The United States has a strong, vibrant, and internationally respected enterprise in science, engineering, and medicine. These fields offer rewarding and challenging careers that women are entering at higher rates than ever before. Fortunately, over the past few decades, new initiatives in our nation’s colleges and universities have succeeded in improving the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine. These efforts show signs of improving gender diversity as students in the life sciences and in medical schools are reaching gender parity,1 and as engineering programs at some campuses are experiencing significant growth in women’s enrollment2 (Cosentino and Banerjee 2017).
But these gains are at risk. As women increasingly enter these fields, they face biases and barriers that impede their participation and career advancement in science, engineering, and medicine. As in other historically male-dominated fields, whether in academia or not, sexual harassment is one of the most pervasive of these barriers.
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that includes gender harass-
1 In 2014 the percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics was around 20 percent, and at about the same level or just below for doctorate degrees in these fields. In mathematics and statistics, the gender balance is slightly better at around 40–42 percent for bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but only 24 percent for doctoral degrees. In the biological sciences, women have been earning bachelor’s degrees at or above the 50 percent level since 1995, and since 1997 for doctoral degrees (NSF 2017).
2 See https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/women-break-barriers-in-engineering-and-computer-science-at-some-top-colleges/2016/09/16/538027a4-7503-11e6-be4f-3f42f2e5a49e_story.html?utm_term=.6922f69239e7 and http://news.mit.edu/2017/closing-the-gender-gap-in-mit-mechanical-engineering-0731.
ment (verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility to, objectification of, exclusion of, or second-class status about members of one gender), unwanted sexual attention (verbally or physically unwelcome sexual advances, which can include assault), and sexual coercion (when favorable professional or educational treatment is conditioned on sexual activity). Over the past 30 years, the incidence of sexual harassment in different industries has held steady, yet now more women are in the workforce and in academia, and in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine (as students and faculty), and so more women are experiencing sexual harassment as they work and learn.
The reports of sexual harassment that have dominated news headlines have illustrated just how pervasive this discriminatory behavior is in our society. Women who have remained silent for years are now coming forward and sharing their experiences with sexual harassment that include lewd or denigrating comments, hostile or demeaning jokes, professional sabotage, repeated unwelcome sexual advances, groping, demands for sexual favors, and other offensive and discriminatory actions or language. Academia has not been immune from these headlines and public revelations, as evidenced by the weekly reports in the higher education trade media and by the #MeToo tag being used by many college and university faculty and students to share their experiences on social media. Some of the most high-profile cases of sexual harassment in academia have been within the fields of science, engineering, and medicine.3 In 2017 alone, there were more than 97 allegations of sexual harassment at institutions of higher education covered in the media,4 and there are likely many more allegations that are working their way through confidential formal reporting processes.
Research in this report shows that the academic environments in science, engineering, and medicine exhibit characteristics that create high levels of risk for sexual harassment to occur. Higher education, currently and historically, has been a male-dominated environment, with men in most positions of power and authority. Higher education is perceived, and in many cases accurately perceived, to tolerate sexually harassing behavior. Moreover, the structure of higher education is hierarchical and has very dependent relationships between faculty and trainees (e.g., students, postdoctoral fellows, residents). Finally, and especially in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine, academia often involves work or training in isolating environments.
Research has consistently shown that institutions that are male dominated—with men in positions that can directly influence career options of women who
3 See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astronomers-struggle-to-translate-anger-into-action-on-sexual-harassment/; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/us/yale-medical-school-sexual-harassment.html; http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/01/caltech-suspends-professor-harassment-0; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/us/chicago-professor-resigns-amid-sexual-misconduct-investigation.html; and http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/02/sexual-misconduct-case-has-rocked-anthropology.
are subordinate to them—have high rates of sexual harassment (USMSPB 1995; Fitzgerald et al. 1997; Berdahl 2007b; Willness, Steel, and Lee 2007; Schneider, Pryor, and Fitzgerald 2011). The gender inequity and resulting power differential between men and women on college and university campuses has existed for years, and while some fields and institutions have been making progress in closing this gap, it persists. Not only are there fewer women than men in most science, engineering, and medical fields (at the undergraduate student, graduate study, postdoctoral trainee, and faculty levels), but men also hold more positions of power in academia.5 That is, most department chairs and deans are men. Most principal investigators are men. Most provosts and presidents are men (ACE 2017). This is not to suggest that all or even most men are perpetrators of sexual harassment, but that this situation of majority male leadership can, and has, resulted in minimization, limited response, and failure to take the issue of sexual harassment or specific incidents seriously. Thus, this underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and medicine and in positions of leadership in these fields creates a high-risk environment for sexual harassment that can have negative impacts on women’s education and careers.
