National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia
500 Fifth St. NW
Washington, DC 20001
3040 E. Cornwallis Road
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
RTI Project Number 0215835.000.00
1. STUDY PURPOSE AND AIMS
The Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) commissioned this study to understand the influence of sexual harassment on the career advancement of women in sciences, engineering, and medicine (SEM), particularly in the higher education and medical settings. The National Academies contracted with a research team at the Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience at RTI International, a not-for-profit research institute, to investigate the following research questions:
- How do women who are targeted for sexual harassment in sciences, engineering, and medicine characterize and understand those experiences?
- How do women who are targeted for sexual harassment respond to their experiences in the short term (including immediate psychological and coping responses; reporting and other help seeking; and immediate changes in work habits, research focus or professional specialty, and collaborative or mentoring relationships)?
- How do women who are targeted for sexual harassment understand their experiences to have shaped their career trajectories (including long-term ramifications for work habits, research focus or professional specialty, collaborative or mentoring relationships, job opportunities, job advancement and tenure, research funding, and publications)?
- What barriers or challenges do respondents believe prevent sexual harassment in sciences, engineering, and medicine from being addressed (in terms of both prevention and response)?
- What strategies for preventing and responding to sexual harassment in sciences, engineering, and medicine do respondents perceive as promising?
NASEM opted for the methodology best suited to understanding these complex, sensitive, and subjective experiences and their impacts: a qualitative study consisting of individual, semi-structured interviews with women who have been targets of sexual harassment. Qualitative inquiry is widely recognized as the method of choice for generating insight into complex phenomena, the contexts in which they occur, and their consequences.1 Such methods are understood to be particularly well suited to foregrounding and illuminating the experiences and perceptions of those considered to be victims and others whose perspectives
have been little voiced, or whose expected experiences have few precedents in prior research.2
2.2 Data Collection Approach
RTI collaborated with NASEM membership to recruit participants for 40 individual interviews. A secure, web-based eligibility form was developed to screen prospective respondents for the following criteria: self-identified women faculty working in SEM disciplines at research institutions who had experienced one or more behaviors meeting the definition of sexual harassment (defined in behaviorally specific terms in the form, not just listed as “sexual harassment”) in the last 5 years. An invitation to complete this form was sent to a list of national and regional scientific society and professional association listservs by RTI and NASEM membership. RTI and NASEM focused resources on identifying and connecting with member listservs and similar communication tools that were centered on scholars of color or those who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ+). RTI used data from the web form to purposefully select from among eligible individuals to ensure representation of women of color and LGBTQ+ women; women across fields, subfields, and career stages; women from diverse geographic regions (with the aim of representing those in more conservative as well as more liberal areas of the country); and individuals who did and did not report their experiences and who did and did not stay at the institution where those experiences occurred. Of the 340 women who completed the screening tool, 65 were determined to be eligible, 48 were contacted for interviews, and 40 completed interviews.
Individuals selected for interviews were contacted using their preferred names or pseudonyms and preferred modes of contact (e-mail or phone) and scheduled for a telephone interview with an experienced qualitative interviewer with expertise in victimization research. Appointments were made for a time when the respondent expected to be in a private location where she could speak comfortably about her experiences. Individuals who completed the screening form but were not selected to participate in an interview were thanked and notified at the end of the recruitment period, using their preferred mode of contact, that they had not been selected. Prospective interviewees who provided informed consent via telephone proceeded to participate in an audio-recorded, semi-structured interview lasting approximately 1 hour that covered the following topics:
- Understanding of sexual harassment (e.g., experiences considered to constitute sexual harassment).
- History of sexual harassment experiences in the workplace in the last 5 years.
- Responses to those experiences (e.g., disclosure, internal response, changes in work life, formal procedures for reporting).
- Perceived impact of sexual harassment on work and career path.
- Ideas of what could be done to prevent or better respond to such incidents.
Following the interview, respondents were sent a thank-you e-mail with a list of resources, a small token of appreciation ($15 Amazon gift code), information about the expected release of study findings, and contact information for the study team and Institutional Review Board.
2.3 Analytic Approach
Recordings of all interviews were professionally transcribed, and basic identifiers (such as respondents’ names and locations and the institutions where they worked) were removed during transcript preparation. De-identified transcripts were then loaded into ATLAS.ti, a qualitative data analysis software package. A codebook was developed jointly by the analysis team, incorporating deductive codes based on the study research questions, and inductive codes to capture themes that emerged during the coding and data review process. Queries of coded data were run in ATLAS.ti to capture segments of text that focused on each research question. Analysts read the code reports for these queries, identified salient themes, and met to discuss how these themes addressed each research question. Analytic memos were used to develop and expand themes, and key themes and the exemplary quotations associated with them were tracked in an Excel spreadsheet.
2.4 Sample Characteristics
Respondents came from an array of backgrounds representing various demographics. The largest proportion of respondents (42.5 percent) came from institutions in the South; a fifth came from the Midwest and another fifth came from the West.3 The remaining respondents (17.5 percent) were located in the Northeast. An overwhelming proportion of respondents identified as non-Hispanic or Latino (92.5 percent). Most respondents were white (82.5 percent). Nonwhite respondents were either Asian (12.5 percent) or black or African American (5 percent). All respondents identified as cisgender. Most of the sample (85 percent) identified as heterosexual, and the remaining 15 percent identified as bisexual or pansexual.
Study respondents had a wide range of professional experience. Just over
3 The geographic composition of the study sample reflected the priority given to recruiting participants from more conservative as well as more liberal areas of the United States.
half of the respondents (55 percent) were junior faculty or professionals; that is, 10 years or fewer had elapsed from the time they earned their professional degree. The remaining respondents reported either being senior faculty or professionals, defined as those for whom more than 10 years had elapsed since their professional degree (42.5 percent), or chose not to answer this item (2.5 percent). Respondents worked across the SEM fields, with half of the sample in the sciences (50 percent), and roughly one-quarter each in engineering (27.5 percent) and medicine (22.5 percent).
Before discussing the respondents’ most impactful incidents, interviewers asked each respondent a series of yes-or-no questions about the types of experiences they had had over the past 5 years. Respondents most commonly reported having experienced sexist remarks or jokes about women or transgender persons (92.5 percent), followed by inappropriate comments about someone else’s body, appearance, or attractiveness (72.5 percent). Just over half of respondents (52.5 percent) indicated they had experienced unwanted, offensive sexual jokes, stories, or pictures shared in person or electronically. Half (50 percent) experienced unwanted touching. Unwanted sexual advances and pressure to agree to sex or a romantic relationship were less common, but each practice was still separately reported by over a quarter of participants (27.5 percent). Fewer than one in three respondents (30 percent) made formal reports with their institutions about the incident(s) they experienced. Institutional retention followed a similar pattern: 37.5 percent of respondents remained at the institution where they experienced their most impactful incident.
3.1 Sexual Harassment and Gender-related Climate
Range of Behaviors and Recognizing Them as Sexual Harassment. On the basis of the screening procedure used for the study, all interviewees had experienced at least one behavior in the last 5 years that was understood by researchers to constitute sexual harassment, and many had experienced several (see Section 2.3). During the interview, they were also asked to identify which of the experiences they disclosed from the last 5 years had been most impactful. These responses varied, and included sexual advances, lewd jokes or comments, disparaging or critical comments related to competency, unwanted sexual touching, stalking, and sexual assault by a colleague. One respondent observed that most persons understood sexual harassment primarily in terms of unwanted sexual advances,
but that gender-based harassment in academic settings was both widespread and impactful:
Most of them are demeaning the woman, shutting her up in the workplace, demeaning her in front of other colleagues, telling her that she’s not as capable as others are, or telling others that she’s not [as] sincere as you people are . . . I think more stress should be on that. It’s not just, you know, touching or making sexual advances, but it’s more of at the intellectual level. They try to mentally play those mind games, basically so that you wouldn’t be able to perform physically. (Assistant professor of engineering)
At the time of their interviews, most respondents characterized their experiences as sexual harassment. However, some respondents noted that they had not immediately recognized those experiences as such.
Institutional Climate of Gender Discrimination. Delayed awareness of sexual harassment was heavily influenced by the pervasive acceptance of gender-discriminatory behavior within the academic context. Many respondents reported that they were the only woman or one of a few women within their departments. Gender discrimination was often normalized in the male-dominated settings in which they worked, which interviewees felt had fueled sexually harassing behavior, fostered tolerance of it, and made differentiating it as such difficult.
3.2 Additional Contextual Influences on Sexual Harassment
Respondents noted several issues that tied into the general climate of accepting sexual harassment. Unique settings such as medical residencies were described as breeding grounds for abusive behavior by superiors, largely because at this stage of the medical career, expectation of this behavior was widely accepted. The expectations of abusive, grueling conditions in training settings caused several respondents to view sexual harassment as a part of the continuum of what they were expected to endure.
But, the thing is about residency training is everyone is having human rights violations. So, it’s just like tolerable sexual harassment. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
Similarly, expectations around behavior were often noted as an “excuse” for older generations of faculty, primarily men, to perpetrate sexually harassing behavior. Many noted that the “old guard,” in perpetrating this type of behavior, was doing what they have always done and was not likely to change, because of a general acceptance within academic settings.
This is kind of a new thing that—and the mindset is so ingrained, like the people that say these things, they don’t even realize that they are—so their intent is not
to sexually harass people, but they do it automatically, and they don’t even think about it. (Professor in geosciences)
The normalization of sexual harassment and gender bias was also noted as fueling this behavior in new cohorts of sciences, engineering, and medicine faculty. Respondents discussed the disheartening experiences of colleagues who entered training settings with nonbiased views and respectful behavior, but who concluded those experiences endorsing or dismissing sexually harassing and gender-biased behavior among themselves and others.
