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A discussion about sexual harassment and a call for inclusiveness

by Peter K. Dorhout, ACS President
October 21, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 42


Photo of Peter Dorhout.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

What role should ACS play in preventing sexual harassment in the sciences? I posed this question as a discussion topic during the ACS Council meeting in Boston in August as a follow-up to the presidential symposium “Science of Sexual Harassment,” organized by C&EN and the Women Chemists Committee at the spring national meeting in New Orleans.

Two months before the Boston national meeting, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine released a consensus report, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” In it, the Academies called on professional societies to take a leadership role in improving the learning and working environments for students, postdocs, staff, and faculty of all ranks. Harassment of any type does not belong in a chemistry laboratory or classroom, let alone at a professional meeting.

Harassment of any type does not belong in a chemistry laboratory or classroom, let alone at a professional meeting.

Our council discussion could not have been more timely.

A real-time survey of council members revealed that a significant majority of them, both men and women, have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment at an ACS meeting or event, in their professional workplace, or in their learning environment. Let me emphasize this: The majority of nearly 450 elected leaders of our professional society have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment in a professional or learning environment.

What has ACS done to address sexual harassment? At the council meeting, I highlighted four actions taken by ACS over the past few years:

Creating the ACS Volunteer/National Meeting Attendee Conduct Policy

Creating the Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct

Adding rescission language in ACS National Awards and ACS Fellows policies

Requiring sexual harassment training for all ACS employees

When asked about whether councilors were familiar with these policies and actions, more than 60% of councilors responded that they were vaguely familiar or not familiar at all with the policies. In addition, only 3% of councilors indicated that their local section or division had adopted the national meeting conduct policy or other professional conduct policies and applied them to their meetings or events. We have opportunities to improve.

During the course of the 30-minute council discussion, 29 councilors addressed the body, providing observations and suggestions for what ACS can do. Unfortunately, I have space to share only a few.

“To assist in preventing sexual harassment, ACS needs to be proactive. Clear, readable, and obvious signage needs to be present as part of the registration process [and] at all poster sessions and halls showing the ground rules and the sections of the code of conduct specifically about sexual harassment.”

“To make sure that everybody understands the polic[ies] ... when they sign up for ACS membership [or register for a meeting], they have to click on a pop-up window that says they’ve actually read that conduct policy.”

“Awareness is the first step. We saw the data; we realize how important this is; now we can move. Many of us are already engaged in various ways of improving the climate. But behavior is modeled, and we are the modelers. We need to remember that.”


“We need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations [and] discussions. This needs to be embedded into our committees, departments, meetings, workplaces. Having a reporting place is critical. How we navigate wanted and unwanted sexual advances is critical to our professional atmosphere.”

“This conversation ... needs to involve graduate students in particular because of the generational gap that’s frequently there and the difference in power and the voice. Many graduate students don’t feel that they have enough voice in what happens in their career. So they don’t frequently know how to bring up the conversation when it has to deal with sexual harassment.”

The specific data collected from the council discussion were reported in the councilor talking points.

After the meeting, I received several notes declaring that ACS should be focusing on meetings and other activities to advance the chemical sciences and should not spend so much time talking about “nonscience topics” like this. I disagree.

The ACS Charter, Sec. 2, states that part of “the objects of incorporation shall be ... the improvement of the qualifications and usefulness of chemists through high standards of professional ethics, education, and attainments.”

We have an obligation to our charter and to our members to promote high standards of professional ethics, particularly ensuring that the working, meeting, and learning environments for everyone are safe, welcoming, and inclusive.

I welcome your ideas and suggestions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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