Skip to main content

Harassment Is Rife in Science Labs—and University Policies Aren't Helping

Meanwhile, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is struggling with its own controversy over whether it properly punishes member harassers.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Recent surveys have found that at least one in five female science, engineering, and medical students report being harassed by faculty or staff at their schools.

A new study finds that at least one in five female science students experience harassment from faculty or staff at their universities, and more than 40 percent of female medical students do.

Sexual harassment is rife in science, medicine, and engineering, and there's "no evidence" that all the harassment training and reporting pathways that universities have set up are making any difference. That's the conclusion of a 290-page, two-year-long study of sexual harassment of women in the sciences, published on Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a non-profit created by Congress during Abraham Lincoln's presidency to answer science questions for the nation.

"We need to move beyond legalistic policies and training focusing only on the most obvious acts of abuse," Lilia Cortina, a psychologist from the University of Michigan who worked on the study, said during a public talk announcing the report's release. "Those acts simply don't happen without a firm foundation of disrespect, derision, and devaluation of women. So what are we doing to take aim at that disrespect?"

Cortina was part of a team of 21 experts—comprising college professors, industry scientists, a former Congresswoman, and an administrator at a professional society for geophysicists—who examined existing research and commissioned two new studies to help them evaluate how prevalent sexual harassment is during women's science careers and what to do about it. The results are sobering: At least one in five female science students experience harassment from faculty or staff at their universities, and more than 40 percent of female medical students do, one of the newly commissioned studies found. (Men may also be harassed, especially if they're seen as violating gender norms, but it happens more often to women.)

Anti-harassment policies at universities are often designed to cover the school in court—but not to really solve the problem. And women might be held back in their fields as a result: Research suggests that workers who are sexually harassed perform more poorly in their jobs, while college women who are harassed get lower grades and report more health problems.

But the news isn't all bad. Cortina and her team called out examples of recent policies that they've seen, which they expect will be effective. They pointed to the American Geophysical Union, which recently established a program for members to get help if they're harassed during AGU conferences, and to the National Science Foundation, which is working on a policy that would require universities to report if a taxpayer-funded faculty member is found to have harassed somebody.

It's especially important to create a school or workplace culture that emphasizes respect, according to the team. "In a sense, it doesn't matter so much what's in the hearts and minds of people," Cortina told Pacific Standard. "There's strong research that shows that even when people have certain kinds of attitudes or proclivities to sexually harass, if you establish the right culture, that will help inhibit them from acting on the attitudes."

Put another way, harassment is a problem of the system, not of individual "bad apples." The National Academies team found that the No. 1 predictor of harassment is workplace culture. They found that three qualities distinguish workplaces that inhibit harassment from those that foster it: whether workers think they might be retaliated against if they report harassment, whether they think anyone will take their complaints seriously, and whether they think harassers at their company are duly punished. Universities and labs should strive for an environment where it's clear harassment is not tolerated, the team writes, and they offer suggestions for how to get there. Their solutions include hiring more diverse leaders (male-dominated departments were another risk factor for harassment), rewarding faculty for running respectful labs, and offering training for what bystanders should do when they witness bad behavior.

On the other hand, if a school or workplace focuses too much on its legal liability, it's likely to come up with inadequate solutions. One major problem is that the most common type of harassment people encounter is what researchers call "gender harassment," which encompasses crude comments ("Don't be a pussy") and remarks disparaging to a gender ("Women just aren't as good at math"). Such behavior might slip under the radar because it seems less serious than overtly sexualized behavior, such as unwanted touches, or pressuring someone for dates. Nevertheless, research suggests gender harassment is hurtful and harms people's productivity. "Much of the sexual harassment that women experience and that damages women and their careers in science, engineering, and medicine does not meet the legal criteria of illegal discrimination under current law," said Billy Williams, vice president for ethics at the American Geophysical Union and a member of the National Academies study team.

In addition, the team analyzed relevant case law and found that it relies on "the inaccurate assumption that the target of sexual harassment will promptly report their harassment," Williams said. In reality, the team found that the limited research on how women react to harassment suggests that making a formal report is the last thing they tend to do. Many don't report because they fear retaliation and damage to their reputations.

"Adherence to legal requirements is necessary, but not sufficient, to drive the change needed to address sexual harassment," Williams said.

One issue that the team doesn't address on its own is what should happen to scientists who are found to have harassed others. The National Academies report talks about making sure it's clear to everyone that harassers face penalties; making publicly available data such as how many harassment complaints an institution receives each year; and ensuring consequences—such as teaching less—are not secretly considered perks. But Pacific Standard found no suggestions in the National Academies report for what exactly those consequences should be.

This question has taken on special urgency at the National Academies in recent weeks. A bit of background: Ordinary scientists can become National Academies members if a current member elects them and the other members vote them in. Election to the National Academies is considered an honor and a mark of a productive career. Membership lasts a lifetime and there's no provision for removing a member. In recent weeks, some scientists have pressured the non-profit to revoke membership from those who have been found guilty of harassment by the institutions where they work.

At the public meeting where five members of the study team presented their results, Pacific Standard asked the panelists their opinion of revoking National Academies membership as a penalty for harassment. The team didn't answer; a spokeswoman for the National Academies directed the question instead to National Academy of Sciences Executive Director Bruce Darling.

Darling said the National Academies' governing documents, which date back 155 years, don't say anything about expectations for behavior for members—nothing about harassment, or about other serious breaches of scientific ethics, such as plagiarism or falsifying data. Adding a code of behavior to the documents would require the National Academies membership to vote "yes" on the change and follow a ratifying procedure that takes two years. "It's because of the complexity of that that we're looking at a range of options short of elimination of membership," he said. "We'll be discussing that with our councils at our next meetings."