I still don’t think that the prospect of being sexually assaulted was as bad as watching the next generation of sexual harassers being formed. I think that was the worst part for me. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
This was further heightened when peers and colleagues had privilege because of “star power” or simply because of their status as men. The behavior of male colleagues whom higher-ranking faculty or administrators perceived as “superstars” in their particular substantive area was often minimized or ignored. Even men who did not have the superstar label were often described as receiving preferential treatment and excused for gender-biased and sexually harassing behavior.
I think also sometimes people are blinded by good signs and shiny personalities. Because those things tend to go hand in hand. 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. I’ve seen this over and over again. (Nontenure-track faculty member in psychology)
Recurring Patterns of Sexually Harassing Behavior. One theme that emerged in the data was that respondents and other colleagues often clearly knew which individuals had a history of sexually harassing behavior. 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. Many respondents described the dialogue among women faculty to warn about or disclose sexually harassing behaviors as an unfortunate shared bond that was far too often the norm.
It’s more calling them to discuss the tribal experience and just hear the yeah, I’ve dealt with it too, and it sucks and no, I don’t have any ideas for how to fix it, but this isn’t only happening to you, which is kind of the bonding moment. (Assistant professor of engineering)
Intersectionality and Sexually Harassing Behavior. Sexual harassment is a complex issue; however, it becomes even more complicated when it intersects with racism, transphobia, homophobia, and other discriminatory views. Women of color and LGBTQ+ respondents, although scarce among our interviewees, indicated that sexual harassment and other gender-biased behavior was a common experience for them. They noted, however, that the issues of sexual and gender-based harassment are often overpowered by how other issues, such as their race and sexual orientation, intersect with their lived experience as women. These women noted an inability to disentangle discrimination and biases as stemming either from gender or their intersecting identities.
And then there’s a lot of fairly overt transphobia in my institution, I think. And I don’t really know what to make of it. But there’s sort of . . . traditional old Southern set of gendered expectations and norms that if you don’t fit them, it’s pretty clear what people think, and they don’t have to say a lot about it for you to know, you know what I mean? (Nontenure-track faculty member in nursing)
. . . what I’ve concluded is that [much] of my push towards and tenacity around equality and equity actually lands on race. I think part of that is because I’ve been more affronted by my race than my gender, at least more overtly. Meaning, I’ve had people say to my face I don’t want to be taking care of that black person, oh, you speak articulate for a black person. These micro-aggressions that go out there and statements and these innuendos. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
3.3 Psychological and Coping Responses
Emotional Responses. Respondents’ immediate reactions to their experiences with sexual harassment varied substantially along a spectrum from mild irritation to complete devastation. Not surprisingly, some of the variation in responses was related to the severity of the incident. However, verbal harassment that took place in front of others (most commonly, colleagues) was also particularly upsetting for several respondents, who recalled how difficult it was to retain their composure while experiencing severe inner turmoil, and how alone or isolated they felt when others present did not appear to be bothered by the incident. Also, incidents that caught respondents completely off guard—which was fairly common—also caused substantial distress, with many respondents indicating that they felt “frozen” or “paralyzed” in the immediate aftermath of an incident.
At first it knocked the wind out of me and it took a while to come to grips with it. . . . Even after all these years it was a sucker punch. . . . It’s just a tough one
when people surprise you with a comment that’s out of nowhere, it’s inappropriate and it just kind of hangs in the room. (Professor of engineering)
Other common reactions were feeling angry, uncomfortable, hurt, fearful, anxious, violated, and powerless.
It’s mostly anger, because this wouldn’t happen to a man. And it’s always—it marginalizes you in ways that you just can’t deal with. But I mostly get angry at the system also because the power structure is built such that you feel helpless in doing anything. (Associate professor of chemistry)
Many respondents also reported experiencing consequences such as stress responses, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and even physical health effects in the aftermath. Some respondents reacted so strongly that they were embarrassed by how much the incident(s) bothered them.
I try to think of myself as being a strong person, you know? But it definitely had an impact on me, and I was embarrassed that it had such an impact on me, too. I was mortified that I[had] broken down in tears, ‘cause it was kind of difficult for me. . . . I was mortified and embarrassed that I let that have such a big impact on me. (Associate professor of engineering)
Several respondents began to question their self-worth after the incident and became less confident. Some noted adverse effects in their personal lives because of the agitation and stress experienced. Further, although the focus of the interviews was on short-term psychological responses, some respondents—particularly those who experienced severe incidents—noted that it has taken them considerable time to recover, and several stated that they often relive the experience when this topic comes up. The diminished confidence appeared difficult for some respondents to overcome. Last, several women experienced long-term shame or self-blame for the harassment they experienced or for their decision to not report it.
Coping Strategies. Internal coping responses in the aftermath of sexual harassment included minimizing or normalizing the incidents (e.g., trying to ignore or laugh it off, not taking it personally); strategizing about how to be better prepared to respond to future incidents (or to redirect the person); engaging in mindfulness, spiritual, and self-healing activities; exercise or physical activity; trying to get tougher; and staying focused on their careers. External coping strategies (e.g., peer support, therapy) are discussed later in this section, and increased involvement in gender equity efforts is discussed in the findings for Research Question 3.
3.4 Immediate Changes in Interpersonal Interactions and Work Habits
Interpersonal Interactions. The most common interpersonal response by far was avoiding the perpetrator. Some respondents avoided all interaction (with some even relocating their offices), whereas others took steps to simply avoid being alone with the perpetrator. Along with the obvious impact on the relationship with the perpetrator, some women noted changes in their relationships with colleagues and administrators, depending on how they reacted to knowledge of the incident (if disclosed). Some relationships were damaged by negative reactions, but others were strengthened by strong support and helpfulness.
Work Habits. Respondents identified a number of changes to their work habits or immediate consequences to their work situation as a result of the incident(s), including a short-term inability to work, immediately considering quitting, avoiding working late in the office, avoiding being alone with any colleagues (not just the perpetrator), and feeling constantly “on guard” at work. Several respondents also identified appearance-related changes made as a result of their experiences, such as avoiding any form-fitting clothing and generally becoming more strategic about how they dressed (which respondents operationalized quite differently, depending on the nature of their harassment). One respondent who was criticized for not meeting heteronormative standards of dress in her field purchased several jackets to wear.
3.5 Choosing to Disclose or Confront Harassment
Choosing to Disclose. Faced with the experience of sexual harassment in their workplaces, many respondents felt as if they had limited choices in how to address it so it would not adversely affect their career.
Well, literally I considered just letting him sexually assault me. I really did consider how difficult that would be to just you know, like deal with. And with that I think that my career would have been much better off. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
Stark power differentials between the target and perpetrator of the sexual harassment exacerbated the sense of limited options and the general fear of disclosure. Although the targets of sexual harassment ranged in status within the academic hierarchy, those respondents who felt the least empowered in disclosing or addressing the sexually harassing behavior were often newer faculty, residents, and postdocs, whereas their perpetrators were often higher-ranking faculty, professional mentors, or widely recognized experts. As one faculty member explained:
I didn’t feel like I had an option in that situation. I think ordinarily, I might have done something and I think one of the things about being on the tenure track
that’s been a little bit upsetting is that you end up feeling somewhat powerless in certain situations where you normally might not have. (Assistant professor of engineering)
Perceived threats to tenure prospects; ability to freely pursue research and scientific stature opportunities; and threats to physical, emotional, and mental health were paramount as women who experienced harassment weighed the options available to them.
3.6 Confronting Perpetrators
Some women chose to directly confront the individuals who were harassing them. Specific strategies varied and included one-on-one conversations and meetings with an accompanying ally. One study participant, who was concerned that she would face negative consequences if she reported the sexual harassment formally, initiated a two-stage communication in which she laid out explicit behavioral expectations for her harasser and secured his agreement to those terms—first in private conversation, and later (when he violated that verbal agreement) in writing. Other women noted that they had considered confronting their perpetrators, but decided against it.
Say it was just a friend or something like that, there’s more of an equal relationship with the person . . . you could just say, “Can you just stop hugging me?” or “I’m just not comfortable with that.” But the issue with this situation is that he’s got power over me that could destroy my career. (Assistant professor of mathematics)
Although women who initiated direct confrontation with their perpetrators typically reported positive or neutral results, it was not seen as a viable strategy for those navigating a steep power differential.
3.7 Formal Reporting
Motivations for Reporting. Whether interviewees had reported their experiences to direct managers or used the university-level process or not, they described three primary motivations for reporting. First, some women reported in hopes of bringing an end to the harassment, particularly to limit or mitigate its damaging effects on their work. Second, others were inspired by the hope of protecting other women from experiencing what they had experienced.
She was like, “Can you live with yourself if he does this to someone else?” And, that was like the thing I couldn’t live with. The next thing I think of are the students at our university and undergrads. And so that convinced me to go forward. (Nontenure-track faculty member in chemistry)
For these women, reporting was the right thing to do, and they pursued it regardless of expected outcome. As one respondent (a nontenure-track faculty member in mathematics) noted: “I have to be brave enough to report this, because this is not okay.” Third, some women were driven to report by urgent concern for their own immediate, physical safety in the workplace.
University-level Reporting. Outcomes from university-level reporting were diverse and sometimes complex. Many women who had pursued this route expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with how long it took, what was required of them, the treatment they received from those to whom they reported, their perceived lack of agency and confidentiality, and the outcomes for themselves and their harassers. One woman noted how her reporting experiences (similar to those shared by other respondents) felt revictimizing and had a chilling effect on future reporting intentions:
I hated it . . . you are feeling bullied into revealing things, then you have no choice but to go through this process. It makes you feel even more powerless. For me, I felt worse every time I went to H.R. . . . I was bullied into getting coworkers’ names that I may have even talked about the situation and if I don’t then I would be in violation of the rules and therefore my job could be in jeopardy. It was a horrible experience and it made me, you know, if something else happened, I didn’t want to do anything about it. (Assistant professor of engineering)
A few shared mixed outcomes; they felt positively about some aspects of the reporting process (or some individuals with whom they had dealt in the course of it) and negatively about others.
