexual harassment—was the most common form of harassment encountered in academia. Gender harassment is defined as “a broad range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes about” a gender. In other words, it includes things like gender-based insults, such as “slut” and “pussy,” as well as crude or demeaning jokes that women don’t belong in sciences, aren’t as capable as their male counterparts, and/or don’t merit respect.

The other types of sexual harassment include unwanted sexual attention (unwanted advances, touching, and assaults) and sexual coercion (making sexual contact or a relationship a condition of employment or education).

All of these forms of harassment can affect women by increasing stress and depressions, reducing productivity and engagement in the workplace, and hurting performance or achievement, the academy report concluded. They also lead to women not seeking leadership positions or tenure-track faculty jobs, dropping out of classes or school, and/or leaving the sciences all together.

Though academic institutions have put policies and training schemes in place to address harassment, those are largely failing women—and not deterring harassers, the report found. In fact, policies based on appeasing federal laws tend to focus on symbolic compliance and function to avoid institutional liability rather than thwart would-be harassers. Those federal laws include Title IX, which outlaws discrimination based on gender in federally funded educational settings.

Codes and conduct

The report recommends a range of strategies and changes to improve behavior and culture within institutions, including providing support for targets of harassment, moving beyond legal compliance for training and response policies, increasing transparency and accountability, and having clear disciplinary actions for harassers.

To protect students and post-doctoral researchers, the report recommends altering oversight strategies. Currently, most trainees are guided by a single researcher, who solely controls research funding, which can leave female trainees vulnerable to abuse. Instead, the report suggests having a committee advise trainees and distributing research funding directly to trainees.

The report also recommends that professional organizations and societies play a role, establishing clear codes of conduct that place harassment on the same level as ethics violations and research misconduct.

“They should use their influence to address sexual harassment in the scientific, medical, and engineering communities they represent and promote a professional culture of civility and respect,” the report notes.

Yet the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine themselves, which published the report, are struggling to do this. Currently, the academies have no codes of conduct—and no way to expel harassers from their ranks. This is particularly jarring to many in light of cases such as Geoff Marcy, a National Academy of Sciences member and disgraced astronomer who was fired from his position at University of California, Berkeley, over sexual harassment.

Putting a code of conduct in place and creating a mechanism for ousting such bad actors from the academies would require a vote from the full academy, which as recently pointed out has a membership that is 84-percent men with an overall average age of 72.

In a recent tweet, NAS president McNutt wrote: “Anyone who thinks it is easy [to change bylaws] has not tried to get a majority vote from an honorary society of more than 80 percent men over 70 years average age.”

Bruce Darling, executive officer of the National Research Council discussed the challenge today at the report’s release. He called such a vote a “complicated” and “cumbersome” process that could take several years. In the meantime, Darling said that officials were discussing “a range of options short of elimination of membership” for those who had been found guilty of harassment. He did not elaborate on what those options might be.

, 2018. DOI: 10.17226/24994  (About DOIs).

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