A recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report describes pervasive and damaging “gender harassment” — behaviors that demean women and isolate them with sexist remarks and degrading jokes.
The study, which focused on women, found that anywhere from 17 to 50 percent of female science and medical students reported this kind of harassment in large surveys conducted by two major university systems across 36 campuses. The report, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” was re- leased June 12.
Yet one co-author of the report, Kate Clancy, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the resulting goal is nothing less than a wholesale culture change for engineering, medical, and science fields.
“While I'm not always trusting of institutions doing the right thing, I'm really encouraged and excited by the many helpers I see – on social media, with work colleagues, and by others activated, radicalized, or inspired by the work happening in this area."
– Kate Clancy, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Separate research in a peer-reviewed article that supports the National Academies’ report says that demeaning and insulting behaviors that are constant, continual, and cumulative — known as microaggressions — toward undergraduate engineering students at a large Midwestern research university caused a high degree of depression, with those most affected women of color. Presented June 23 at the American Society for Engineering Education’s annual conference, in Salt Lake City, “Intersecting Identities of Women in Engineering” found that female, African-American, and other underrepresented groups of engineering students and academics experience pervasive insults, boorish behavior, and sexual harassment.
“The results are serious and profound — I learned from my co-author (and col- league) Professor Princess Imoukhuede (Ph.D.) that there are associations between anxiety and depression and cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure,” said Kelly J. Cross, Ph.D., research assistant professor in bioengineering at the University of Illinois and one of the article’s six co-authors, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“An African-American student who has been told, ‘You’re only here because of affirmative action’ or a female student who hears, ‘Don’t worry that you don’t understand that programming concept; you won’t need to,’ are experiencing these things multiple times,” Dr. Cross said. “That builds. There are manifestations from that. We’re at just the tip of the iceberg.”
Despite the incivilities they endured, a majority of the students surveyed expressed a high level of identification with engineering or said that being an engineer is important to women’s identity and sense of self.
“This result rebuffs the long-held stereotypes that females are less interested in engineering,” noted the article.
People Before Data
Dr. Clancy said her own heart was broken in 2012 when a colleague not only experienced sexual harassment doing fieldwork, but also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after her superior pressured her to say nothing and fretted that her reaction might jeopardize the collaboration with the harassers. The incident slowed the woman’s progress toward achieving a Ph.D.
“Too many scientists think the data is more important than people,” Dr. Clancy said.
Yet changing the culture needn’t be a far-off goal, because universities, professional societies, and even the National Academies can take steps to change now, experts say.
Dr. Cross, who earned her under- graduate degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University, her master’s degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Cincinnati, and her Ph.D. in engineering education from Virginia Tech, said she urges university professors to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels the learning space is safe and where they can participate and learn just as they are — without resorting to watering down the technical curriculum. Students must learn that their careers will rarely involve hiding in a corner to work as a lone wolf.
“We work in teams,” Dr. Cross said. “We are now in a global society. The likelihood that you’ll work with someone from a different culture, race, country is high. The more we can get students mentally, socially, and technically prepared for that, the better.”
“Practice makes perfect,” she said. “The more we can get students to practice intercultural interactions, particularly at the undergrad level, the better prepared they’ll be to say, ‘OK, I need to look at this person for who or what they are and what they bring to the table.’”
University leaders also can take action, including:
- Change the way they interact
with students and employees by acknowledging that a majority are harassment victims and communicating to them in that manner.
- Become more values-based — even acting as the moral compass for the country’s young people.
- Worry less whether they’ll get sued if they swiftly sanction bullies and harassers, and worry more about doing the right thing and protecting targets.
- Train people to intervene in ways that remove the victim from the harasser, such as asking if the victim can help out by leaving the scene or asking whether she needs help.
Despite decades of academic inertia, Dr. Clancy said she’s encouraged by TV children’s character “Mr. Rogers,” who said his mother responded to scary news by encouraging him to, “Look for the helpers.”
“While I’m not always trusting of institutions doing the right thing, I’m really encouraged and excited by the many helpers I see — on social media, with work colleagues, and by others activated, radicalized, or inspired by the work happening in this area,” Dr. Clancy said.