I find the actions of the associate dean to be unbelievably unsympathetic, and somebody who just doesn’t understand. . . . I find the actions of my provost to be exemplary, and the actions of the dean of students to be exemplary. (Professor in geosciences)
Others felt a sense of intrinsic satisfaction or pride in reporting as a matter of principle, regardless of how they felt about the process or its outcomes for them personally. Last, some women who had participated in university-level reporting noted that they were unsure of the outcomes of their reports, or noted that investigation or adjudication of their complaints was ongoing.
Reporting to Direct Management. Reporting to direct managers or proximal leadership was more common in our study sample than university-level reporting. However, those who did share their experiences with their supervisors, deans, or chairs rarely experienced positive outcomes. A few expressed profound gratitude for having managers who believed them about their experiences and supported
them in pursuing university-level reporting. More often, however, managers expressed mild sympathy but neither took any action nor encouraged the victim to do so.
People like my chair were saying that this is really bad, they’re on my side, they have my back, it sucks. But [they] never did anything or said anything to the guy in question. So, the people around me find this behavior normal. This is harassment. (Professor in geosciences)
Even more commonly, however, these proximal authority figures minimized or normalized the experience, discouraged further reporting, or recommended that the victim “work it out” with her harasser (or some combination thereof). A woman who was harassed by her chair recounted:
I thought I’d talk to the ombudsman person, but then I talked to the dean and he insisted that he has talked to the vice president of the university and she had said that it’s just a bad start. You should have a three-way meeting with some external person where you come and talk and we’ll try to help you resolve the differences. I was too scared to do that because he was already trying to put subtle pressure on me, the chair I mean, by assigning me another course and all those kind of things. (Assistant professor of engineering)
Still others experienced direct retaliation from those to whom they reported harassment.
I reported to my program director, the chief resident, who I had already talked to about it, but this was more formal, and then the site director,. . . my program director pretty much left it up to the site director, who told me that maybe if I stopped whining so much I would have more friends. So, they basically blew off the report then. And then he—the one I reported it to—started giving me failing grades, directly after me telling him about what was happening, then his reporting of my grades just all went downhill from there. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
These accounts of actual retaliation experiences on the part of study respondents and their colleagues bore out women’s widespread concern and apprehension regarding the possibility of retaliation as a consequence of reporting (see the findings for Research Question 4).
3.8 Peer Support and Other Coping Strategies
Peer Support from Family and Friends. Sharing the experience with family and friends was one of the response strategies for which outcomes were most universally positive. With the exception of a few who had spoken to no one at all about their experiences, most study participants relied heavily on this form of support
to cope with their harassment. Still, interviewees often characterized support from family and friends as a last resort, sought because they had few other options.
(How did you cope?) Well, I cried about it. So that. I have some pretty good friends . . . talking about it, and crying, and more crying on my end. Which is super ineffective. That’s ineffectual, but I still don’t really—even reflecting on it, I don’t know what recourse I could’ve had otherwise. (Nontenure-track faculty member in nursing)
Peer Support from Colleagues. In contrast with the fairly consistent support they received from family and friends, women had mixed outcomes when they sought peer support from colleagues.
I would tell [friends] outside this profession who would be like, “Are you kidding me, what?” But the people who work for this institution were like, “Can’t you just suck it up? This is not going to go well for you if you report. You don’t want to make a fuss.” I knew they were right, but at the same time, I really was like, “This is just too much. I shouldn’t have to be preparing to get raped when I go into work.” (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
Interviewees placed obvious trust in the opinions and guidance of their colleagues, and valued their advice. Several noted that such counsel was sometimes conflicting or silencing.
I would talk to friends and it was always conflicting advice or it was don’t do anything and I didn’t really want to adhere to that . . . Yeah, even in one of my friends who is tenure track here and she’s a woman and she legit told me that. She was like, “This isn’t worth making a fuss over it.” I was like “I feel like it is.” (Nontenure-track faculty member in engineering)
Yet for some women, colleagues had an important vantage point that could not be replaced by the support or opinions of those outside academia. As one respondent (an assistant professor of engineering) observed, “Sometimes you tell these stories and they just sound unbelievable. Yet no one who’s been here has a hard time believing it at all.” Others explained how connections with women colleagues in their department not only supported their coping with harassment, but also bolstered the overall quality of their work lives.
I happen to be in a department that is well above the national average for women faculty in [predominantly male field]. Because of that, we have a really strong network of women who—I mean, we go out to coffee once a month just to talk about being female faculty from the full professor level all the way down to first-year assistant professors or instructors. Because of that, it’s easier to face some of these issues when you kind of have a team behind you. I know I’m lucky in having that kind of network here; most women faculty don’t. (Assistant professor of engineering)
For some, connections with women peers in their departments and institutions made the difference between remaining in their fields after one or more sexual harassment experiences, or choosing to leave. A few women who did not have this kind of support and camaraderie with other women at their home institutions were glad to find it through gatherings of their scientific societies, or by raising harassment issues in relevant conference sessions or other professional forums.
Professional Support. Some women sought professional support in coping with their sexual harassment experiences. A few noted consulting lawyers or alternative health practitioners, but the most common form of professional support was counseling. Although counseling support was not sought by most women in our study, it did tend to be of value for those who undertook it:
So, when I would start to work on my PhD, then how the university treated me would be triggered at the same time and so I would cry and cry and cry. I had to figure out—I had to get those two separated. And so I worked with a really great therapist. I had to get those two separated in order to continue to produce and to do my research . . . but that kind of stuff is really tiring. It takes a lot of energy. Like processing that stuff is exhausting. (Nontenure-track faculty member in computing science)
3.9 Collaborative or Mentoring Relationships
The most consistent effect of gender-based and sexual harassment experiences on respondents’ subsequent professional relationships was greater caution. A number of women indicated that their experiences had made them far less trusting and more careful in decisions about collaborations. Some specifically avoided collaborating with particular individuals known to treat women poorly, but the general tendency was to treat all potential collaborators with caution. Several respondents spoke about their heightened sensitivity, second-guessing, and even paranoia with male colleagues with whom they had existing relationships.
I’m much less trusting of people; I’m less willing to take people at their word for the kind of person that they are. I’m much less trusting of myself in terms of judge of character. Now, I kind of will reserve judgement until I see how a person operates before I will decide whether or not I think that they’re the kind of person I want to have a beer with or not, or even the kind of person I want to work with in any way, and I really try very hard to see what type of actions people make and take at work and judge them based on that rather than my personal or emotional, or conversational interactions with them. (Nontenure-track faculty member in biology)
Many respondents also reported an increased reserve in their demeanor toward colleagues. Avoiding physical contact (hugs), jokes, personal topics of conversation, and generally being less warm were consequences attributed to having experienced gender-based and sexual harassment. Relatedly, a number of women began to avoid social situations (e.g., candidate dinners), particularly those that involved alcohol. Several were extremely reluctant to attend social events at professional conferences (where numerous respondents had experienced sexual harassment) or even avoided conferences altogether. Some respondents made dramatic changes in their degree of social interaction with colleagues, noting that they used to be very open and sociable and now almost never go out. Yet respondents recognized that they were missing out on important networking or professional opportunities that could help their careers.
That’s impacted my career because I know that social networking is a big part of research activities, the work environment. So, it has been very detrimental. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
Another major theme regarding women’s professional relationships was that respondents became more vocal and less tolerant about gender-based and sexual harassment after their experience(s). Several noted that they were now blunter, less polite, and far more likely to call out inappropriate behavior than previously. This particular change was reported more often by respondents with greater seniority, and several noted that they felt obligated to speak up now that they had more job security, especially when incidents happened in the presence of students. Some respondents also felt that the current political environment made it particularly vital to speak up in the face of sexism.
Well yeah, I think now I’m—I’ll call it out instantly when I see it rather than be quiet. I’ve become much more vocal, and I’ve never been exactly shy. I’ve always been pretty outspoken, which is another reason why looking back on this all, I just cringe because I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who puts up with this. Now I’ve made a real conscious effort that when I see—and some of this also has to do with our current national environment. I think that in the Trump era, it’s really important to speak up when you’re facing sexism, even when it’s not directed towards you, even if it’s not textbook “sleep with me or I’m going to fire you” kind sexual harassment. I think it’s really important to put a stop to these things that are like oh yeah, it’s normal. Well, you know, he’s old school, just all of these things to excuse this sort of behavior. It’s not excusable and it shouldn’t be. I am happy to make up for lost time now. (Nontenure-track faculty member in biology)
Importantly, however, even women who had become more vocal noted the emotional turmoil they experienced when deliberating whether to let something go or to address it, knowing that the former approach would “make it go away
immediately” and the latter would be much more difficult for them and guarantee that they would have to deal with the issue for a while.
Last, women’s mentoring relationships were affected by their experiences, in terms of the mentors (some avoided male mentors; others attempted to reach out to female mentors) and mentees (with some seeking out other women or underrepresented minorities) with whom they worked. Several respondents who mentored other women felt a responsibility to raise their awareness of gender-based harassment and how to deal with it.
3.10 Research Focus or Professional Specialty
It was fairly uncommon for women to make changes to their research focus or professional specialty as a result of gender-based and sexual harassment. However, a few respondents avoided research opportunities that involved interacting with certain individuals, and some did switch or consider switching fields. This was more common with extremely traumatic incidents where the respondent wanted to avoid the perpetrator, but one respondent made this decision to help improve her field generally (she left medicine to attend law school so that she could be in a professional position to help address the hostile environment in residency programs). A few respondents made career choices to avoid certain specialties (e.g., surgery) and types of institutions because of earlier experiences with an uncomfortable gender environment. One changed research directions to be able to work more independently and have more autonomy, as a result of working in a research area where much of the credit was inappropriately attributed to a male colleague, and another gave up some research projects because male colleagues would not work with her. Last, one respondent gave up a research career altogether to focus on teaching because, owing to the trauma and work habit changes from having been raped, she did not have the focus and energy to come up with new research ideas, submit grants, and start attending conferences again.
