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Women In Science

Sexual harassment pervasive in science, National Academies study says

Cultural change needed to prevent injury to female faculty, students

by Andrea Widener
June 13, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 25


Credit: National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine
A video by the National Academies summarizing its findings on sexual harassment.

A widespread culture of sexual harassment drives women away from science careers and perpetuates a gender gap, according to a new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine.

Science and sexual harassment

The National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine released a wide reaching report on sexual harassment in science. Here is what it says about why science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are particularly vulnerable to harassment and what university should do about it.

Why STEM disciplines are particularly ripe for harassment:
- The dependence on advisors and mentors for career advancement
- The system of meritocracy that does not account for the declines in productivity and morale as a result of sexual harassment
- The “macho” culture in some fields
- The informal communication network, in which rumors and accusations are spread within and across specialized programs and fields

Key changes needed to stop sexual harassment:
- Integrate values into the system
- Change the power dynamic
- Support targets of sexual harassment
- Improve transparency and accountability.

Large percentages of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields report being harassed. That includes 50% of female faculty and staff and 20 to 50% of students, the report says.

“The cumulative effect of sexual harassment is a significant and costly loss of talent in science, engineering, and medicine,” says committee member Lilia Cortina, a University of Michigan psychology professor who has studied harassment for 25 years.

Targets of harassment report lower job satisfaction and often withdraw from or quit their jobs, the report says. Others report depression or posttraumatic stress.

STEM fields, including chemistry, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment because men still far outnumber women in faculty and leadership positions, and students usually rely on a single advisor to guide their research and promote their careers, the report adds.

Chemist Mary Boyd, provost of Berry College, says she is glad the National Academies took on this important issue. “They offer the findings, conclusions, and recommendations in a spirit of optimism: that addressing sexual harassment is everybody’s responsibility,” she says. “It is going to take all of us to really combat sexual harassment.”

A complete culture change is needed to address sexual harassment in universities, the report says. Too often, universities have just done what is required by law, but that isn’t enough to change how people behave. “Sexual harassment is primarily a problem of organizational culture,” Cortina says. “Academic institutions need to move away from a culture of compliance and toward a culture of respect.”

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to involve sexual propositioning, touching, or assault to cause problems. If pervasive, behaviors often brushed off as unimportant—such as offhand comments about someone’s appearance or capabilities and other actions labeled as gender harassment—can do just as much damage to a student or faculty member’s prospects, the report points out. And harassment is especially widespread for minorities and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, who can face multiple forms of derogatory and discriminatory behavior.


The cumulative effect of sexual harassment is a significant and costly loss of talent in science, engineering, and medicine.”

Changing academic culture has to start at the top, with leaders who make it clear there is no tolerance for sexual harassment at their institutions, the report says. Universities need to lay out clear, escalating consequences for harassing behaviors and focus their training on what someone should do if they are harassed or witness harassment.

Academic institutions should also increase diversity at all levels, provide more support for targets of harassment, decrease tolerance for gender harassment, reduce the power faculty have over students, and publicize harassment reports and consequences.


The National Academies report also calls on scientific societies to help change the culture of sexual harassment. For example, the report recommends that societies help support people who are harassed.

David Smorodin, assistant general counsel for the American Chemical Society, says he appreciates that the report recognizes that societies can play an important role in making that change. The report “really does present a challenge to all professional scientific societies,” he says.

The challenge now is going to be getting universities to adopt the recommendations, Boyd says. “Sometimes there needs to be an incentive [to change], and so far there has not been a great incentive.”

This article has been translated into Spanish by and can be found here.


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