Research also shows that, by far, the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment is the organizational climate in a school, department, or program, or across an institution. Organizational climate for sexual harassment (also referred to as the perceptions of organizational tolerance) is evaluated on three elements: (1) the perceived risk to those who report sexually harassing behavior, (2) a lack of sanctions against offenders, and (3) the perception that one’s report of sexually harassing behavior will not be taken seriously. In environments that are perceived as more tolerant or permissive of sexual harassment, women are more likely to be directly harassed (Fitzgerald et al. 1997; Williams, Fitzgerald, and Drasgow 1999) and to witness harassment of others (Glomb et al. 1997). Correspondingly, an environment that does not support harassing behaviors and/or has strong, clear, transparent consequences for these behaviors can significantly reduce the likelihood that sexual harassment will be perpetrated, even by persons who are more likely to engage in sexually harassing behaviors.
In addition to these risk factors, there are also conditions on campus that are exacerbating the problem, including the following:
- Insufficient attention to this topic among campus leaders—including presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs.
- Lack of clear policies and procedures on campus, and within departments, that make clear that all forms of sexual harassment, including gender harassment, will not be tolerated; that investigations will be taken seriously; and that there are meaningful punishments for violating the policies.
5 In a 2013–2014 survey of undergraduate faculty, 11.1 percent of male faculty were department chairs and 2.4 percent were deans, while 8.4 percent of female faculty were department chairs and 1.9 percent were deans (Eagan et al. 2014).
- Minimal or merely symbolic compliance with the law without regard to whether policies actually prevent harassment and retaliation.
- Insufficient protection for targets of sexual harassment, who often suffer undue consequences when they report sexually harassing behavior.
- Lack of effective training on sexual harassment. While nearly all institutions offer some form of “sexual harassment training,” and often require all students, faculty, and staff to take the training, rarely is the training evaluated and revised to ensure that it has the desired effect of reducing or preventing harassment.
- Measuring the problem of sexual harassment based on how many cases are formally reported to the institution, rather than through regular climate surveys.
- Insufficient attention to a climate that tolerates the gender harassment form of sexual harassment, which increases the chance that other forms of sexual harassment will occur.
Fortunately, there is reason for optimism that these conditions on campuses and in science, engineering, and medicine can be addressed, and that sexual harassment can be reduced and prevented. More and more campuses are adopting policies and strategies that address the issue by focusing on changing the culture and climate in their departments, schools, and programs—and across the institution—thus creating environments where sexual harassment is less likely to occur. Their intentions are to (1) create environments that are diverse, inclusive, and respectful; (2) diffuse the power structure and reduce isolation; (3) support targets of sexual harassment and give them options for addressing the sexual harassment; (4) demonstrate that sexually harassing behavior is unacceptable; and (5) hold accountable those who engage in sexually harassing behavior. For example, as will be cited in this report, many institutions, schools, and departments are taking the following steps:
- Modifying hiring, promotion, and admission processes to value and support diversity, inclusion, and respectful behavior.
- Strengthening and evaluating sexual harassment trainings, and adding bystander intervention training.
- Changing funding and mentoring structures for trainees to reduce the power imbalance between them and faculty.
- Developing policies and procedures that give targets of harassment options to speak with nonmandatory reporters and greater control over how and when they proceed with their harassment case.
- Providing leadership development focused on arming campus administrators with the tools they need to combat and handle sexual harassment.
- Publicizing anti-harassment policies and demonstrating that people are
being held accountable when they are found to have violated the policies and thereby sending clear signals that sexual harassment is not tolerated.
If sexual harassment can be addressed using a systemic change to the culture and climate of institutions of higher education, there is the potential to not only benefit women but also benefit men and other underrepresented groups—and ultimately benefit the enterprise of science, engineering, and medicine. To achieve such a systemic change requires identifying what does and does not work about our current system and thinking creatively and perhaps unconventionally to provide new perspectives on and evidence-based solutions to a decades-old issue.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have long been concerned about the gender gap in science, engineering, and medicine, both among students and in the workforce. The National Academies’ Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (CWSEM) was created in 1991 to study this gap and consider ways to close it. In the course of its work over the past several years, CWSEM became alarmed that proactive efforts to increase women’s participation and leadership in science, engineering, and medical fields might be undermined by sexual harassment in academia. The committee elected to tackle this question head-on by designing a study.