Although few respondents changed their research focus or professional specialties outright, one near-universal theme that arose was increased attention and service focused on gender equity issues in the context of their field and academic positions. Several women began doing more research on gender or diversity and inclusion issues within their fields (e.g., gender in medicine, women and multicultural issues in science subdisciplines), conducting research and publishing papers on these topics. Others became heavily involved in awareness-raising activities or efforts to change policies at their institutions (e.g., leading seminars on sexual harassment, serving on diversity committees) or within their professional associations (e.g., establishing codes of conduct at professional conferences). One took a position as an associate dean to help improve the environment for women and underrepresented minorities, but most such efforts took place within the context of women’s regular jobs. Although respondents clearly found these efforts rewarding and meaningful, several noted that they could be emotionally
taxing and time consuming, adding to their workload and taking time away from their primary job responsibilities and scientific accomplishments.
That means I spend a whole lot of time doing those things, which is probably like, if that’s, if that’s what science means for me. . . . If that’s what I need to do so that my students have a better field, then that is what it is, and I know that I’ll have a bigger impact on science doing those things than one more paper. (Assistant professor in geosciences)
This was particularly true for one woman of color in emergency medicine, who struggled with prioritizing her time when engaging in gender equity or racial diversity and inclusion issues.
3.11 Job Opportunities, Advancement, and Tenure
When asked about the manner in which respondents felt their experiences with gender-based and sexual harassment had affected their career progressions, the predominant theme that emerged was one of negative trajectories. Several respondents identified specific major negative career transitions they made (or were forced to make) as a result of their experiences, including the following:
Stepping down from leadership opportunities to avoid the perpetrator. One woman whose experience was reported to human resources was instructed to resign from an important committee position to avoid interaction with the perpetrator, who was the chair of the committee. Another dropped out of a major research project that was part of an early-career mentoring organization because her mentor raped her. In both situations, others perceived the women negatively because colleagues didn’t know the reason for their decision; they saw this as particularly harmful because both women were at early stages in their careers.
So, there’s been a negative kind of chain of events where supervisors at the institution have seen that I dropped out of the research project and may not understand, because they were never told what happened. So, it seems [ . . . ] I have had a black, I have been blacklisted in some ways and not invited to join other research projects and perhaps seen as a failure. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
A third woman stepped down from an assistant dean position that she was very passionate about to avoid having to interact with the dean, who had harassed her.
- Leaving their institutions. Several women ended up leaving their institutions either because the climate was negative toward women or to avoid
a specific perpetrator there who continued to harass them. Others were actively looking for opportunities that would enable them to leave for a better environment, but some questioned whether the environment would be any better at other institutions or not.
That is why I made this decision of leaving that university, even though I liked the department, I liked the students, I liked the place. I had to leave it, just because I didn’t want this bitterness to continue and affect me personally or professionally. (Assistant professor of engineering)
- Leaving their fields altogether. One woman felt that she was forced out of her field because of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, and another left her field to avoid interacting with the perpetrator.
Several respondents also gave up good prospective job opportunities or settled for less prestigious positions because of their experiences. Although a few respondents made these choices to avoid a specific perpetrator in their field, others found themselves avoiding certain environments because of their negative experiences. One respondent gave up a job offer at Google to avoid being in a male-dominated environment after her experience, and another ruled out large research institutions because of her concerns about collaboration with others. Some felt that their experiences made them hesitant to change institutions (knowing that such experiences could happen anywhere) or led them to avoid taking risks with their careers and settle for nontenure positions.
Prior to the event I had hoped to be a number one scientist and go for a tenure professor position, or main research scientist, whereas now that is not in my scope. . . . So, I feel like I have refocused to more menial roles, perhaps staying as assistant research scientist as I have been doing, and now not stretching for anything greater. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
Along with respondents’ own career decisions, a few felt that their advancement (and reputation) had been hampered because they spoke out about their experiences or were too vocal about the issue. For example, one respondent felt that she was denied promotion because she was not perceived as a “team player.” In recognition of this potential for retaliation, a few respondents specifically stated that when the incident happened, they did not “create a stir” to avoid harming their prospects for job advancement.
Last, note that for several respondents, some of the changes to their interpersonal relationships and collaborations as a response to the incident (discussed earlier in this section) were felt to have had adverse consequences for their career trajectories and those of their mentees.
You cannot cut off people or stop going to conferences. This is the way in which you get your research out and make your work known and you need it for your
promotion anyway. . . . If you don’t go out, you don’t get talks, you don’t present your work in conferences. You are hurting yourself. (Associate professor of engineering)
3.12 Research Funding and Publications
When asked about ways respondents perceived experiences with sexual harassment to have affected their specific professional contributions (e.g., funding, publications, and other accomplishments), they identified several forms of harm. Diminished accomplishments were typically an indirect consequence of the incident(s), through avoiding working with the perpetrator (who would have been a coauthor on publications), avoiding networking opportunities (which meant less likelihood of reviewers or funders knowing the applicant or author), disrupted concentration and anxiety (which created difficulty in focusing on writing), emotional distress when triggered (which hurt productivity), and lack of motivation or increased negativity toward their career because of the incident.
I mean I don’t think I’ve been quite as productive as I could have been with these experiences in terms of getting papers out or getting grant proposals out and things like that. I mean especially this year I have had zero interest or desire in writing up any papers . . . because I don’t want to work with the person that I was working with anymore. (Nontenure-track faculty member in engineering)
Some respondents also felt that their experiences had adversely affected their work quality, particularly those who had to recover from extremely traumatic incidents or who experienced decreased confidence as a result of the incident. Further, respondents who reported the incident noted how much time, energy, and emotion they had had to expend to deal with it, which took time away from professional achievements. And women who left their positions as a result of sexual harassment said they certainly experienced setbacks in their careers as a result (with a number of works in progress left uncompleted).
Along with the manner in which sexual harassment experiences harmed women’s subsequent professional accomplishments, some respondents also identified ways in which gender discrimination directly limited their accomplishments. These included getting less start-up funding and fewer resources, having projects “hijacked,” getting assigned more teaching credits, being expected to fulfill support-staff roles, having students’ funding cut or positions not renewed, and encountering gender bias in reviewing articles. Sadly, some women commented on the manner in which their mentees’ careers were adversely affected by the gender discrimination they, as mentors, faced.
You just as an advisor want to make sure that your students always get every possible opportunity and I just know there are certain things that they’re not gonna get that they would have if they had a male advisor instead and it just kills me. (Assistant professor in geosciences)
However, a few respondents identified positive effects they attributed to gender. One felt that she was invited to be on more grant proposals as a woman because the other investigators felt it would increase their chances of getting funded and that she was generally given more opportunities because of her gender. However, this experience was not entirely positive.
I get asked to do a lot more—anything that is publicized—than . . . my other colleagues, which again, gives me a lot of exposure, but at the same time, I know the reason why I’m getting pulled into those photos—or to the front of a photo—is because I’m female. Or the reason I’m giving a plenary much earlier than I should be probably in my career is because I’m female and they need—they don’t have any other female speakers. I mean, in some ways, it benefits me career-wise because I get exposure, I get more opportunities but at the same time, it almost cheapens it. (Assistant professor of engineering)
Last, some women noted that gender discrimination in their fields made them work harder, which increased their productivity.
I think this is common for women in engineering or probably in STEM but I feel like it actually makes me more of a “Well, I’ll show them” type. . . . Instead of making me shy away from it, it makes me more like “I’ll prove that I deserve to be here,” . . . which is not necessarily a good thing, but I do think that it’s probably how it turns into motivating me instead. (Nontenure-track faculty member in engineering)
3.13 Barriers to Incident Response
Respondents encountered an array of barriers that inhibited or constrained responses to sexual harassment incidents. They identified internal, cultural barriers that prevented them from recognizing and addressing the problem; barriers that deterred department- and university-level reporting and responses; and barriers to accessing other forms of help.
Internal Barriers. As described under Research Question 1, women who experienced sexual harassment sometimes struggled with identifying their experiences as such. Distinguishing a particular experience as sexual harassment was difficult in a culture that normalized misogyny, and this difficulty had a generalized inhibiting effect on victims’ responses.
In retrospect, I had been changing my behavior for a long time to try to avoid him or avoid being alone with him, which is like a hallmark of sexual harassment. But I didn’t—I was younger then, you know? I was more naïve and just didn’t—you know, I think I just didn’t understand. And also just didn’t really believe myself. (Assistant professor in geosciences)
There’s probably been more than one thing that I should have reported to someone. But it’s also, I’ve got to work with these people the rest of my career. It’s got to be really bad before I am going to report it. . . . I think if it would have happened again, I would have said something, and if someone like actually physically touched me inappropriately in a sexual way, I would report that. . . . I don’t know if that’s what I would do. Or just try to say it’s easier to just forget about it and not do anything. Because that’s sometimes the easiest way to deal with it. (Associate professor in geosciences)
Some women who experienced harassment also blamed themselves. As one respondent (an assistant professor of biology) described, “I guess I thought it could have been my fault. I don’t know. I mean, I was there when maybe I shouldn’t have been, and I didn’t do enough to prevent it.” Each of these internal responses prevented women from pursuing any remedy or support.
Deterrents to Reporting. Respondents from a range of institutions described a lack of clarity or a lack of training regarding their department-, school-, or university-level reporting options. In the words of one woman (a nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences), “I am a straight-A student and valedictorian, and I of course never received training. I had no idea how to report it or what to do.” Yet some women noted that this lack of clear information on reporting processes was a surmountable barrier; they were confident that if they had been persistent, they could have located the information. One respondent (an associate professor in geosciences) explained, “I don’t know exactly what the formal process is, but I could have very easily found out; I just chose not to.”
