National News

How Universities Deal With Sexual Harassment Needs Sweeping Change, Panel Says

Posted June 12, 2018 12:31 p.m. EDT

Years of efforts to prevent sexual harassment of women in the fields of science, engineering and medicine have not succeeded, and a sweeping overhaul is needed in the way universities and institutions deal with the issue, a major new report by a national advisory panel concluded Tuesday.

“Despite significant attention in recent years, there is no evidence to suggest that current policies, procedures and approaches have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment,” said the report, which was more than two years in the making, starting well before the #MeToo era. It was issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, independent agencies that advise the government and the public.

The report offered 15 detailed recommendations, some of them overturning long-entrenched systems of funding and mentoring in academia. It called for significant changes to academic advising practices so that students and junior researchers are not dependent on one senior researcher for mentoring and access to grants.

It also urged legislators to pass laws so that lawsuits can be filed directly against faculty and not just their academic employers, and so that university employees who settle harassment lawsuits cannot keep them confidential from another university that might employ them.

The 311-page document is the National Academies’ first report addressing sexual harassment, a problem that has long simmered in academia. Because of its spiraling negative effects, the panel said, “Academic institutions should consider sexual harassment equally important as research misconduct in terms of its effect on the integrity of research.”

The panel said there is often a perceived tolerance for sexual harassment in academia because of its history of being male-dominated, the informal ways that people in academic environments communicate and intensive research projects that can be isolating because they involve small numbers of people.

Academic workplaces are second only to the military in the rate of sexual harassment, with 58 percent of academic employees indicating they had such experiences, according to one study cited in the report. Among the data involving students in scientific fields, the report cited a 2018 survey by the University of Texas system, which found that about 20 percent of female science students, more than 25 percent of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of female medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff members.

The panel said universities and other institutions have been too focused on “symbolic compliance with current law and avoiding liability and not on preventing sexual harassment.” Fear of being held liable may have kept many institutions from even evaluating their training programs for preventing harassment, because if they did, “they would likely find them to be ineffective,” the report concluded.

“We really have to move beyond a mindset of legal compliance and liability and think about the ways we can change the climate,” Paula A. Johnson, president of Wellesley College and a co-chairwoman of the committee that produced the report, said in an interview.

The committee identified three types of sexual harassment: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. It said gender harassment, “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status,” was by far the most common type women in these fields experienced.

“As opposed to the come-ons, you can kind of think of them as the put-downs,” said Johnson, who is also a cardiologist and former chief of the division of women’s health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “And when there’s more pervasive gender harassment, there’s proclivity toward unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion.” Harassment is more pervasive in medicine than in academic science and engineering, the committee found. “There is a still the idea of medical training as being akin to hazing,” Elizabeth L. Hillman, president of Mills College and another committee member, said in an interview.

Medical students often work long, grueling hours where they can be alone with a potential harasser, she said, and “harassment comes too from patients and patients’ families.”

In any form, the costs for women — and for science’s ability to retain the full range of talented people — can be great, even if the consequences can seem subtle at first, the panel said.

“Sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health,” the report said. Women who are harassed may quit but also may distance themselves from work without actually quitting. They may feel disillusioned, angry or stressed, and their productivity may decline. Harassed students’ academic performance may suffer; they may change advisers or majors, drop classes or drop out. 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. “When a woman receives unwanted attention or experiences put-downs, it can make her question her own scientific worth. Additionally, it can make scientific achievement feel like it is not worth it.”

That may partly explain another paradox. “There are more women in these fields, yet there’s still sexual harassment,” Hillman said.

The committee said institutions should adopt training programs that focus on changing behavior, not beliefs. The programs should be evaluated for effectiveness and “not be based on the avoidance of legal liability.” When institutions survey people about their experiences with sexual harassment, they should use validated questionnaires and “avoid specifically using the term ‘sexual harassment'” in the questions. The report did not look at the process of investigating allegations, imposing discipline or the rights of accused harassers, except to say procedures and disciplines should be fair to all sides. Other recommendations include that more research on sexual harassment should be funded and conducted.

“Until we get to the point of prevention,” Johnson said, “we will continue to have the same occurrences again and again.”