Half of women in science experience harassment, a sweeping new report finds
Science has a sexual harassment problem. From the most polished ivory tower to the local community college, harassment pervades lecture halls and laboratories, observatories and offices, teaching hospitals and Antarctic field sites. And it takes an economic and emotional toll on female researchers and stifles their scientific contributions, according to a sweeping new study released Tuesday.
The solution will require a “systemwide change to the culture and climate in higher education,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine conclude.
The study draws on decades of research and dozens of interviews with women who were targets of harassment. Though female researchers have talked about the problem for years, some say the findings from one of science’s most prestigious institutions come at a critical juncture: As long-rumored allegations involving high-profile scientists finally come to light and organizations rethink their own rules for harassment, the 300-page report could help push substantive change.
“It’s a spectacular and encyclopedic piece of research and writing, and will no doubt serve as the touchstone for research, policy and advocacy in this area for years to come,” said Heidi Lockwood, a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University and an advocate for victims of sexual harassment in academia.
Yet among the institutions under fire are the National Academies themselves, criticized for maintaining members who have been found guilty of misconduct by the institutions where they work.
BethAnn McLaughlin, an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, last month launched a petition urging the academies to revoke the membership of anyone found guilty of harassment, assault or retaliation. She voiced little faith that National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt will act on the recommendations.
“For McNutt not to have cleaned house is offensive to me as a woman,” McLaughlin said. “And it certainly undermines the credibility of the National Academy to implement meaningful change.”
Science’s #MeToo moment began well before that term ever trended on Twitter. In October 2015, BuzzFeed reported the results of a Title IX investigation at the University of California at Berkeley: The school’s star astronomy professor, Geoff Marcy, had repeatedly violated campus sexual harassment policies but was never sanctioned. Amid the ensuing outcry, the school concluded that Marcy had been “inadequately disciplined.” He ultimately resigned; still a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.
The findings released Tuesday are both broad and deep. Georgia State University researcher Kevin M. Swartout compiled data from surveys at the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University school systems. Those represented more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, as well as female faculty. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of female students in science, engineering and medicine, and more than 50 percent of faculty, said they had experienced harassment. Medical students were the most likely to be harassed by faculty or staff.
LGBTQ women and women of color were more likely than their straight, white counterparts to have been harassed, and women of color were more likely to report feeling unsafe because of their gender. But there is a dearth of data on the experiences of underrepresented minorities and other marginalized groups, the study said.
Forty qualitative interviews, with women from multiple fields, institutions and stages of their career, delved deeper into these episodes. About half of the women detailed physical abuse but far more prevalent were sexist remarks, jokes and inappropriate comments. One assistant professor of engineering described the “mind games” of other colleagues, meant to demean women at an intellectual level.
“What victims are really looking for is to get back to work and to have the behavior stop,” said Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the committee that wrote the new report. But institutions rely on a legal system poorly equipped for “everyday workplace harassment,” she said, leaving victims feeling isolated. “This is one of the big findings of the report.”
The study notes that science’s strict hierarchies and “star culture” make institutions less likely to hold perpetrators accountable. It says targets of harassment rarely formally report their experience, often because they (correctly) perceive that they might experience retaliation.
During a news conference on Tuesday, committee co-chair Paula Johnson, a physician and the president of Wellesley College, said the report uncovered “no evidence” that current policies, particularly anti-harassment training, actually address harmful behavior.
The findings help explain how harassment can push women out of science or create an environment so hostile that their work suffers. One of the women interviewed, a tenure-track assistant professor who was raped by a colleague, described being fearful of conferences and distrustful of potential collaborators. She wound up leaving her university for a smaller institution where she could teach and not conduct research, because at the front of a classroom “for the most part, nothing is going to happen to you that is going to be embarrassing, traumatizing.”
The report has 14 major recommendations for combating the problem at academic institutions, scientific societies and federal agencies. They include improving transparency in the investigation and reporting process, providing better support to individuals targeted and updating ethics codes to treat harassment with the same scrutiny as plagiarism, falsification of data and other forms of scientific misconduct.
The report also urges Congress to consider actions including legislation barring confidentiality in settlement agreements and requiring institutions receiving federal funds to publicly disclose information about sexual harassment investigations and the results of surveys of how safe women feel.
“Because it’s coming out of the National Academy, and that is an institution that people put on a pedestal, I believe that people will finally begin to listen to this,” said Julie Libarkin, an environmental scientist at Michigan State University who maintains a database of sexual harassment allegations in academia going back to the 1980s.
Libarkin’s database is cited in the new report. The Post used it to identify five men sanctioned for sexual harassment who retain membership in the National Academies, and three who are still listed as investigators on federal grants.
The National Academy of Sciences, created by congressional act in 1863, is exclusive by design. It is charged with providing the executive and legislative branches with scientific advice, and its reports have informed court decisions. Its official publication, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is one of the world’s most cited science journals.
An appointment — new members are elected by current ones — lasts for life. The average member is a 72-year-old male.
The organization came under scrutiny in April when Science magazine reported that eight women had accused cancer biologist Inder Verma of sexual harassment. He resigned from his position as the journal’s editor in chief, and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he has worked since the 1970s, placed him on leave. But Verma, who did not reply to a request for comment last week, remains an academy member.
“It was just infuriating to me that the National Academies are studying sexual harassment and also harboring sexual harassers,” said McLaughlin, whose petition on Change.org had more than 3,550 signatures as of Tuesday.
In a May 22 statement, the three organizations’ presidents said they had “begun a dialogue about the standards of professional conduct for membership.” Bylaws don’t include a sexual harassment policy or any mechanism for expelling members found guilty of problematic behavior.
The new report will guide the National Academy’s upcoming discussions, but “it is too early to talk about timeline,” McNutt told The Post on Tuesday. She added: “The concern is real that if it should become possible to expel members, such an option would be subverted for personal agendas or political purposes.”
Other groups have already confronted this issue. The American Astronomical Society revamped its ethics policy in the wake of the Marcy scandal, labeling harassment as scientific misconduct. “We should recognize this as research misconduct and as an abrogation of our responsibility as mentors,” said Yale University astrophysicist and former AAS president Meg Urry, who oversaw the policy change.
The American Geophysical Union adopted a similar policy in 2017. In the spring, under the new rule, the organization quietly rescinded one of its top awards after finding the recipient responsible for an ethics violation.
“Data and research shows us that harassment and bullying and discrimination can have profound and destructive effects on research, on individuals involved in research … and on institutions,” Executive Director Christine McEntee said. “To us it harms the scientific enterprise in an equal fashion to plagiarism and fabrication of results.”
The National Science Foundation — which funds roughly a quarter of all federally supported basic research — is considering whether to require institutions to report findings of sexual harassment involving NSF grant recipients. If approved, the rules would allow the foundation to require institutions to remove people who committed harassment from federally funded projects.
Had she the power, Clancy said, “I would say, ‘Burn it all down, and let’s start over.’ ” The National Academies’ report stops far short of reaching for the flamethrower.
Its recommendations aim for more and less: more inclusive and diverse environments, more support for victims of harassment and more meaningful enforcement of Title VII prohibitions on discrimination, but less institutional opacity and less adherence to minimal legal compliance.
“Scientists have equated rigor and being critical with being cruel,” Clancy said. “If we can move away from that cultural norm, toward understanding that rigor and criticism come from collaboration and cooperation, we’re just going to be so much better off.”