A systemwide change to the culture and climate in higher education is needed to prevent and effectively respond to sexual harassment, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. There is no evidence that current policies, procedures, and approaches — which often focus on symbolic compliance with the law and on avoiding liability — have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment.
The report, which examines sexual harassment of women in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine, concludes that the cumulative result of sexual harassment is significant damage to research integrity and a costly loss of talent in these academic fields. The report urges institutions to consider sexual harassment equally important as research misconduct in terms of its effect on the integrity of research.
Colleges and universities and federal agencies should move beyond basic legal compliance to adopt holistic, evidence-based policies and practices to address sexual harassment, the report says. It notes that sexual harassment often occurs in an environment of generalized incivility and disrespect. In contrast, sexual harassment is less likely to occur when organizational systems and structures support diversity, inclusion, and respect.
“A change to the culture and climate in our nation’s colleges and universities can stop the pattern of harassing behavior from impacting the next generation of women entering science, engineering, and medicine,” said Paula Johnson, co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report, and president of Wellesley College.
In addition, the report urges Congress and state legislatures to consider a range of actions, including prohibiting confidentiality in settlement agreements and allowing lawsuits to be filed directly against alleged harassers, not just their institutions. It recommends that judges, academic institutions, and administrative agencies rely on scientific evidence about the behavior of targets and perpetrators of sexual harassment when assessing both institutional compliance with the law and the merits of individual claims. And it urges professional societies to use their influence to address sexual harassment in the scientific, medical, and engineering communities they represent, and to help promote professional cultures of civility and respect.
Among the report’s findings:
Sexual harassment is common in academic science, engineering, and medicine. In a survey the University of Texas System conducted among its graduate and undergraduate students, about 20 percent of female science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students, and more than 40 percent of female medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff. The Pennsylvania State University System conducted a similar survey and found that 33 percent of its female undergraduates and 43 percent of its female graduate students (all disciplines) experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff; so did 50 percent of female medical students. As these surveys reveal, women students in academic medicine experience more frequent sexual harassment perpetrated by faculty and staff than women students in science and engineering. In addition, the best available analysis to date found that 58 percent of women faculty and staff in academia (all disciplines, not limited to science, engineering, and medicine) experienced sexual harassment. Other research shows that women of color experience more harassment — sexual, racial/ethnic, or a combination of the two — than other groups.
Organizational climate is the single most important factor in determining whether sexual harassment is likely to happen in a work setting. The degree to which an organization’s climate is seen by those within it as permissive of sexual harassment has the strongest relationship with how much sexual harassment occurs in that organization. There is often a perceived tolerance for sexual harassment in academia, the report says.
Gender harassment is by far the most common form of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can take three forms: gender harassment (verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender); unwanted sexual attention (unwelcome verbal or physical sexual advances, which can include assault); and sexual coercion (when favorable professional or educational treatment is conditioned on sexual activity).
Gender harassment — behaviors that communicate that women do not belong or do not merit respect — is by far the most common type of sexual harassment. Although often unrecognized as a form of sexual harassment or considered a “lesser” form of it, gender harassment that is severe or frequent can result in the same negative outcomes as isolated instances of sexual coercion. And when an environment is pervaded by gender harassment, other types of sexual harassment are more likely to occur.
When women are sexually harassed, their least common response is to formally report the experience. Many women do not report because they perceive — accurately, the report notes — that they may experience retaliation or other negative outcomes if they do so. Instead, women cope with sexual harassment most often by ignoring or appeasing the harasser and seeking social support.
Sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health. When women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, the professional outcomes include declines in job satisfaction, performance, or productivity; increases in job stress; and withdrawal from the organization. When students experience sexual harassment, the educational outcomes include greater truancy, dropping classes, receiving lower grades, or dropping out. These conclusions are based in part on a study commissioned by the committee that interviewed women who had experienced at least one sexually harassing behavior in the last five years.
Sexual harassment training has not been demonstrated to change behavior. While sexual harassment training can be useful in improving knowledge of policies and of behaviors that constitute sexual harassment, it has not been demonstrated to prevent sexual harassment or change people’s behaviors or beliefs.
Colleges and Universities Need Strong Leadership, Increased Transparency and Accountability
Preventing and effectively addressing sexual harassment of women in academia is a significant challenge, but research shows what will work to prevent sexual harassment, says the report. College and university presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs should make the reduction and prevention of sexual harassment an explicit goal of their tenure. “Ultimately, success in addressing this challenge will require strong and effective leadership from administrators at every level within academia, as well as support and work from all members of our nation’s college campuses — students, faculty, and staff,” said committee co-chair Sheila Widnall, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The report offers evidence-based recommendations as a road map for academic institutions:
Address gender harassment. Leaders in academia and at research and training sites should pay increased attention to and enact policies that cover gender harassment, as a way to address the most common form of sexual harassment and to help prevent other types of harassment.
Improve transparency and accountability. Systems in which prohibitions against unacceptable behaviors are clear and that hold members of the community accountable for meeting behavioral and cultural expectations established by leadership have lower rates of sexual harassment. Academic institutions should develop and share clear policies on sexual harassment and standards of behavior. These policies should include a range of clearly stated, escalating disciplinary consequences for perpetrators found to have violated the policy, and the disciplinary actions taken should correspond to the severity and frequency of the harassment. Decisions regarding disciplinary actions should be made in a fair and timely way, following an investigative process that is fair to all sides.
Create diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments. Academic institutions should work to create a diverse, inclusive, and respectful environment where these values are aligned with and integrated into the structures, policies, and procedures of the institution. They should take explicit steps to achieve greater gender and racial equity in hiring and promotions, and thus improve the representation of women at every level. They should combine anti-harassment efforts with civility promotion programs. Focusing evaluation and reward structures on cooperation and collegiality rather than solely on individual-level teaching and research could have a significant impact on improving the environment in academia.
Diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between faculty and trainees. To reduce the risk of sexual harassment, academic institutions should consider mechanisms such as mentoring networks or committee-based advising, and departmental funding rather than funding only from a principal investigator.
Provide support for targets of sexual harassment. Academic institutions should convey that reporting sexual harassment is an honorable and courageous action. They also should provide alternative, less formal ways of recording information about the experience and reporting it when a target is not comfortable filing a formal report. Regardless of whether a formal report is filed, institutions should provide targets of harassment with ways to access support services such as health care and legal services, and develop approaches for preventing targets of harassment from experiencing retaliation.
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. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.