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

The report cited a survey by the University of Texas system, which found that 20 percent of female science students, 25 percent of female engineering students and 40 percent of female medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Years of efforts to prevent sexual harassment in science, engineering and medicine have failed, and universities need to make sweeping changes in the way they deal with the issue, a searing new report by a national advisory panel concluded on Tuesday.

“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 panel offered 15 detailed recommendations, some of which would upend long-entrenched practices in academia. Institutions should overhaul their academic advising systems, for example, it said, so students and junior researchers are not dependent on one senior researcher for advancement and access to grants.

The report also urged legislators to pass laws so people can file harassment lawsuits directly against faculty and not just the university, and so employees who settle harassment complaints cannot keep them confidential from another prospective academic employer.

The 311-page document is the national academies’ first report addressing sexual harassment, a problem that has long simmered in labs and classrooms, and some people predicted it could help spur meaningful change.

“Reports from the National Academy carry substantial weight,” said Dr. Carol Bates, associate dean for faculty affairs at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of a recent article calling for “zero tolerance for sexual harassment in academic medicine.”

But, she noted, “none of it is easy or we would have fixed it already. We haven’t fixed it in any other domain in society either.”

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 2017 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 issue is also a sensitive one for the National Academies because some of their own members have been found to have committed sexual misconduct at their universities. Responding to questions at a briefing on the report, Bruce Darling, the executive officer of the academies, said the institutions were considering trying to oust members who committed harassment, but doing so would require a lengthy process dependent on voting by members, so other measures are being considered in the interim.

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 prevention programs, the report asserted; if they did, “they would likely find them to be ineffective.”

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

Dr. Paula A. Johnson, the president of Wellesley College, co-chaired the committee that produced the report.CreditDina Rudick/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

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 experienced.

“As opposed to the come-ons, you can kind of think of them as the put-downs,” said Dr. Johnson, who is also a cardiologist and former chief of the women’s health division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She said gender harassment creates a culture that fosters the other types of sexual harassment.

The committee said gender harassment was more pervasive in medicine than in the other sciences, partly because harassment can come from patients, as well as colleagues.

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

It “undermines work and well-being in a whole host of ways,” triggering symptoms like depression, sleep disruption, cardiac stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Lilia Cortina, a panel member and professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. She said experiences can be worse for women of color and lesbian, bisexual or transgender women. But they also affect witnesses to the behavior, further impeding the scientific work.

“Women leave, their co-workers leave, even the men leave — they don’t’ stick around to watch their valued colleagues being disparaged and they certainly don’t want to become the next victim,” Dr. Cortina said during the briefing.

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.”

That may partly explain another paradox. “There are more women in these fields, yet there’s still sexual harassment,” said Elizabeth L. Hillman, a committee member who is president of Mills College and an expert on sexual assault in the military.

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 did not evaluate investigative processes, imposing discipline or the rights of accused harassers, except to say that procedures and consequences should be fair to all sides. The panel 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.

In recent years, the University of Texas system has been taking many of the steps the report recommended, said Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, including making survey data public and providing more informal ways to report harassment allegations.

But, she cautioned, “I think it’s very difficult to change the climate. I think that’s a hard thing to do because higher education has been around a long time and those power structures are in place, the people are in place.”


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