As this respondent and many others went on to explain, the expectation of retaliation or punishment was a formidable deterrent to any form of reporting, whether at the university level or to supervisors, chairs, or deans. With striking consistency across fields and career stages, respondents said they expected that they would be punished in some way if they reported their harassment experiences in any way. As one respondent (a nontenure-track faculty member in chemistry) explained, “I think it is underreported because you are afraid. You are afraid that whoever is going to sign off on your PhD, isn’t going to sign off. Or if
you are doing a postdoc, you are not going to get that letter of recommendation. Authorship will be changed. And it keeps continuing as you go on as a faculty member.” Such expectations were typically grounded in observation and personal experience. Explaining why she chose not to report a recent sexual harassment incident, a faculty member described the retaliation she had faced when reporting a prior one:
I was dropped as a courtesy appointment for another department, simply because I went to talk to the dean and did not ever make a formal accusation. The chair for the other department tried to hinder my critical review and later my tenure. (Associate professor of engineering)
Another respondent (an assistant professor in geosciences) summed it up tersely: “I’ve seen what happens to people when they report, and it’s not good.”
Concerns about direct retaliation were accompanied by concerns about subtler forms of consequence. They felt that being labeled as victims, complainers, or overly sensitive would reinforce the feminized or “outsider” status against which many had already spent their careers battling.
To [report] makes me a difficult person, kind of an outsider. (Assistant professor of medicine)
I felt I would be labeled as a troublemaker. (Assistant professor of medicine)
I was afraid of losing credibility and losing whatever departmental support I had. Having a reputation for being someone who doesn’t put her head down and get work done, [with] my whole career sort of being in the balance. (Professor of biology)
You’re looking for a job or collaborations or funding, and who wants to work with the person who is always making a big deal out of this stuff? For me, it was always just easier and quicker to just get myself out of the situation, just to diminish the seriousness of it. (Assistant professor of engineering)
These expectations of being directly or indirectly punished for reporting through departmental or university channels were pervasive and strongly held. The sense of vulnerability to retaliation prompted many targets of sexual harassment to make a careful assessment regarding the identifiability of sexual harassment complaints.
I looked to see if there was some type of ombudsman on campus or some type of confidential safe space to discuss this, and at my new university, it was difficult to find anything readily online. I eventually tracked down a group that was not an appointed office of ombudsperson, but actually a committee of faculty that people appointed to [a] 4-year term. And when I read how that was constructed, to me, it just set off all sorts of alarms. I was like, this does not sound safe to me at all. These are people who could actually fill out my tenure decision. This will not truly be anonymous. This is not their job to keep this anonymous. It’s
just another service thing that they may or may not truly understand what their obligations are. So that was immediately unsafe in my mind. (Assistant professor of biology)
This lack of an anonymous or otherwise protected channel in which to raise sexual harassment complaints, whether about a colleague or a superior, had a chilling effect on all forms of disclosure.
Reporting through formal or semiformal channels was further discouraged by the observation that these forms of recourse were of limited benefit to victims. Targets of sexual harassment described weighing the perceived risks and benefits of reporting their experiences, and determining that the risk of retaliation or punishment was not merited by what they saw as limited prospects for a protective, helpful response or fair consequences for a perpetrator. Many made statements like these:
I feel like any institutional attempts to fix this, or to contact him and say, “Please stop behaving like this” would have been traced back to me, or would have hurt my career more than it would have hurt his. I mean, he’s got a big lab, he brings in lots of grants, you know. It was going to make me look bad and not him…I just felt like there was not going to be any benefit for me in reporting this and making a scene about it. I felt like it would only damage my career. It wouldn’t do anything to his. (Assistant professor of biology)
Although these perceptions were common across forms of reporting, respondents had especially low expectations for the outcomes of formal, university-level reporting. Respondents set their expectations of university-level reporting on their past reporting experiences, observation of colleagues’ reporting experiences, or knowledge that a known harassment perpetrator already had been reported.
I didn’t hear anything back [regarding a past complaint]. I wrote again. I didn’t hear anything back. I called. They still haven’t done anything. So the message that I took, which may or may not be correct, is that it’s just not that important. (Professor of engineering)
I really strongly encouraged [a postdoctoral colleague] to make a formal complaint, so she did, and there was a full investigation . . . it seemed quite serious and there was a lot of evidence, and there were multiple witnesses . . . but then the report wound up completely exonerating the guy and whitewashing what happened . . . It’s really changed how I feel about these things . . . I just really recommend that [victims] avoid any kind of formal going through the system, because I just really think it’s about the institution, and to protect the institution. (Professor of physics)
I saw that not much came out of that process, that I didn’t really have much confidence that me saying anything would lead to change. Also, given that I was dealing with this from a junior status, I worried about my own career prospects
. . . this person knew who reported them before. (Nontenure-track faculty member in psychology)
Many other interviewees echoed the perception that university-level reporting mechanisms focused heavily on protecting the institution, rather than supporting the target of harassment. In the words of one respondent (an associate professor of engineering), who was asked about her awareness of reporting options: “I know that you get referred to HR, and HR is on the side of the institution. They try to protect themselves.” Another respondent (a nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences) commented, “The function of that office is to protect the university from bad publicity. So, I would never bother to go tell them anything.”
Other barriers to university-level reporting included suppression by departmental leadership, a lack of clarity or training regarding the available process, and the burden university reporting processes placed on victims. Women who brought their experiences first to their department chairs, deans, or other immediate supervisors were often discouraged from further pursuing a complaint.
I did meet [the chair] and the associate dean and talked to them at length about what’s happening. I did bring it up, but the way they reacted to it, I didn’t have the heart to go and talk to the vice president or meet anyone senior to them about it. (Assistant professor of engineering)
The expected burden and lack of victim-centeredness of formal reporting processes were also seen by many as a serious hurdle.
We don’t focus on the victim. Everything is [about] what is going to happen to the person who was accused. . . . That’s another major reason why people don’t want to report, because it is a long, tedious, exhausting process. (Assistant professor of engineering)
This lack of perceived victim-centeredness also meant that victims who were considering reporting were deterred by a perceived mismatch between what they would have considered appropriate consequences for the perpetrator and what the university might mete out. One explained:
I think a lot of times that the consequence of [a formal report] is something in someone’s record that’s negative and is perceived incredibly negatively, and the whole intent of the situation gets lost in the administrative punishment or administrative correction. . . . I just think that a lot of times, the process for correction is more harmful than if there was an actual face-to-face conversation and something that was less punitive or permanent. (Assistant professor of medicine)
Last, some women noted that there was no formal reporting channel at all for certain roles or situations, such as when the victim or perpetrator was a postdoctoral student, or when the victim and perpetrator were at different institutions.
Barriers to Accessing Other Professional Support. Women who faced sexual harassment also experienced difficulty in accessing other forms of professional support. Several felt that therapy or counseling might have been helpful in coping with their victimization experiences, but could not envision making room for that healing process. Doing so would have been incompatible with these scholars’ demanding work lives, their focus on productivity, and their self-images as strong and resilient.
I believe in counseling and everything, but it’s also when your environment is that much of a pressure cooker. . . . I knew that I couldn’t bear to hear how bad this was. I had to keep going. There was no choice. Kind of like getting therapy in the middle of a war zone, like I can’t be feeling these feelings right now. If I actually feel what’s going on here, I will not be able to function. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
Others noted, with regard to considering professional help, that they simply did not want to devote more time or energy to the situation. One woman (a professor of engineering) explained, “Sometimes you’re in a situation and you just want to move on rather than deal with it.” Another respondent (a professor of biology) explained, “I was trying to get everything done. I had a lot on my mind, a lot on my plate. I didn’t want to put energy into . . . stirring up a hornet’s nest.” Respondents had also sometimes considered seeking help from their scientific societies or professional organizations, but were either unaware of any formal recourse within their organizations or did not yet trust newer processes that had been established.
3.14 Barriers to Broader Prevention and Response
Respondents also identified constraints on broader prevention and response (beyond individual incidents or victims). They highlighted a general lack of awareness regarding sexual harassment among colleagues and leadership, individual resistance to change among those perpetrating or condoning harassment, poor enforcement of existing policies, and the slowness of cultural change as key barriers.
Lack of Awareness. Among the strongest themes in these data was women’s observation that their male colleagues were unaware of the pervasiveness and severity of sexual harassment experiences in their workplaces. Women described how their colleagues’ gender protected them from experiencing sexual harassment themselves, which made it appear to them as though such harassment did not exist.
It became really clear to me that, especially talking to male colleagues, they don’t see these things happening, they don’t hear these things happening, and then they hear about oh, we have to go through sexual harassment training again,
[but sexual harassment] doesn’t really happen. They’re blind to the experiences. (Assistant professor of engineering)
In many of the science, engineering, and medical departments from which study respondents hailed, positions of authority were dominated by men unable to relate to the need to address harassment:
The leadership, and certainly the senior leadership, is majority male and has never been affected. . . . If you’ve never been discriminated against, you don’t understand discrimination. It takes a lot more work to appreciate that something is happening to other people. (Assistant professor of medicine)
The combination of men’s overrepresentation in leadership positions and their lack of awareness of sexual harassment had a powerful stymieing effect on prevention or response at many institutions.
Individual Resistance to Change. Respondents were often less than optimistic about the prospect of changing the behavior of sexual harassment perpetrators. Several noted that harassers created “a culture of fear,” and likened intransigent sexual harassment perpetration to bullying:
People who engage in this behavior [are] bullies, and I think their bullying behavior intimidates the good people. So, you get somebody who engages in this behavior and they get themselves into a position of power, like a department chair or even up in the dean’s office or something. I honestly do not know how they intimidate other men into accepting this behavior, but they do. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
Others had more benign explanations. One respondent (an assistant professor of biology), observed simply, “People think it doesn’t apply to them.” This sentiment was echoed by many other respondents. Women often rooted their skepticism in direct experience. As one respondent (a nontenure-track faculty member in engineering) summarized: “Rarely, in my case, have I had much success changing these people’s minds, or changing the way they look at the world, or anything.” Others saw the entrenchment of an individual’s harassing behavior as a generational issue. One interviewee (an assistant professor of mathematics) described being at a sexual harassment training with a harasser who “was making snide remarks about the training . . . he doesn’t respect the process in any way, he doesn’t respect their office, he doesn’t respect these administrators, because in his opinion, the explosion of administration of higher ed is a horrible thing.” About another harasser, a respondent (who was a nontenure-track faculty member in biology) explained: “He’s from a generation of male scientists where they—you know, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Interviewees observed
individual resistance to change not only among perpetrators of sexual harassment, but among (male) colleagues who created a tolerant environment for it.
