A New Bill Vows to Combat STEM’s Sexual Harassment Problem

The “Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act” aims to remedy the causes of sexual misconduct in STEM, but can it?

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Oct 10 2018, 6:57pm

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A federal bill that proposes to deal with sexual harassment in science was introduced on Friday, days after a top CERN physicist, Alessandro Strumia, claimed at a conference that “physics was built by men.”

The “Combatting Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2018,” spearheaded by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), aims to study “factors contributing to, and consequences of, sexual harassment” in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, primarily through research grants, national data collection efforts, and the appropriation of $17,400,000 in federal funding.

It aims to study “factors contributing to, and consequences of, sexual harassment” in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, primarily through research grants, national data collection efforts, and working groups under the leadership of the National Science Foundation, and the National Science and Technology Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy—both entities of the White House.

It would also establish working groups under the leadership of the National Science Foundation, and the National Science and Technology Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy—both entities of the White House—to address the systemic issue.

“The academic workplace, when compared to the military, private sector, and government, has the second highest rate of sexual harassment,” Johnson said in a September floor statement. “This behavior undermines career advancement for women in critical STEM fields, and many women report leaving promising careers in academic research due to sexual harassment.”

The legislation stresses the need to acknowledge the experiences of minority groups—people who have historically been underrepresented in studies about STEM culture.

A 2018 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) found that 58 percent of women faculty and staff in academia have experienced sexual harassment. It also found that women of color and sexual and gender minorities are more likely to experience sexual harassment at work.

Several women told Motherboard that, while legislation acknowledging STEM’s harassment problem is a good thing, they remain skeptical.

“I see this bill as a floor, not a full solution, and I don’t see it necessarily capturing 95 percent of sexual harassment in the sciences,” Kathryn BH Clancy, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who consulted on the bill and co-authored the NAS report, told Motherboard.

“I do think this is a really important step forward,” Clancy added. “Five percent is better than 0 percent.”

Gender harassment—verbal and nonverbal hostility, crude behavior, exclusion, or contempt—is the most common form of sexual harassment, occurring more frequently than sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention. This type of harassment “tends to be internalized,” and women are less likely to consider it sexual harassment, Clancy said.

For example, CERN physicist Strumia argued that “physics is not sexist toward women” using data that conflicts with other studies about gender discrimination in STEM. His comments were condemned in a petition signed by more than 1,600 scientists.

In February, Clancy testified before the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as part of its investigation into recent sexual misconduct claims at federal science agencies. The committee launched its probe following media reports that Boston University professor David Marchant sexually harassed graduate students over two decades and received nearly $5.5 million in federal grants.

Last month, the committee made a series of recommendations, such as the development of better training and more trustworthy reporting systems. It also urged federal agencies to consider revoking a harasser’s access to funding—a consequence supported by the world’s largest general science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which updated its policy to allow members to request that a fellow’s title be revoked for sexual harassment.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) also announced in September that reports of harassment could now prevent researchers from receiving NSF funding or awards, and requires awardee organizations to notify the agency of cases of sexual harassment committed by grantees, and whether grantees have been placed on leave.

But not all agencies followed suit. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) was criticized for not requiring institutions to report sexual harassment findings. The agency instead relies on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination at universities receiving federal funding and protects “the liability of the institution but [is] not effective in preventing sexual harassment,” according to the NAS report.

Many in the STEM community believe that power structures, in academia and the workplace, must change before sexual harassment can truly be dealt with.

“When someone does a Title IX report and there’s a finding of misconduct, then what happens?

That misconduct case is sent to academic HR and the boss of the perpetrator decides what the consequence is,” Julie Libarkin, professor and head of the Geocognition Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, told Motherboard. “You end up having friends making consequences for friends,” Libarkin, who manages a database of more than 700 cases of academic sexual misconduct—in order to visualize the wide scope of sexual harassment in academia—added.

When Motherboard asked the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Democrats whether the bill pertained to NIH, a spokesperson told Motherboard, “The bill applies to all federal science agencies with an annual extramural research expenditure totaling at least $100M; this would include NIH.”

However, the bill wouldn’t direct NIH or other agencies to change its policies. Instead, it asks the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop and and enforce better policies throughout federal science agencies, including guidelines that require grantees to submit findings of sexual harassment.

The bill was also written “to not interfere with Title IX,” the spokesperson added, saying:

The [NAS] report made it clear that the culture of compliance with Title IX in some ways does more harm than good. One goal of the bill is to go above and beyond that requirements of Title IX to foster a more welcoming and safe environment for all STEM students, trainees, postdoctoral scholars, researchers, and faculty in academia.

Libarkin feels current policymaking isn’t good enough. “My concern is that the vast majority of policies we’ve seen lately—that try to bring hidden misconduct to light—still aren’t recognizing the structure that exists to hide it,” Libarkin said.

The legislation proposes funding research into how academic hierarchies promotes sexual harassment. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Legal Education, for example, found that “open-secret” environments in academia paved the way for serial harassers. But it’s not clear how those findings would eventually be implemented.

“I think a lot of what’s suggested in this bill, in theory, could be very effective in addressing needs around workplace harassment. But I need to see these policies in play,” Tisha Bohr, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell University Veterinary Medical Center, told Motherboard.

“Introducing this bill is a step in the right direction, but I won’t truly feel like me and my colleagues in STEM are safe until I see tangible improvements in our treatment and experience,” Bohr said.

The bill must first be considered by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee before advancing to the House floor. No Republicans have yet to sign onto it. It will likely be reintroduced next Congress.