The research also found that sexual harassment is more likely to occur in fields where women are underrepresented in the student population and among the faculty and leadership, said Alice Merner Agogino, Ph.D., a mechanical engineering professor and education director at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the Univer- sity of California, Berkeley, who served on the National Academies committee that co-authored the Academies’ report. Of the report itself, she said, “It was very depressing. The fact that this is still continuing to happen and with such huge, negative consequences was quite shocking to me and to many of us.” Dr. Agogino founded UC-Berkeley’s product design concentration, serves as its head advisor, and chairs the development engineering graduate group. On June 26, Dr. Agogino was honored with a STEM mentoring award from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, along with the National Science Foundation.
She also runs her own start-up firm, Squishy Robotics, which creates rapidly deployable robots that, in concept, will be dropped into emergencies such as hazmat or chemical spills and surveil the scene. Their mission is to let them do their work as effectively as possible while saving lives.
“The solution really is mutual respect and providing a climate that ensures diversity and inclusion in many dimensions. Sexual harassment is part of an overall climate that we need drastically to work on if women are to succeed anywhere.”
– Alice Merner Agogino, Ph.D., mechanical engineering professor and education director, Blum Center for Developing Economies, University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Agogino said she is hopeful that the report, along with the #MeToo and #ScienceToo movements, will make a difference in improving conditions for female students, faculty, and administrators. “The whole #MeToo movement is increasing the level of accountability and reporting,” she said.
She is encouraged by efforts to make universities’ disclosures and punishment of sexual harassers criteria for their funding from government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and for STEM academies to expel members found to be sexual harassers.
She also hopes to see harassers no longer able to use confidentiality agreements when they settle accusations, because such agreements give harassers the cover they need to go elsewhere.
“These are all changes that I would never have foreseen just a few years ago,” she said. “The solution really is mutual respect and providing a climate that ensures diversity and inclusion in many dimensions. We need to raise the bar everywhere on that. Sexual harassment is part of an overall climate that we need drastically to work on if women are to succeed anywhere.”
Note: Dr. Agogino will be presenting the report at WE18, the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers, in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday, October 19, at 3:00 pm CT during the session "The State of Women in Engineering."
Adopting Stronger Policies
The National Academies’ report recommends that universities clearly report the number of harassment complaints they receive and investigations they conduct; use committee-based advising to prevent students from being in the power of a single harasser; and institute alternative, less-formal ways for targets to report complaints if they decline to start an official investigation.
The 311-page document — two years in the making and the National Academies’ first report addressing sexual harassment — also urged legislators to pass laws so people can file harassment lawsuits against faculty and not just the university, and so employees who settle harassment complaints cannot keep them confidential from another prospective academic employer.
“The legal system alone is really just not adequate for addressing the issues,” the National Academies’ report said.
The research identified three types of sexual harassment: sexual coercion, gender harassment, and unwanted sexual attention.
"We are now in a global society. The likelihood that you’ll work with someone from a different culture, race, country is high. The more we can get students mentally, socially, and technically prepared for that, the better.”
– Kelly J. Cross, Ph.D., research assistant professor, bioengineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The most common type that women experienced comprised “verbal and non-verbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status,” the report said.
Women of color experience more harassment (sexual, racial/ethnic, or a combination of the two) than white women, white men, and men of color experience, and sexual- and gender-minority people experience more sexual harassment than heterosexual women experience, the report found.
The report’s 15 recommendations include urging leaders to address the effect sexual harassment has on the integrity of research and treat harassment as seriously as research misconduct.
The report also suggests a range of escalating disciplinary consequences for perpetrators, such as counseling, changes in work responsibilities, reductions in pay and benefits, and suspension or dismissal, that correspond to the severity and frequency of the misconduct.
The National Academy of Sciences is reviewing its bylaws and code of ethics to ensure that they identify and punish sexual harassers, said Academy President Marcia McNutt, Ph.D., during a conference to discuss the report on June 26 at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California.
“We have to choose to place a priority on eliminating gender harassment,” Dr. McNutt said, noting that put-downs, gender slurs, and vulgar cartoons hanging on a wall can be just as harmful as overt forms of harassment.
Read more articles in SWE Magazine’s Fall issue on swe.org. You can access the issue on your mobile device by downloading our app on iTunes or Google Play. Click here to view on a desktop or laptop.