Does your college or university foster a culture of sexual harassment?
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U.S. colleges and universities need to fundamentally transform their cultures to prevent sexual harassment, a new report released yesterday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concludes.

The report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, notes that “at the same time that so much energy and money is being invested in efforts to attract and retain women in science, engineering, and medical fields, it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields.”

The fruit of a 3-year effort, the report synthesizes extensive past research on sexual harassment in academic settings and presents new insights from individual interviews conducted specifically for the report. The result is a sweeping analysis of factors that contribute to sexual harassment in science, engineering, and medical fields, along with recommendations on how colleges and universities can reinvent their cultures to prevent this harassment [National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018].

A summary of the report is available on the report’s website. Key highlights are in the video below.

YouTube video

But what exactly does the information in the report mean for your academic institution? Building on the report’s foundations, we created a preliminary list of questions to help you softly gauge the culture of sexual harassment present in your departments, colleges, or universities. The list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it aims to strike at unexpected sources revealed in the report that contribute to environments that promote harassment.

But first, a quick baseline:

Sexual Harassment Rates in Academia Are Very High

The cover of a newly released report on sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine
The cover of a newly released report on sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine. Credit: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

The report notes that according to the best estimates they could study, 58% of women faculty and staff at U.S. colleges and universities have experienced sexual harassment. That’s the highest rate of incidence for any employment sector outside of the military.

Specifically for science realms, “more than 50 percent of women faculty and staff and 20–50 percent of women students encounter or experience sexually harassing conduct in academia,” the report notes. Surveys analyzed through the report reveal that women students in academic medicine are more frequent targets of sexual harassment perpetrated by faculty and staff than are their counterparts in science and engineering.

The report unequivocally states that “the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment is the organizational climate in a school, department, or program, or across an institution.”

Red Flags

Within this culture are some red flags, identified in the report. The prevalence of any of these red flags may create environments in which sexual harassment not only goes unreported but also could rise and fester.

With this in mind, does your school, department, program, or institution…

1. Struggle with recognizing that gender harassment is sexual harassment? Sexual harassment encompasses sexual coercion—for example, “sleep with me or you’re fired”—as well as unwanted sexual attention. The latter includes stalking, pressuring for dates, and assault. But sexual harassment also encompasses gender harassment, which the report defines as

verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender. Examples include use of language like “bitch,” jokes such as “Don’t be a pussy,” and comments that denigrate women as a group or individuals in gendered terms….[A] woman may be gender harassed for taking a job traditionally held by a man or in a traditionally male field. Gender harassment in such a situation might consist of actions to sabotage the woman’s tools, machinery, or equipment, or telling the woman she is not smart enough for scientific work.

The report notes that gender harassment is the most common form of sexual harassment. However, it’s often unrecognized, which leads to it being underreported. And the report quantifies this: Women who experience gender harassment are 7 times less likely to label it as sexual harassment.

2. Have male-dominated leadership? The report says it best:

Most department chairs and deans are men. Most principal investigators are men. Most provosts and presidents are men….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.

3. Have a culture of incivility? The report defines incivility as “low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect.” Workplace cultures that foster respectful behavior will have fewer problems with sexual harassment than workplace cultures that don’t, the report concludes.

“When hierarchy operates out of habit rather than as something that is constantly reflected on and justified due to experience or expertise, misuses of power can increase.”

4. Promote rigid hierarchies, particularly in circumstances of spatial or geographic isolation? Power structures that are led predominantly by men, with power “highly concentrated in a single person, perhaps because of that person’s success in attracting funding for research,” can exacerbate risks of harassment, according to the report. “When hierarchy operates out of habit rather than as something that is constantly reflected on and justified due to experience or expertise, misuses of power can increase.” Risks increase when coupled with isolation in the field, on research ships, in labs, or in medical students’ night shifts.

5.  Incentivize confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements that limit the ability of those targeted by sexual harassment to speak with others about their experiences? This can serve to shield perpetrators who have harassed people repeatedly, the report states.

6. Foster a culture of alcohol use? Here’s one perhaps relevant to many field sites: “Environments that allow drinking during work breaks and have permissive norms related to drinking are positively associated with higher levels of gender harassment of women,” according to the report.

