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Addressing sexual harassment in academia

Report proposes new strategies for protecting students and researchers from harassment and coercion

A 311-page report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has added to the discussion on sexual harassment in the science community, simultaneously addressing the scale of the problem and the weaknesses of the strategies adopted to address it, as well as making recommendations on how to change the culture at scientific institutions. The result of two years of work by a committee of 21 experts, the document highlights three main types of sexual harassment experienced in academia.

The most prevalent, known as gender harassment, is characterized by verbal and physical behavior that implies women are inferior or incapable. The report is based on information collected via surveys conducted across 36 campuses at the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University. According to the data, 25% of engineering students and 50% of medical students have been repeatedly subjected to sexism in the form of jokes or insinuations that women are not smart enough to succeed in science. “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,” anthropologist Kate Clancy, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the authors of the study, told the journal Science.

Other types of sexual harassment were also identified, but at a lower rate of incidence. Unwanted sexual attention, ranging from rude comments to attempted rape, were reported by as many as 5% of students, while cases of sexual coercion, where favorable treatment is conditioned on sexual activity, were mentioned by 1% of respondents.

Most universities and research institutions in the USA have policies that aim to reduce harassment, often establishing training programs and reporting channels. According to the report, these strategies have been largely ineffective because they do not consider aspects that tend to silence victims of harassment. “These policies are based on the inaccurate assumption that a target will promptly report harassment without worrying about retaliation,” the report said.

In response to this situation, the document makes 14 recommendations, which include measures aimed at reducing students’ exposure to hostile academic environments, and mechanisms to support those who report sexual harassment. It also focuses on how important it is that academic leaders address the causes and consequences of the problem, adopting measures to promote gender equality, clearly communicating behavioral expectations, and establishing a transparent disciplinary process for cases of misconduct.

The report put the National Academies itself in the spotlight—several researchers still employed by the organization have been accused of harassment. Astronomer Geoff Marcy, for example, resigned from his position at the University of California, Berkeley, after being accused of harassing students between 2001 and 2010, and neuroscientist Thomas Jessell was dismissed from Columbia University for engaging in a relationship with a student under his supervision. In May, a petition was sent to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS)—one of the three divisions of the National Academies—calling for the removal of members who have been disciplined by their universities, but NAS rules do not contain any such procedure for disaffiliation. The board has announced that it will soon vote to change these rules, establishing a means to dismiss members under certain circumstances.