My postdoc advisor liked to talk about how much he had done for women, how he had hired all these women to work in his lab, or how he had been on hiring committees that had hired women faculty. And, in fact, he said this often enough that once I turned to him and I said, “Do you want a cookie for that?” Because I don’t think he realized the fact that he had been on hiring committees that had hired women, that’s not a great thing . . . like, you don’t get a prize for hiring a girl. That’s not an unusual thing to do. So, I think he didn’t think he was sexist in any way and he was one of the most sexist people I’ve met, because he had these ideas about women and they were sexist and they were very limiting. (Assistant professor of biology)
To these interviewees, male colleagues’ difficulty understanding that they were part of the problem was, itself, a tremendous part of the problem.
Poor Enforcement of Existing Policies. Many interviewees also felt that the underapplication of anti-harassment policies at the department or university levels built a culture of permissiveness in which harassing behavior flourished.
There are laws which punish the people who do these kinds of things, and if those laws are not implemented, then these things will keep on happening . . . that was exactly what was happening in our department. The previous [faculty member] actually, he had done something to a female faculty all year. There was no action taken against him, so this guy [referring to her harasser] followed suit. (Assistant professor of engineering)
Lack of enforcement, they felt, sent a message to victims and perpetrators alike that sexual harassment was normal and tolerated.
Slowness of Cultural Change. In considering what stood in the way of effective sexual harassment prevention and response efforts, interviewees almost always noted that these efforts went against the cultural grain in their departments, institutions, and beyond.
To change it going forward would’ve been, like I said, a whole cultural change within the department, within the institution. I mean, my chair was not particularly blameless in the sexual harassment field, and neither was the dean. (Professor of biology)
Although many were adamant that such broad, cultural changes were critical, they were cautious about expecting too much. One respondent (an assistant professor of biology) explained, “I think it’s a cultural change that’s going to take a lot of time.”
3.15 Promising Prevention Approaches: Universities
Respondents overwhelmingly felt that universities needed to take a stronger, more proactive approach to sexual harassment prevention. Many saw sexual harassment prevention as being inseparable from effective sexual harassment responses.
Really having zero tolerance. Actual real repercussions. I think what worked with my colleague was that there was a real repercussion for him, and universities tolerate a lot. The people who are perpetual predators tend to be folks who feel like they’re protected by the system. They are big names, they bring in big grants. Everyone knows that they’re inappropriate and people laugh it off and they push it to the side. But if you just say, regardless of who it is that is perpetrating, if you do this, the repercussions are real, you are no longer allowed to have graduate students. Your office will be removed from the main part of this building and you’ll be over in Timbuktu. You will have to go to certain trainings. You will not be allowed to have unsupervised meetings with junior faculty. Real consequences. That is not tidy and not something that can be done behind closed doors. People see the actions being taken. That is painful and hard. We need to do it. (Assistant professor of biology)
Role of Senior Faculty and Department Leadership. Respondents, regardless of tenure in academic settings, noted the critical need for those in leadership positions, such as more senior faculty, department chairs, and deans, to actively work to change norms and behaviors that are conducive to sexual harassment within the academic setting. Given the hierarchical nature of these settings, those at the top set the climate for what is deemed acceptable and unacceptable behavior and a norm of responsibility across all faculty and staff to address unacceptable behavior.
Respondents also stressed the importance of leadership’s actions in modeling the desired behavior through their own interactions with faculty, staff, and students, from their interpersonal behavior to responses when sexual harassment issues arise among others. Those in academic leadership roles often serve as a gateway to steps that will be taken when harassment occurs. Their reactions and responses and the follow-through on reported incidents, will indicate to those in academic settings whether this behavior will be addressed or not, and how sincere assurances of will prove to be.
I think what senior faculty can do is make sure they talk to junior people and make sure that junior people feel safe. I think the responsibility of senior faculty [is] to make sure that the institutional environment is safe, and that was the problem with the other institution, it did not feel safe. (Professor of biology)
The other thing is that we need to remove the leverage points that make this equation for whether or not you speak out or you just tolerate it . . . create ways out that doesn’t cost them their career, their project. Tenure. If they need to have the option to stop their tenure clock, because of this, then let them. If you as a university can’t figure out right away what to do with this person, stop their tenure clock while you’re creating the process that’s gonna keep them safe and allow them to do their work. (Assistant professor of biology)
Data-Driven Responses. Respondents recognized the importance and need for data that illustrates the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination within academia. Climate surveys and other data can yield information on prevalence and the types of support that may be needed and most effective for those affected by sexual harassment. Respondents saw this type of data as a way to shut down those who deny the need to address this issue and make structural changes.
What ended up happening is my Senior Associate Dean . . . she went up against the old guard and she said, “This is what the data is showing.” And because we had black-and-white data, she was able to actually fight and it went from the college to the Provost to the President, and now what was created is a reporting structure. (Nontenure-track faculty member in medicine)
Improving Policies/Procedures and Enforcement. Respondents indicated that the existence of clear policies and procedures for addressing sexual harassment are essential, and stressed the importance of all faculty and staff having a clear understanding of this information. Often, however, respondents were not aware of or did not fully understand the resources that were available to them at the time of their incidents—this was particularly of note with postdoctoral staff. Further, some who took actions to address sexual harassment were faced with dismissive attitudes or no actionable steps from their department leadership.
What often happens in academia is there are rules and stuff, but everyone is “yeah, but no one does that.” This is how it really works. Or people expect you to behave in a certain way following unwritten rules that are not necessarily obvious to everybody, but they’re also different for different types of people, men and women. And so I feel there needs to be more enforcement of being ethical and following standards that have been set. (Professor in geosciences)
Some respondents indicated that existing policies and procedures did not always have the flexibility that facilitated reporting, for both the target and perpetrator of sexual harassment. For example, respondents noted the need for more victim-centered reporting alternatives, which might allow for anonymous reporting or systems that can track patterns of behavior of a perpetrator. Although respondents often wanted perpetrators to change their behavior and experience some form of consequences, they also noted a desire for more of a range of
options for addressing the harassing behavior, such as standardized subjudicial punishments (e.g., pay cuts). Many noted that making options for reporting harassment more anonymous might overcome the deterrent effect of such complaints being traceable.
I think that if there was a way of anonymous reporting, and maybe HR or the chair wouldn’t necessarily act on the first report. If it accumulates as a pattern across many female faculty, you know, even if it’s anonymous I feel like something needs to be done. (Associate professor of psychology)
Improving Training Delivery and Uptake. Many respondents viewed the implementation of faculty and staff trainings as an important prevention mechanism. However, they reported that existing trainings often perpetuated a limited definition of sexual harassment that only involves sexual contact and did not provide the necessary focus on the continuum of behaviors that can be perpetrated. Respondents stressed the importance of improved trainings that reflect this range of behaviors, some of which may have become normalized within academic settings, and the ways in which these influence the overall climate in the department and university. Respondents also stressed the need for all roles in the academic setting to have access to the trainings.
I think some kind of training, and I think chairs and directors are key at a university to get them. And I think the chair of [my department] is a wonderful person. He has never done anything at all to suggest that I am less important because I am a female, or treated me any differently. But I also don’t think he gets the fact that the women in his department are treated different than the men are by other faculty members. (Associate professor in geosciences)
Screening New Hires. Several respondents relayed experiences of faculty being hired who had a known history of sexual harassment and gender-discriminatory behavior.
But they hired a lot of what I’m calling the old guard . . . who we know because of public record that they were dismissed from said universities, Ivy League universities because of sexual harassment—and we have hired them. . . . (Non-tenure-track faculty member in medicine)
This was often in the context of hires of faculty who were well known for their professional accomplishments. The strategy of more purposeful vetting was recommended as a means of preventing hiring of faculty who may pose a risk to others.
3.16 Promising Prevention Approaches: Peers and Bystanders
Call Out Poor Behavior of Peers. Respondents indicated that their peers and other bystanders can play a strong role in preventing sexual harassment and
gender discrimination by acknowledging the inappropriate behavior and indicating disapproval of it. Because this type of behavior can be dismissed or ignored, simply pointing it out can be empowering and lend support to the target.
I think they [bystanders] could have a very important role. In fact, I think it’s essential that everybody call out these behaviors. Particularly senior faculty, but it has to be in the context of a supportive environment. (Professor of biology)
Safeguard Those Who Report. Several respondents also noted that putting safeguards in place to protect those reporting sexual harassment from harm could not only facilitate intervention efforts for those who experience sexual harassment, but also deter potential perpetrators and empower others to be strong advocates against this type of behavior. Although safeguards for preventing emotional and physical harm were deemed important, respondents also stressed the importance of preventing professional repercussions for targets of sexual harassment. Given that perpetrators often played powerful roles (including influencers of tenure decisions, leads for scientific collaboration, and officers in national organizations), any measures that could help to protect targets of sexual harassment from the career impacts of disclosure might free them to pursue all available forms of recourse.
3.17 Promising Prevention Approaches: Professional Societies and National Organizations
Ramifications for Sexual Harassment Infractions. Respondents viewed professional societies and national organizations as important untapped resources for sexual harassment prevention efforts. Several noted that these organizations are in a position to tie this issue into the accreditation process, such as requiring information on departmental climate survey data or availability and implementation of sexual harassment and gender discrimination–focused trainings. Respondents also thought that membership and leadership roles within organizations should be limited for those who perpetrated this type of behavior, to show a no-tolerance stance for members and the organization as a whole.