In 2016, with guidance from CWSEM, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine created a special ad hoc study committee of researchers, academic and business leaders, and others with expertise on this topic to investigate the issue and how sexual harassment could be addressed. The Statement of Task for the study committee was as follows:
To undertake a study of the influence of sexual harassment in academia on the career advancement of women in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce. The study will include the following:
- Review of the research on the extent to which women in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine are victimized by sexual harassment on college and university campuses, in research labs and field sites, at hospitals/medical centers, and in other academic environments.
- Examination of existing information on the extent to which sexual harassment in academia negatively impacts the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women pursuing scientific, engineering, technical, and medical careers, with comparative evidence drawn from other sectors, such as the military, government, and the private sector.
- Identification and analysis of policies, strategies, and practices that have been the most successful in preventing and addressing sexual harassment in these settings.
Relying on legal statutes and the scholarship of legal and social science researchers, the study committee based its work on the following definitions:
Sexual harassment (a form of discrimination) is composed of three categories of behavior: (1) gender harassment (verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender), (2) unwanted sexual attention (verbal or physical unwelcome sexual advances, which can include assault), and (3) sexual coercion (when favorable professional or educational treatment is conditioned on sexual activity). Harassing behavior can be either direct (targeted at an individual) or ambient (a general level of sexual harassment in an environment). These definitions and explanations are provided in detail in Chapter 2.
In reviewing the Statement of Task, we determined that research on the most appropriate and fair practices and processes for investigating and adjudicating reports of sexual harassment was beyond our Statement of Task. We acknowledge that this is an important and complex area and one in which institutions have expressed a desire for guidance; however, it was beyond the scope of our work and expertise to examine it in the detail it deserves.
This study examines the experiences of women on campus and off campus as they pursue science, engineering, and medicine—in field sites, in academic medical centers, on ocean research vessels, and on student internship and co-op experiences. We interpreted our charge to include sexual harassment in both an educational setting and an employment one, and thus we consider the experiences of women students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, women postdoctoral candidates and other trainees in higher education, women faculty at all levels, women staff (i.e., staff scientists), and those in academic medical centers, including faculty, interns, residents, and so on.
We identified women of color, LGBTQIA+6 people (hereafter referred to as “sexual- and gender-minority” people), disabled people, and people who have migrated or immigrated to the United States as important populations to consider in greater detail because they are simultaneously disadvantaged by their intersecting subordinated positions of race, ethnicity, and sexuality; physical and mental ability; and immigration status, often facing additional systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. To guide a better understanding of how these positions shape the lived and sexual harassment experiences of women, we employed the concept of intersectionality and throughout the report examine the limited research that is available on the experiences of these women.
6 Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming.
In examining the prevalence, nature, and impact of sexual harassment in science, engineering, and medicine, the study committee investigated the following issues and topics:
- Prevalence rates and characteristics of sexual harassment in workplaces, in academia, and in academic science, engineering, and medicine;
- Influence of organizational structures in academic science, engineering, and medicine;
- Unique environments in academic science, engineering, and medicine that may lend themselves or be more likely to tolerate sexually harassing behavior;
- Immediate impacts and impacts on careers in science, engineering, and medicine; and
- Consideration of sexual harassment experiences through an intersectional framework.
Wherever possible, the report cites the most recent scientific studies of a topic. That said, the empirical research into sexual harassment, using rigorous scientific methods, dates back to the 1980s. This report cites conclusions from the earlier work when those results reveal historical trends or patterns over time. It also cites results from earlier studies when there is no theoretical reason to expect findings to have changed with the passage time. For example, the inverse relationship between sexual harassment and job satisfaction is a robust one: the more an individual is harassed on the job, the less she or he likes that job. That basic finding has not changed over the course of 30 years, and there is no reason to expect that it will.
When examining policies, strategies, and practices for preventing and addressing sexual harassment, committee members reviewed research on training, institutional policies and procedures, and institutions’ legal obligations. We also examined the national structures for handling sexual harassment, including federal research misconduct policies and processes; cross-institution and federal agency systems for reporting, preventing, and responding to sexual harassment; and the role of national and international professional societies and organizations in addressing these issues.
