More than half of women in science experience harassment, extensive report finds

Credit: skeeze/Pixabay

Credit: skeeze/Pixabay

Georgia State University researcher Kevin M. Swartout recently compiled data from multiple school systems to understand the depth of harassment in fields of science, engineering and medicine.

» READ: #MeToo: A timeline of 2018's sexual harassment scandals

Using decades of research and survey data on more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, as well as female faculty of the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University school systems, the psychologist and his fellow researchers found that between 20 and 50 percent of female students in the science fields — and more than 50 percent of faculty — had experienced harassment.

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Medical students were most likely to be harassed by faculty or staff, and minority groups such as LGBTQ women and women of color were more likely to have experienced harassment compared to their straight, white counterparts. Women of color were also more likely to report feeling unsafe as women.

The majority of sexual harassment involved some form of gender harassment (sexist hostility, crude behavior), unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, though this was less common.

» READ: Sexual harassment in the workplace: What is it, how to report it and more you should know

The fact that gender harassment was found to be the most common type of sexual harassment was somewhat unexpected, researchers said, considering how commonly reported unwanted sexual advances and sexual coercion are in official Title IX documentation and in the media. The persistent idea that sexual harassment is about sex is misguided, according to the report.

Current policies aren’t working — and such hostile environments could drive women out of the field altogether, committee co-chair Paula Johnson of Wellesley College suggested in a news conference Tuesday.

“Research has consistently shown that institutions that are male dominated — with men in positions that can directly influence career options of women who are subordinate to them—have high rates of sexual harassment,” report authors wrote.

» READ: #MeToo: Women share harrowing accounts of sexual assault, harassment

While women now make up half of the college-educated workforce in the U.S., they only represent 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. And men tend to hold the positions of power in academia.

“This is not to suggest that all or even most men are perpetrators of sexual harassment,” authors wrote. “But that this situation of majority male leadership can, and has, resulted in minimization, limited response, and failure to take the issue of sexual harassment or specific incidents seriously.”

An institution's organizational climate is considered the greatest predictor of sexual harassment risk, researchers said. This encompasses the perceived risk of reporting sexually harassing behavior, a lack of sanctions against offenders and the belief that reporting harassment will not be taken seriously.

» READ: A look at #MeToo and its mostly hidden impact at the Georgia Capitol

“If sexual harassment can be addressed using a systemic change to the culture and climate of institutions of higher education, there is the potential to not only benefit women but also benefit men and other underrepresented groups—and ultimately benefit the enterprise of science, engineering, and medicine,” authors wrote.

To address the elephant in the room, the Washington Post pointed out that five men sanctioned for sexual harassment are members of the National Academies, the organization behind the report. These men are still listed as investigators on federal grants, the Post reported.

In April, Science Magazine shed light on the academies' problems when it published accounts from eight women who had detailed alleged sexual harassment by famed cancer biologist Inder Verma, who at the time was editor in chief of the academy's prestigious journal, Proceedings of he National Academy of Sciences.

» READ: Why sex scandals are finally leading to consequences

Though Verma resigned from his position and was placed on leave from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, he remains a member of the academy.

"It was just infuriating to me that the National Academies are studying sexual harassment and also harboring sexual harassers," Vanderbilt neurology professor BethAnn McLaughlin, told the Post. McLaughlin launched a petition calling for the academies to revoke memberships of those guilty of harassment, assault or retaliation. As of early Friday, the petition has garnered more than 3,780 signatures.

» READ: 7 tips for males who manage or mentor females

To combat the significant problem of harassment in science without having to rely on a justice system too ill-equipped to handle such issues, the researchers offered 15 evidence-based recommendations aimed at academic institutions, federal agencies and scientific societies.

Here are 15 ways to combat harassment against women in science, according to the report:

  1. Create diverse, inclusive and respectful environments.
  2. Address the most common form of sexual harassment: gender harassment.
  3. Move beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate.
  4. Improve transparency and accountability.
  5. Diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty.
  6. Provide support for the target.
  7. Strive for strong and diverse leadership.
  8. Measure progress.
  9. Incentivize change.
  10. Encourage involvement of professional societies and other organizations.
  11. Initiate legislative action.
  12. Address the failures to meaningfully enforce Title VII's prohibition on sex discrimination.
  13. Increase federal agency action and collaboration.
  14. Conduct necessary research.
  15. Make the entire academic community responsible for reducing and preventing sexual harassment.

The report, "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine" will be published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Read the current version at

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