7. Leave its members with a vague idea surrounding what constitutes sexual harassment, what should be done to report it, and what consequences may result? In some cases, there is a “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,” the report states. Particularly in field environments, “there was a lack of awareness regarding codes of conduct and sexual harassment policies, with few respondents being aware of available reporting mechanisms.”

8. Have informal “whisper networks” that serve to warn women away from particular scientists who are serial harassers? Such networks are common across many male-dominated environments but have “the effect of automatically reducing [women’s] options and chances for career success,” the report concludes.

9. Ask in surveys whether respondents have experienced sexual harassment? Asking for this information outright will skew results toward underreporting, the report concludes. It provides the following example:

[Past] surveys revealed that when respondents were asked simply, “Have you been raped?” estimates of the number of people raped in the college population were very low, yet when asked whether they had experienced a series of specific behaviors that would meet legal criteria for rape, estimates of the number of people raped were much higher. Subsequent studies of sexual harassment found similar results.

10. Provide sexual harassment training without following up to see whether those trainings are effective? The report noted that institutions may focus on “symbolic compliance” with Title IX and Title VII, which fosters policies and procedures that “protect the liability of the institution but are not effective in preventing sexual harassment.”

For example, mandatory sexual harassment training may be required by law in some cases, but there’s no requirement to evaluate whether the training assigned actually helps prevent sexual harassment. This is a missed opportunity, the report concludes. “Training programs should not be based on the avoidance of legal liability.”

11. Focus training on changing the minds of harassers? Such endeavors aren’t efficient, the report concludes. “Anti–sexual harassment training programs should focus on changing behavior, not on changing beliefs. Programs should focus on clearly communicating behavioral expectations, specify consequences for failing to meet these expectations, and identify the mechanisms to be utilized when these expectations are not met.” The approach works, the report adds: “Experiments show that sexual harassment is less likely to occur if those behaviors are not accepted by authority figures.”

“Academic institutions should consider sexual harassment equally important as research misconduct.”

12. Gauge the success of their training efforts on the number of incidents of sexual harassment officially reported? Many training efforts hold the underlying assumption that a target will promptly report harassment without worrying about retaliation. However, the report shows that this assumption is far from reality. “The least common response for women is to formally report the sexually harassing experience,” the report states.

13. Punish harassers with a reduction of teaching load or time away from campus responsibilities? The report takes such punishments to task. Such punitive measures are “often considered a benefit for faculty,” it notes. In other words, perpetrators should not be rewarded for their behavior by losing responsibilities while still collecting the same pay. “Instead, consequences should take the form of actual punishment, such as cuts in pay or even termination.”

The Way Forward

The report delineates multiple paths forward, focused on transforming a given workplace culture into one in which sexual harassment has no place. To name just a few, institutions can start by taking explicit steps toward greater gender and racial equity in hiring and promotions. They can recognize that gender harassment can be just as corrosive to work environments as other forms of sexual harassment and can take concrete measures to break down the “one student, one mentor” model pervasive in academia and instead adopt mentoring networks, committee-based advising, and departmental funding structures. They should be as transparent as possible regarding how they handle reports of sexual harassment, providing annual reports to be shared broadly that detail how many incidents are currently under investigation.

Support services—social, legal, medical—should be readily available to the targets of harassment. Institutions should provide less formal means of recording information about the sexual harassment faced—for example, through an ombudsperson—if some are not comfortable filing a formal complaint.

“Academic institutions should convey that reporting sexual harassment is an honorable and courageous action,” the report stresses.

All of these recommendations strike at the heart of what may be the most essential takeaway message of the report: “Academic institutions should consider sexual harassment equally important as research misconduct in terms of its effect on the integrity of research.” When put in those terms, the report indicates, shifting the culture of academic science, engineering, and medical programs becomes a paramount goal for us all.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018), Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, edited by P. A. Johnson et al., Natl. Acad. Press, Washington, D. C.,

—Mohi Kumar (@scimohi), Interim Senior News Editor

Editor’s note: A coauthor of the recently released report is Billy Williams, vice president of ethics, diversity, and inclusion at the American Geophysical Union (AGU). A blog post about the report, written by AGU’s executive director Chris McEntee, can be found here.


Kumar, M. (2018), Does your college or university foster a culture of sexual harassment?, Eos, 99, Published on 13 June 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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