National Academies call for systemwide steps to fight sexual harassment in science

Sexual harassment in STEMSexual harassment in STEM
A newly published report from the National Academies highlights the issue of sexual harassment in scientific and technical fields. (National Academies Press Graphic)

A newly published report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine calls for dramatic steps to curb sexual harassment in scientific and technical fields.

The report cites a University of Texas survey suggesting that about 20 percent of female science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of female medical students have experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

Over the past few years, a string of high-profile cases have focused on prominent researchers ranging from Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy and Caltech astrophysicist Christian Ott to University of Washington microbiologist Michael Katze. Concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace as well as academic settings have been raised further by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement.

Even the National Academy of Sciences, one of the organizations behind today’s report, has come under fire from critics who say the group has failed to expel members caught up in sexual harassment scandals.

The report says institutions should put sexual harassment on the same level as research misconduct in terms of its effect on scientific integrity. It advises colleges, universities and federal agencies to move beyond basic legal compliance in their formal policies.

“A change to the culture and climate in our nation’s colleges and universities can stop the pattern of harassing behavior from impacting the next generation of women entering science, engineering and medicine,” Wellesley College President Paula Johnson, co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the report, said in a news release.

The report urges Congress and state legislatures to consider a range of actions to counter sexual harassment, including prohibiting confidentiality in settlement agreements and allowing lawsuits to be filed directly against alleged harassers, not just their institutions.

Check out the National Academies’ full report, which is freely available online as a PDF file, for more about its findings and recommendations.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that operate under a congressional charter, with the aim of providing independent advice and informing public policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. 

Sponsors of the study included the National Science Foundation, NASA, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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