Sexual Harassment In Academic Science, Engineering, Medicine Needs Systemwide Change

By Bradley J. Fikes The San Diego Union-Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A new report regarding sexual harassment in the fields of science, engineering and medicine is disturbing. The harassment reportedly includes not only open demands for sex with the risk of retaliation for refusal, but other demeaning treatment that places women at a disadvantage to men.

The San Diego Union-Tribune

The nation's top body on science issues made it official Tuesday: sexual harassment isn't just a problem in Hollywood, politics and the corporate world.

Maltreatment of women is about as common in science, engineering and medicine as in more publicized fields, according to a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

This not only harms the women involved, but also the fields they work in, by driving out qualified people. A free copy of the nearly 300-page report can be obtained at

The harassment includes not only open demands for sex with the risk of retaliation for refusal, but other demeaning treatment that places women at a disadvantage to men. Legal remedies are an insufficient to deterrent, the report stated.

To stop this, the climate and culture in science, medical and engineering need to be changed to penalize harassers, the report said. This includes changing federal funding incentives and imposing requirements that faculty and leadership openly pledge to oppose harassment and support diversity policies.

Sexual harassment scandals in these disciplines have taken place around the world, including San Diego.

-Noted Salk Institute scientist Inder Verma has just resigned after the institute investigated charges against him that included sexual harassment of females. Meanwhile, the institute grapples with ongoing sexual discrimination litigation.

-UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy left his faculty position in 2015 after reports that he engaged in inappropriate conduct with female students.

-At the United Nations, engineer Rajendra Pachauri resigned as chair of a climate change panel in 2015 after he was accused of sexual harassment of women.

According to a 2003 survey cited in the report, 58 percent of female academic faculty and staff said they experienced sexual harassment.

"When comparing the academic workplace with the other workplaces, the survey found that the academic workplace had the second highest rate (of sexual harassment) behind the military (69 percent)," the report said.

The report also cited a 2017 survey by the University of Texas system, which found that about 20 percent of female science students, more than 25 percent of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of female medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff members.

Risks to women Students and trainees in science, engineering and medicine face "unique risks" because of working conditions, the report said. They often spend much time alone together with their mentors, who play a major role in their success or failure.

"Caring for sick patients, especially in the emergency room, the operating rooms, and the intensive care units is obviously very intense, tiring, and stressful, and because of the requirement for extended duty hours, call rooms with single or multiple beds are close by for when sleep is possible," it stated.

"The risk they pose for sexual harassment and sexual assault should be obvious."

Despite these incidents, statistics and known risk factors, sexual harassment has most often been discussed in areas outside of academia, science and related disciplines.

The report says this is in part because such conduct is "minimized and ignored," especially if committed by scientists with good reputations.

"You don't want to think that this person who's doing incredible work in getting all of these grants, is also someone who has created a negative environment for others," the report quoted a nontenured psychology faculty member as saying.

Those who sought help were often told to keep it quiet.

"A theme that emerged in the interview data was that respondents and other colleagues often clearly knew which individuals had a history of sexually harassing behavior," the report stated.

"The warnings were provided by both male and female colleagues, and were often accompanied by advice that trying to take actions against these perpetrators was fruitless and that the best options for dealing with the behavior were to avoid or ignore it."

Moreover, the legal system supposes that those who experience discriminatory treatment will report it, which the report said is unrealistic given these conditions.

With these obstacles in mind, the report said the institutional culture needs to change, both to penalize harassers and to encourage vulnerable employees to speak up.

Proposed remedies

-Federal funding agencies could help, the report said, by "requiring academic institutions to report when someone on a grant has violated sexual harassment policy." This recommendation has been turned into a proposed law by Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Bay Area Democrat. The bill was introduced in 2016, and Speier has pledged to reintroduce it this year.

-Various diversity initiatives could also help, the report stated. These include rewriting job descriptions to ensure they are focused on ability and merit and using standardized tools to evaluate job candidates.

-Additionally, institutions could require diversity statements from faculty and leaders. These would include not just mandated beliefs about diversity, but their track records in support of diversity for women and minorities. Otherwise qualified job applicants who don't match the institution's diversity mandates might not be hired, or perhaps be hired on a probationary basis.

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