Sexual harassment isn’t just about sex: Groundbreaking report details persistent hostility female scientists face | Science

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Sexual harassment isn’t just about sex: Groundbreaking report details persistent hostility female scientists face | Science

Many women in science face sexual harassment that impedes their careers.

Robert Neubecker

Ask someone for an example of sexual harassment and they might cite a professor’s insistent requests to a grad student for sex. But such lurid incidents account for only a small portion of a serious and widespread harassment problem in science, according to a report released this week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Two years in the making, the report describes pervasive and damaging “gender harassment”—behaviors that belittle women and make them feel they don’t belong, including sexist comments and demeaning jokes. Between 17% and 50% of female science and medical students reported this kind of harassment in large surveys conducted by two major university systems across 36 campuses.

“We are trying to bring to the fore the concept of gender harassment,” says anthropologist Kate Clancy of the University of Illinois in Urbana, an author of the report. “The vast majority of sexual harassment that occurs is sexist hostility and crude behavior. And the literature supports that these everyday experiences may have as bad or worse personal and professional consequences as things like unwanted sexual advances.”

Decades of failure to curb sexual harassment, despite civil rights laws that make it illegal, underscore the need for a change in culture, the report says. “We have been addressing this problem for a long time. And we have not made progress,” said cardiologist Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “The legal system alone is really just not adequate for addressing the issues.” The authors suggest universities take measures to clearly report the number of harassment complaints they receive and investigations they conduct, use committee-based advising to prevent students from being in the power of a single harasser, and institute alternative, less formal ways for targets to report complaints if they don’t wish to start an official investigation.

The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, noted that many surveys fail to rigorously evaluate sexual harassment. It used data from large surveys done at two major research universities—the University of Texas system and the Pennsylvania State University system—to describe kinds of sexual harassment directed at students by faculty and staff. The most common was “sexist hostility,” such as demeaning jokes or comments that women are not smart enough to succeed in science, reported by 25% of female engineering students and 50% of female medical students in the Texas system. The incidence of female students experiencing unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion was lower, ranging in both Texas and Pennsylvania between 2% and 5% for the former and about 1% for the latter. But the report declares that a hostile environment—even if it consists “more of putdowns than come-ons,” as Johnson puts it—makes unwanted sexual attention and coercion more likely.

The report says women in science, technology, engineering, or math who are harassed may abandon leadership opportunities to dodge perpetrators, leave their institutions, or leave science altogether. It also highlights the ineffectiveness of ubiquitous, online sexual harassment training and notes what is likely massive underreporting of sexual harassment by women who justifiably fear retaliation. To retain the talents of women in science, the authors write, will require true cultural change rather than “symbolic compliance” with civil rights laws.

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