Sexual harassment threatens to undo gains in recruiting women scientists, report says
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 U.S.-based report.
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.
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.
“If we are losing talent in science, engineering and medicine, then that is something that is detrimental to our country and quite frankly to the world,” Wellesley College President Paula Johnson, who co-chaired the report, said in an interview.
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 per cent of female science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students and more than 40 per cent 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.
The hierarchical nature of science can make it difficult to report and root out such behaviour, with scientists-in-training often dependent on a single high-profile mentor for research funding, job recommendations and field work in remote locations.
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.
The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.