I really do like the idea if I have a group of students in my lab and I am treating them inappropriately, that hey, my research doesn’t get published and I don’t get grants. And I think if you did that, people might change their behavior a lot quicker than any other way. And, I think professional societies, and the National Science Foundation, things like that can take an active role on this. (Associate professor in geosciences)
They should not reward people that exhibit these kinds of harassment behavior or even discriminatory behavior. Who make stupid comments like that and that intrinsic disrespect for women. They should never ever put those kinds of people on committees and have them run for office. (Professor in geosciences)
Information Dissemination on the Issue. National organizations and professional societies are also in a position to widely disseminate information to a large swath of academicians and even drive the development of information and resources to magnify the significance and impact of sexual harassment. Respondents noted strategies such as commissioned white papers and providing seminars and other resources through these organizations.
I think they can model good behavior. . . . They can run articles in their newsletters and in their journals with data on underrepresentation. And data on strategies to improve representation. I think they can do a lot. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
Safe Space for Women to Share and Support. Respondents described their own use of professional meetings as a venue to share and find support from other women faculty in science, technology, and medical fields. They noted the importance of these meetings being a safe space for seeking out that type of support, and the role that societies and national organizations could play in actively creating these opportunities for women in science, technology, and medical fields. These organizations also may be able to address challenges that several respondents noted in having a safe space and mechanism for interacting with male mentors and colleagues, with emphasis on establishing norms around expected behavior in these mentoring relationships.
There aren’t a lot of women my age in my field, but talking to some of them, occasionally, is very helpful. . . . And I meet these people because I go to conferences of professional organizations. . . . (Professor in geosciences)
3.18 What Is the Single Most Important Strategy for Prevention?
Shifts in Cultural Norms. Respondents widely noted the most important sexual harassment prevention strategy would be a broad shift in both the norms and the general climate of academic settings, both of which perpetuate gender discrimination and fuel the perpetration and acceptance of sexual harassment.
Global cultural change. . . . I think the harassment you can address, but the underlying gender discrimination that supports it, that allows it to happen, needs to change. (Professor of biology)
Transform the “Old Guard.” A key issue respondents noted regarding norms that are accepting of sexual harassment is faculty who have long tenures within departments and hold traditional, discriminatory beliefs that respondents experience through their attitudes and behaviors. Respondents described how the power these longstanding faculty hold within the academic context frustrates newer or even established faculty and staff who address the sexual harassment and gender-discriminatory beliefs and behaviors that are so ingrained in that context. Some respondents suggested that the most important strategy for preventing sexual
harassment would be for these individuals to die out or be replaced with more diverse leadership that would have high-level influence to change the culture.
I think there’s gonna have to be a generational change in leadership at various institutions. I’m not sure that the deep-seated behaviors, longstanding behaviors in certain individuals will ever be punished away. I think those people just have to move on and the new generation have to take over. (Professor of biology)
Revamp Training Focus and Timing and Access to Resources. Respondents also viewed continued focus on training as one of the most important sexual harassment prevention strategies. Respondents commented on the importance of making training and other resources that explain steps in addressing sexual harassment transparent and accessible. The importance of these trainings happening much earlier than college and across the life span was noted, along with a need for age-appropriate information on sexual harassment and gender discrimination that focuses on the continuum of harmful behaviors.
It’s [training] so much focused on actual touching, actual assault rather than harassment that—and even when harassment is included it’s, you know, a tiny piece. . . . Either you really focus on the most serious offense or you focus on the most frequently occurring offense. I think most of the training programs focus on the most serious. (Associate professor of psychology)
For me I never received any training anywhere and was totally unaware of what sexual harassment is, how to avoid it. So training in high school, colleges, to have professors receive mandatory training and practice awareness of teachers’ assistants, anyone in a superior role to students, and even early-career folks to really have this mandatory training and awareness [and to] distribute resources on what to do so if something is experienced. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
Limitations of the Research
Sexual harassment has been a longstanding issue inside and outside of academia, with recent high-profile cases placing a renewed spotlight on the pervasive nature of these issues. This study provides a snapshot into the sexual harassment experiences of women in sciences, engineering, and medicine, particularly in the higher education and medical settings, and the effects on their career trajectory. Some limitations on the findings of this study should be considered:
- This study was limited to interviews with 40 women in sciences, engineering, and medicine fields. This sample allowed us to capture and explore rich qualitative data from respondents’ experiences. We attempted to establish geographic, academic discipline, stage of career, and demographic diversity among this population; however, we recognize that this
limited sample may not be fully representative of the range of sexual harassment experiences of women in these fields.
- Efforts were made to prioritize recruitment of racial and ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ respondents, given the possibility that these populations may experience increased vulnerability to harassment and encounter added challenges with intersecting identities. Although our sample was reasonable in terms of percentage of racial and ethnic representation given the size of the sample (17.5 percent), this representation was limited to Asian and African American respondents. Also, all respondents identified as cisgender, which does not allow for insights into those identifying with other gender identities.
- Although we had good representation from sciences, medicine, and engineering, we could not cover every subdiscipline within these fields. Experiences of women faculty in subfields not represented in this sample may vary.
- This study focused exclusively on women academicians now in sciences, engineering, and medicine who had experienced sexual harassment in the past 5 years. Although many women, particularly those with longer academic careers, brought perspectives from both more recent and earlier sexual harassment experiences, women who only may have had earlier experiences were excluded. This study also did not include women who may have left academia and not returned, possibly because of their sexual harassment experiences. This is an important direction for future work on the effects of sexual harassment on career trajectories.
4.1 Study Purpose and Methods
The Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine commissioned this study to understand the influence of sexual harassment on the career advancement of women faculty in sciences, engineering, and medicine.
To best understand these complex and sensitive experiences and their impacts, the research team conducted semi-structured, qualitative interviews with women faculty in sciences, engineering, and medicine who had experienced one or more events that conformed to the research definition of sexual harassment in the past 5 years. (Women did not have to label their experiences as “sexual harassment” to participate.)
Participants were recruited through professional organization networks and selected for diversity of characteristics, experiences, and contexts. Each participant completed a 1-hour, confidential interview about her understanding of sexual
harassment, history of workplace sexual harassment experiences in the last 5 years, responses to those experiences, any perceived impact of sexual harassment on her work and career path, and ideas for prevention and response. Interview recordings were professionally transcribed, identifiers (such as respondents’ names and locations and the institutions where they worked) were removed, and the research team analyzed the transcript data in a qualitative data analysis software package.
The analytic process generated rich data on each of the study research questions.
- How do women who are targeted for sexual harassment in sciences, engineering, and medicine characterize and understand those experiences?
Most sexual harassment targets recognized what they experienced as sexual harassment. Respondents who were delayed in identifying their experience as sexual harassment often perceived them as normal within contexts that normalized gender bias and in which abusive, grueling conditions were widely tolerated (as in medical residency or other training settings). Often, perpetrators’ sexual harassment behavior patterns were well known within their institutions (with colleagues warning one another away from known perpetrators), but these behaviors were not always explicitly labeled as sexual harassment.
- How do women who are targeted for sexual harassment respond to their experiences in the short term?
Psychological and emotional responses ranged from “uncomfortable” to “devastated.” The most common responses were anger, frustration, fear, stress, and anxiety. Many respondents experienced some form of long-term emotional response, such as self-blame, decreased confidence, or heightened emotional reactivity.
Women’s work habits often changed in the wake of sexual harassment experiences. Some respondents immediately considered quitting their employment or training, and several could not get any work done in the aftermath of the incident. Changes to work habits included no longer meeting with others in closed offices, avoiding being alone with anyone, changing office hours, and changing professional dress to avoid harassment. Women’s other coping responses included minimizing the incident, strategizing about how to respond to similar incidents in the future, and becoming more active in addressing gender inequality.
Women took several distinct approaches to addressing or reporting their experiences. A few confronted their perpetrators directly, communicating that the harassing behavior was unacceptable. Many women reported sexual harassment
incidents to their supervisors instead of or before pursuing formal reporting at the university level. Such reports met with sympathy or dismissiveness, but rarely action; as a result, many complaints stopped there. Still, some women initiated formal, institutional reporting. Those who did said they were motivated to try to mitigate the consequences of perpetrators’ behavior for their own careers, address safety issues, and support a sense of justice and self-respect. Women who did formally report sometimes reported that it damaged relationships with their immediate management. Finally, some women perceived that they had no viable option for reporting.
In addition to (or instead of) reporting to supervisors or university officials, many women talked with family and friends or female colleagues about their sexual harassment experiences. A few, however, told no one at all. Some women sought some form of professional support, such as legal advice or counseling. Those who did often found that outside professionals’ validation and helpfulness contrasted starkly with the responses they received inside their departments or programs. A few women sought support from scientific societies, accreditation bodies, police, or healing providers.
- How do women who are targeted for sexual harassment understand their experiences to have shaped their career trajectories?
Women’s collaborative or mentoring relationships often suffered in the wake of sexual harassment experiences. Over the longer term, it was common for women to become less trusting and more cautious in developing professional relationships and dealing with potential academic collaborators. Some women came to avoid male mentors. Some altered their interpersonal interactions with colleagues in other permanent or long-term ways, such as avoiding social events, avoiding personal topics, being more vocal in calling out inappropriate comments, or being more direct. These changes were often seen to harm their professional relationships.
Few respondents shifted the overall focus of their scholarly work, however. A few switched fields or avoided certain research areas of interest to avoid their perpetrators. Many respondents reported putting increased energy into professional leadership and advocacy around gender inequality or diversity issues because of their experiences. Most experienced such involvement as very gratifying, but noted that it took significant energy away from their scholarly work.
