The US scientific community is still searching for a solution to the toxic issue of sexual harassment.
The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington DC are conducting a study on how sexual harassment in academia influences the career advancement of women in the scientific, technical and medical workforce.
The study will also identify and analyze the policies, strategies and practises that have been the most successful in preventing and addressing sexual harassment in academic settings.
Last week, NASEM held a workshop with representatives from societies, academia and elsewhere to learn about the current landscape, what’s been successful and what needs to be done. Another workshop will be held in June.
Here’s the takeaway from the meeting, and no surprise: little to nothing has changed in 30 years, and more, a lot more, is needed to eradicate it. Perpetrators continue to harass, often with minimal effect on their own careers, while tainting, damaging and even destroying those of their victims — and, in many cases, damaging their emotional health as well. Victims have withdrawn their PhD theses, left their postdoc, changed institutions or left science altogether, workshop speakers said. Some have attempted suicide.
What hasn’t helped: federal law that makes it illegal, workplace policies that ban it, workplace training that’s meant to teach participants that it’s prohibited, complaint-response systems that are meant to allow victims a safe place in which to disclose an incident of harassment, and other well-meaning mechanisms.
Panelists and other participants said federal law is well and good – when it’s enforced. The problem is that victims are still fearful of reporting sexual harassment, and with sound reasons –they face severe potential and actual repercussions including damage to their own reputation, both personal and scientific. So if few to no victims are reporting harassment, perpetrators are left to continue to harass. Even if and when they are named, speakers said, the consequences for them are often mild, particularly if they are eminent in their field and have won millions of dollars in grants.
Workplace policies are also ineffective for the same reason, speakers said. And training backfires because it often reinforces the very preconceptions and biases that lead to sexual harassment in the first place: women are weak and vulnerable; they should spend time with their family and leave science to men; women invite and welcome harassment. And while online training is useless, speakers said, interactive training can have some positive effects on deterrence — but institutions and other workplaces often don’t adopt it because it is more costly than online programmes. They said that employees also may balk at interactive training because they find it embarrassing.
Complaint-response systems haven’t worked well either because they often force victims to relive the incident several times with different offices, speakers said. Victims also fear loss of confidentiality and consequent repercussions, they said. “People daily make a calculation – if I complain, will it make my life better or worse,” one speaker said.
Some speakers said that culture – of the workplace, of the scientific community, of the nation – is largely to blame, and change must start there. Considerations of civility, some panellists said, should be added to training modules and to performance evaluations, while others said that some academic associations have pushed back against any such addition, arguing that it would violate academic freedom.
So what’s the answer? No one really knows, at least not yet. But at least there is thought and open discussion around this poisonous, noxious issue.
Karen Kaplan is Careers Editor, Nature