Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Study summarizes existing research on sexual harassment; develops an analysis of the roots of harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine; and makes a series of recommendations about what needs to be done to curtail it.
Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

In 2016, the National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine initiated the study Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to examine research on sexual harassment to determine what could be done to prevent it in academic science, engineering, and medicine. While the study was being conducted, the emergence of the #MeToo movement drew broader public attention to the problem of sexual harassment, making the study even more timely and important.

The study does not present original research but, rather, summarizes existing research on sexual harassment; develops an analysis of the roots of harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine; and makes a series of recommendations about what needs to be done to curtail it. It outlines the various forms that sexual harassment can take, noting that it ranges from the creation of a hostile climate (creating an environment in which women’s work performance is adversely affected) to harassment directed at individuals that may involve a quid pro quo or outright coercion. As the case studies summarized in the report show, sexual harassment in academic science is alarmingly common and leads to a number of negative outcomes, from reduced job performance or commitment to withdrawal from academic science altogether.

Based on their reading of the existing research, the authors of the study contend that there are five factors that create the conditions under which sexual harassment is likely to occur in academic science, engineering, and medicine:

  • The existence, in many academic settings, of a perceived tolerance of sexual harassment. Where there is a clear commitment to the view that any form of sexual harassment is intolerable, it is far less likely to occur.
  • Gender imbalances — environments in which men far outnumber women and/or in which leadership roles are dominated by men are fertile soil for sexual harassment.
  • Situations in which power is concentrated in a single person (such as a star researcher) and/or where people are strongly dependent on a superior, especially when they are physically isolated.
  • Symbolic compliance with Title IX and Title VII, something the authors of the study find is quite common. The existence of the rules provided by these laws has not been shown significantly to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment.
  • Campus leadership that lacks the intentionality and focus to reduce or eliminate sexual harassment. The study finds that campus leaders generally do express a desire to prevent sexual harassment, but they often lack the tools to be successful.

The study also identifies four aspects of academic science, engineering, and medicine that work to silence victims of harassment and to limit their career opportunities:

  • Dependence on advisors and mentors for career advancement
  • System of meritocracy that does not account for the declines in productivity and morale as a result of sexual harassment
  • “Macho” culture in some fields
  • Informal communications network, through which rumors and accusations are spread within and across specialized programs and fields

The report concludes with a series of recommendations about what needs to be done to reduce and eliminate sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine. The recommendations are too numerous to list here, but they can be summarized as follows:

  • Move beyond symbolic compliance to a systematic, institution-wide effort to end harassment, with committed leadership from the top
  • Create a culture in which harassment is not tolerated; create incentives to end harassment
  • Diffuse power to reduce the risk of harassment
  • Set goals and measure progress
  • Involve external groups: professional societies can be important allies, funding agencies need to be part of the effort to deter sexual harassment, and new legislation may be needed

These recommendations point to a clear conclusion that eliminating sexual harassment involves transforming organizational cultures and structures, not just the creation of policies. While this is a huge challenge, the authors of the study are optimistic that it can be met and that the academy can provide leadership in this area for other economic sectors.