Gender Harassment is Rampant in Science, Landmark Report Finds

A landmark new report finds that sexual harassment takes a significant toll on women in science and medicine, and there’s no evidence that current policies are significantly helping to address the issue. (iStock)

Sexual harassment plagues academic science, and colleges and universities that train scientists need a culture change so women won’t be bullied out of the field, according to a new report.

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

"I think that the report does a great job of translating the science of sexual harassment to concrete action," says Beth Hillman, co-author and president at Mills College. "The report is rooted in evidence, which makes it different from other studies."

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

"Gender harassment, at its baseline level, is essentially telling women, including women from minority groups, that they just don’t belong," says Hillman. "And it's hard for anybody to persist in that kind of environment. We've changed the numerical representation of women at these institutions without actually changing the organizational climate."

Experiencing routine gender harassment can have a detrimental impact on victims and these professions, according to Kristen Houser, spokesperson at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.  Targeted women, she says, disengage from their careers and institutions and it can create feelings of anger, frustration, fear, increased stress and anxiety.

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"If you’re coming into an unpleasant or unsafe environment for 40-60 hours a week, that's a really horrible way to spend your time," says Houser. "When someone is creating a hostile environment for you it can really lower your willingness to achieve your personal goals. And you have to think about the lifelong consequences of not achieving the goals that you’ve been investing in."

Gender Harassment is Not Necessarily Sexual 

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 and sexual commentary and actions that can negatively impact a woman’s education and career.

How common? 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.

Hillman says gender harassment is by far the most common and most commonly dismissed form of sexual harassment.

"One of the biggest messages of this report is that it’s a very common misunderstanding that sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention are at the heart of the problem," says Hillman. "When in fact, it's gender harassment that creates the conditions for those other more commonly understood forms of harassment."
Houser says that using the term "sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse" does a better job of capturing the extent of the problem.
"Many women experience a continuum of all of this, from being pushed out of or denied an opportunity, to unwanted sexual contact," says Houser. "We really need to keep in mind that there is a full spectrum of gender harassment that includes sexual harassment."

The Whisper Network

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.

Without institutional support, some women are turning to each other for help. Researchers obtained reports about various grassroots efforts, including one group called the Astronomy Allies. The group was formed by women in the astronomy field who didn't feel safe attending conferences and other networking events.

"A group of post graduate, graduate students and young professionals created the support network to  address gaps in their institutional support networks," says Hillman.

Grassroots support networks like the Astronomy Allies are common in other fields as well, according to Houser.

"We saw this in Hollywood and state government institutions. People refer to it as the 'whisper network,'" notes Houser. "So when you lack institutional support and interventions, women recognize a shared unique vulnerability and oftentimes take to looking out for one another. When you find others who experience unsafe treatment by the same perpetrator, that can be a really important way of getting validation and knowing that the problem isn't you."

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.

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

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Amel Ahmed of KQED Science contributed to this report.

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