Women who had chosen to formally report or otherwise speak out about their experiences often recounted negative, long-term impacts on their careers. Several respondents made negative career transitions that they attributed to their sexual harassment experiences, such as stepping down from an assistant dean position, taking a position at a lower-ranked university, being fired as a retaliatory action, or dropping out of a major research project. Others stayed in their positions, but suffered from lack of advancement, such as not receiving tenure or not becoming
a full professor. A few passed up job opportunities to avoid their perpetrators or to avoid situations that they feared could expose them to future sexual harassment.
- What barriers or challenges do respondents believe prevent sexual harassment in sciences, engineering, and medicine from being addressed?
Women faculty described formidable barriers to formal reporting, including lack of acceptable or clear reporting options and the inaction of immediate supervisors. Department-level supervisors who received initial reports of sexual harassment often discouraged women from reporting through university-level mechanisms (either explicitly, or through their inaction or minimization of the experience).
The most common and significant barrier was the widespread perception that reporting sexual harassment (whether through university-level processes or within departments) would likely be more harmful to the woman reporting it than it would be productive or protective. Respondents based this perception on the observed outcomes of their own past reporting experiences or those of their colleagues. They noted that any form of sexual harassment complaint or action could weaken (or feminize) them in the eyes of their colleagues, provoke retaliation, and/or harm their chances of achieving tenure or other career objectives.
Respondents also observed cultural and institutional barriers that they believed shaped individual and institutional responses to sexual harassment. They cited a national political environment that was seen as condoning sexual harassment; cultures of persistent denial in university communities; women’s resignation regarding their older, male colleagues’ ability to change; and the difficulty of differentiating sexual harassment events within workplace cultures that normalized misogyny.
At an institutional level, perceived barriers to effective sexual harassment response included the under-representation of women in many sciences, engineering, and medical specialties, especially in leadership positions; a lack of clear, ethical guidance from institutions on expectations for behavior related to gender issues; and perceived tolerance of sexual harassment from institutions. In some cases, women noted that the departmental or university administrators whose leadership was needed for preventing or addressing sexual harassment were instead perpetrating it.
- What strategies for preventing and responding to sexual harassment in sciences, engineering, and medicine do respondents perceive as promising?
Respondents offered many ideas and strategies for improving sexual harassment prevention and response. They urged greater attention to the ways that senior faculty and department leadership shape university climates regarding sexual harassment, and called for work to change departmental and university norms.
Suggestions included improving the delivery and uptake of faculty and staff training (offering trainings for various career stages that reflect the full continuum of sexual harassment behaviors, including gender-based harassment); implementing stronger sexual harassment policies, and better enforcing existing policies; ensuring appropriate consequences for sexual harassment behavior, such as effects on accreditation, licensing, and society and organizational roles and awards; thoroughly screening job candidates for prior sexual harassment perpetration; calling out the sexual harassment behaviors of colleagues when they occur; and using university climate surveys and other data to assess sexual harassment prevalence and strategies for addressing it.
In addition to overall work to improve university climates regarding sexual harassment, interview participants emphasized that sexual harassment targets needed safer environments within which to report. They suggested offering confidential reporting options, developing role-specific reporting resources (e.g., for postdoctoral fellows), and taking action to safeguard those who report.
Women also called on their professional societies and organizations to play a leading role in ending sexual harassment. Their suggestions included commissioning white papers, providing resources to members, and providing safe spaces for women to share their experiences (such as at national meetings).
Finally, respondents shared the perception that ending sexual harassment represented an enormous challenge. They described a need to transform an “old guard” that perpetuated acceptance of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, an effort that many felt would take time. Respondents emphasized the imperative of concerted and sustained work on multiple fronts to effect broad shifts in cultural norms around sexual harassment, and support women’s full contributions to sciences, engineering, and medicine.
4.3 Implications for Larger Areas of NASEM Inquiry
Despite the limitations of this study, its findings have several implications for understanding the nature of sexual harassment, its impact on SEM faculty career trajectories, and the preventive and intervening efforts that might be taken to address it.
4.3.1 Implications Regarding the Nature of Sexual Harassment
The range of sexual harassment experiences with this limited sample and the small percentage of those who reported their incident speak to the ongoing need for research efforts that assess the prevalence, nature, and consequences of incidents. These interviews support prior findings that sexual harassment, as with other related violations, remains a silent issue for many. Data and broad dissemination of findings from it serve as vital potential mechanisms for supporting prevention efforts, as evidenced in one respondent’s (a nontenure-track
faculty member in geosciences) comment: “It seems that superior[s], at least in my experience, are mostly male and mostly laugh off this sort of topic and don’t take it seriously, so perhaps journal publications or these studies that could be put in front of senior leadership might help to have them take the topic seriously.”
Respondents described how sexual harassment experiences are often compounded and fueled by a broader context of gender discrimination, particularly among male-dominated leadership structures. Their experiences support ongoing needs for strategies and policies addressing campus climate and diversity of leadership. Many noted that the single most important step in addressing sexual harassment and broader gender discrimination would be a change in the composition of leadership within departments and at higher academic administration levels. This includes gender, sexual orientation, and racial or ethnic diversification to help challenge the status quo regarding these issues.
I think what senior faculty can do is make sure they talk to junior people and make sure that junior people feel safe. I think the responsibility of senior faculty is to make sure that the institutional environment is safe, and that was the problem with the other institution, it did not feel safe. (Professor of biology)
Respondents experienced both psychological and physical impacts from sexual harassment, and these repercussions had tremendous impact on their work productivity. Consideration is needed to develop and publicize additional strategies and resources to address aftereffects of sexual harassment that can be accessed confidentially at all career levels.
In terms of career trajectory, the cumulative effects of recovering from traumatic incidents, reliving their experiences every time they hear about it happening to someone else, and continued discrimination made many women less productive in their careers. This included effects on grant and research activities, teaching performance, and quality of relationships with their colleagues. Protective mechanisms that respondents pursued (including avoiding other men as peers, collaborators, or mentors for fear of further sexual harassment exposure) often limited their opportunities for scientific collaboration and social engagement. Such deprivation can profoundly hinder professional development and overall career trajectory.
4.3.2 Implications for Sexual Harassment–Related Training
Respondents noted clear needs for trainings that account for all behaviors considered sexual harassment, specifying that this should include the full range of forms of sexual harassment and not just the more extreme forms. Training was seen as critically important across all roles (ranging from postdocs to tenured faculty and administrators), because many do not recognize certain behaviors as sexual harassment because of setting-specific norms or lack of awareness. Trainings and supporting resources should be tailored to varying contexts and roles
within university settings. These resources should also be widely publicized, accessible, and mandated.
Respondents were clear, however, that true awareness and prevention must start early. As one respondent noted:
I would encourage high schools to have educational materials, seminars, or classes, something that is required to educate folks, even these straight-A student kind of groups, these nerdy folks—sorry for that—on sexual harassment. For me I never received any training anywhere and was totally unaware of what sexual harassment is, how to avoid it. So training in high school, colleges, to have professors receive mandatory training and practice awareness of teachers’ assistants, anyone in a superior role to students, and even early-career folks. (Nontenure-track faculty member in geosciences)
4.3.3 Implications for Institutional Policy
The barriers for women reporting sexual harassment reveal perceived and actual threats to career trajectory, and the need not only for clearly defined and enforced policies, but also steps to safeguard those reporting from repercussions within and outside of the academic setting.
There was a formal one [reporting process]. I didn’t feel safe using it, and subsequently, I would say that other instances at that institution confirmed my mistrust . . . I was afraid of losing credibility and losing whatever departmental support I had. Having a reputation for being someone who doesn’t put her head down and get work done, and my whole career sort of being in the balance. (Professor of biology)
Several respondents, however, were unaware of any existing policies or steps that could have been taken to address their sexual harassment experiences, especially among postdoc and newer faculty. University and departmental leadership should prioritize ensuring that all staff understand existing policies and available resources.
For many, the reporting process is complicated. Some respondents did not report because they were afraid that the perpetrator would experience severe consequences. Consideration may need to be given to intermediate consequences as an option for some situations.
4.3.4 National and Societal Implications
Women who had experienced sexual harassment noted the immense scientific losses to their fields that they felt resulted from the energies of so many scholars, physicians, and engineers being diverted into coping with the impact of sexual harassment. As one respondent (a nontenure-track faculty member in engineer-
ing) commented about her field, sexual harassment “is stunting everything about the discipline—creativity-wise, progress-wise, technology.” Another explained:
Even the women who are staying in the field, I feel like aren’t able to do science to the best of their ability, because they have this processor that isn’t being used, ‘cause it’s doing other stuff, it’s busy. (Assistant professor in geosciences)
Given their crucial role in accreditation, licensure, and research dissemination, societies and national organizations have the potential to greatly reduce sexual harassment. These organizations may serve as conduits for information dissemination and establish firm stances and policies regarding sexual harassment—which could in turn facilitate shifts in norms around the acceptance of this behavior.
As respondents to this study impressed on their interviewers over and over again, better sexual harassment prevention and responses are urgently needed in science, engineering, and medical fields. Without such efforts, they argued, investments in bringing more women into these fields would be wasted:
We have all these K–12 STEM efforts. Let’s get the girls excited about science. And at this point, a lot of us feel like, why? Why would you do that to them? They’re gonna go to school and they’re gonna fall in love with science and then they’re gonna be 30 and they’re gonna be fending off advances from some 55-year-old man and questioning every decision that they made in their lives. Why would you encourage them to do that? So, I focus most of my efforts now on women who are already in the field. I would love to spend lots of time with kids and get them excited about science, but I’m not that excited about science anymore. (Assistant professor in geosciences)
For many women who experienced sexual harassment themselves, trying to protect others from it or working to end sexual harassment in their fields more broadly had become a mission as close to their hearts as their own scientific contributions:
This is my way of coping with it: trying to not let it happen to others. (Associate professor of chemistry)