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Sexual Harassment Is Driving Women Out of STEM and Slowing Down Scientific Advancement

"The consequence of this is a significant and costly loss of talent in science, engineering, and medicine," a 285-page landmark study finds.

Deidre Olsen

Image: Alex Williamson/Getty Images

In academic environments where sexual harassment is rampant, existing university policies protect institutions instead of women, who face significant barriers to pursuing careers in science, technology, and medicine.

Tuesday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a landmark 285-page report noting that a system wide change to the culture and climate of higher education is necessary in order to effectively combat sexual harassment. The newly released report cited data from a University of Texas survey that found 20 percent of women studying science experienced sexual harassment from their peers and professors. More than a quarter of women studying engineering and more than 40 percent of women studying medicine experienced sexual harassment.

“At the same time that so much energy and money is being invested in efforts to attract and retain women in science, engineering, and medical fields, it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields,” the researchers wrote.

In 2016, a special committee composed of scientists, engineers, and physicians as well as experts in sexual harassment research, law and psychology began research for the report. Since then, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, national discourse surrounding sexual harassment has shifted towards a culture of accountability for perpetrators.

The academies say that system-wide changes are needed to improve the working environments for women in academia and science.

“There’s strong research that shows, even when people have certain attitudes or proclivities to the sexually harassed, if you establish the right culture that will inhibit them from acting on those attitudes” said Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, during a press conference held alongside the release of the report.

In addition to compromising the safety and wellbeing of their students to protect themselves against any risk and liability associated with sexual harassment on campus, universities have also not rigorously pursued inclusivity and diversity, the report found.

Many of these institutions still have a “system of meritocracy [that] does not account for the declines in productivity and morale as a result of sexual harassment,” the study stated. Women subjected to sexual harassment can question their own value in pursuing a career in science, engineering or medicine and reconsider working in these disciplines altogether.

The study established three categories of sexual harassment including gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Of these three behaviors, gender harassment is the most common form of sexual harassment and is described as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender.”

In science, engineering, and medicine, universities have perpetuated and maintained a culture and climate that impedes the ability of women to succeed academically. These institutions have been allowed to keep sexual harassment investigations internal, which “has incentivized organizations to create policies, procedures, and training on sexual harassment that focus on symbolic compliance with current law and avoiding liability and not on preventing sexual harassment,” the researchers wrote.

"Such environments can silence and limit the career opportunities in the short and long terms for both the targets of the sexual harassment and the bystanders—with at least some leaving their field," they added. "The consequence of this is a significant and costly loss of talent in science, engineering, and medicine."

The study made 15 evidence-based recommendations in moving forward. Some of these recommendations include increased transparency and accountability, movement beyond legal compliance, diffusing of hierarchical and dependent relationships between trainees and faculty, strong and diverse leadership and increased federal agency action and collaboration. The most notable recommendation is that entire university communities become responsible for reducing and preventing sexual harassment on campus.