To gather information on these topics, our committee held an initial committee meeting, three public workshops, and a fourth virtual panel discussion during 2017. The initial committee meeting was held virtually on February 10. The first public workshop was held in Washington, D.C., on March 28; the second, in Irvine, California, on June 20; the third, in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 4; and the virtual panel was held on October 25.
We also commissioned several studies to supplement areas where gaps in the research were identified. The most significant work commissioned was a qualitative research study that was developed by RTI International, with guidance from our committee, to understand the influence of sexual harassment on the career advancement of women in sciences, engineering, and medicine, particularly in the higher education and medical settings. The results of this qualitative research illustrate the personal and professional impact sexual harassment has had on these women’s lives.
To understand these complex, sensitive, and subjective experiences and their impacts, we chose to use the method best suited to understanding these issues: a qualitative study consisting of individual, semi-structured interviews. 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 (Creswell 2013). 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 (Sofaer 1999). This research is not designed to provide information on prevalence of sexual harassment or on how common these experiences are; rather, it is designed to illustrate how the job and health outcomes identified by quantitative survey research are actually experienced in the academic science, engineering, and medicine setting.
The qualitative RTI study consisted of 40 individual, semi-structured interviews with women faculty in academic science, engineering, and medicine who have been targets of sexual harassment. To recruit participants, RTI used data from the web form and then examined the responses to purposefully select interviewees from among eligible individuals to ensure representation of women of color and sexual- and gender-minority 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 to the institution 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.
The telephone, semi-structured interviews lasted approximately 1 hour, and the questions asked were specific, which research has shown is the most reliable approach for collecting information on this topic (Bastian, Lancaster, and Reyst 1996). The questions 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 past 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; and
- Ideas of what could be done to better prevent or respond to such incidents.
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 analyzed using 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.
The results from the RTI qualitative study are used throughout the report to illustrate the experiences of women who experience sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine. The full paper describing the study and its results is available as Appendix C in this report.
Using data from ARC3, the Administrator Researcher Campus Climate Collaborative, we commissioned Kevin Swartout, Georgia State University, to compile a report about the incidence of sexual harassment within the University of Texas System and distinguishing the experiences of those in science, engineering, and medicine from those in other disciplines. Additional data provided by the Pennsylvania State University System was included to provide a broader picture. The full analysis by Swartout is available as Appendix D. Finally, to inform the writing of this report, economists Elena Stancanelli and Shoshana Grossbard were commissioned to review the research on the economic costs of sexual harassment and discrimination generally and in academic science, engineering, and medicine.
Chapter 2 reviews sexual harassment research about what constitutes sexual harassment, how common it is, how it commonly occurs, and what characteristics of environments make them more likely to have incidences of sexual harassment. The chapter relies on research from nonacademic workplaces (such as the federal government and the military) as well as academic workplaces. The chapter defines several terms that will be used throughout this report, ensuring that readers have a similar foundation as they go through this document. The chapter also explains various different research methods for examining sexual harassment and discusses ways accurate information can be gathered about an environment.
Chapter 3 focuses on the environment in academic science, engineering, and medicine. It examines how frequent and severe sexual harassment is for women in these fields in academia, and identifies the characteristics of academia and
academic science, engineering, and medicine that make it more likely for sexual harassment to occur.
Chapter 4 describes the consequences associated with experiencing sexual harassment—how it can alter women’s careers, their work, and their mental and physical health. It examines the ways women cope with sexual harassment and why they are unlikely to formally report these experiences. It also examines the consequences sexual harassment can have on the fields of science, engineering, and medicine, in terms of advancing research in these fields, the integrity of research, and the economic consequences.
Chapter 5 reviews the existing legal and policy mechanisms that regulate sexual harassment and considers and describes how they have not been effective in significantly reducing sexual harassment. The chapter discusses how current laws are being implemented on campuses and examines the consequences of academic institutions’ policies and procedures, including the reporting processes. It concludes with consideration of the role of federal agencies in preventing sexual harassment and in enforcing policies on sexual harassment.
Given the limitations of existing legal remedies, Chapter 6 discusses systemwide changes to the culture and climate of academic institutions that may begin to reduce and prevent sexual harassment. The chapter describes why the research suggests certain approaches will be most impactful, and describes promising practices and models for achieving them. The chapter describes the importance of leaders supporting and initiating these changes and of measuring and incentivizing progress, and the important role played by professional societies and other organizations that facilitate research and training. The report concludes with Chapter 7, which summarizes our committee’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations.