Sexual harassment is an endemic problem in the US academic science community and a major barrier to progress toward including more women in the field, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concludes. While physical abuse and unwanted sexual advances are common, the most pervasive form of misconduct is what the report terms “gender harassment,” referring to hostile work environments in which women are routinely subject to sexist comments and crude behavior from their male colleagues, sending the message that they are not welcome there, as contributors to the report tell the Associated Press:
“Even when the sexual harassment entails nothing but sexist insult without any unwanted sexual pursuit, it takes a toll,” said University of Michigan psychology professor Lilia Cortina, a member of the committee that spent two years studying the problem. “It’s about pushing women out.”
The report complies data from multiple large surveys to get a sense of how pervasive sexual harassment and gender discrimination are in the academy. One survey from the University of Texas found that 20 percent of female science students, more than 25 percent of engineering students, and over 40 percent of medical students reported being sexually harassed by faculty or staff. Another survey from the Pennsylvania State University system found that half of all female medical students had been harassed. Women working in university science departments experience harassment as well as students: 58 percent of academic employees report having been sexually harassed at work.
Sexual harassment “has long been an open secret” in the sciences, MIT professor and report co-chair Sheila Widnall told the AP on Tuesday. In its coverage of the report, the New York Times highlights the panel’s recommendation that universities and research institutions start focusing on prevention and fixing the work environment, rather than just “symbolic compliance with current law and avoiding liability”:
One paradox is that academia’s emphasis on merit-based advancement can discourage women from reporting harassment and limit their career progress, the committee noted. “The system of meritocracy does not account for the declines in productivity and morale as a result of sexual harassment,” says the report. “It can make her question her own scientific worth. Additionally, it can make scientific achievement feel like it is not worth it.” …
Billy Williams, a committee member and director of science for the American Geophysical Union, said simply complying with laws like Title IX has not worked because the laws assume women will file formal complaints, when fears of retaliation have made that “the least common response.” As a result, Dr. Johnson said, universities should establish less formal ways for women to report their experiences.
The report identifies several characteristics of academic science departments that make it particularly difficult for women to thrive there, Vox points out:
The authors of the report also noted that academic science shares features that are common to places with higher rates of sexual harassment: It’s male-dominated, it’s hierarchical, and it’s filled with relationships of dependence between faculty and trainees. Plus, many fields of science feature isolating environments like labs and hospitals, where researchers and students spend long hours cooped up together.
The report also cited the “macho” culture in some scientific disciplines and certain environments, especially field sites, as being particularly conducive to harassing behavior. “Women have shared that their colleagues at field sites feel the need to behave like ‘Indiana Jones,’ and enforce this behavior in others,” the report said.
“Yet among the institutions under fire are the National Academies themselves,” the Washington Post adds, “criticized for maintaining members who have been found guilty of misconduct by the institutions where they work.”
The report notes that LGBT women and women of color were more likely than white, heterosexual women to have been harassed, while women of color were more likely to report feeling unsafe at work. There was not enough data, however, for the authors to draw more specific conclusions on the experiences of underrepresented minorities and other marginalized groups. Previous studies have called attention to a significant lack of diversity within the science community, with universities lacking accountability for inclusive hiring practices while also failing to retain professors from underrepresented backgrounds.