Science Policy & Funding News

Tackling Sexual Harassment in Science: A Long Road Ahead

At the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine last week, scientists discussed weaknesses in their fields' handling of sexual harassment and how to address shortcomings.

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Do sexual harassment training sessions that are meant to curb inappropriate behavior really work? Once sexual harassment is uncovered, how well equipped are scientific institutions to help victims with the legal and emotional consequences? Do affected institutions, their funders, and related government agencies have policies in place, and are those policies well crafted and useful?

Since two high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the sciences came to light last year, researchers across the spectrum of scientific disciplines have been discussing these questions and others and seeking solutions. Some possible strategies have emerged, ranging from including sexual harassment as “scientific misconduct” in codes of conduct to clearly advertising a no-tolerance policy at scientific meetings to even trying to change the current hierarchy structure of academia itself.

On 28 March, a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an all-day workshop to hear from representatives of professional societies, academia, and others about the issue. The committee, which consists of scientists, researchers, medical professionals, and more, has been conducting a study of sexual harassment. Here are three takeaways from the workshop:

1. To Train or Not to Train?

One of the workshop panels centered on training meant to prevent sexual harassment and debates about that training’s effectiveness. One panelist, Myra Hindus from Creative Diversity Solutions, who has been studying sexual harassment and discrimination for more than 30 years, mentioned studies that show that sexual harassment training can sometimes have the opposite effect of reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

For instance, a Journal of Applied Behavioral Science study published last year found that trainings could lead men to become defensive or worry they’ll be subject to false accusations, or the trainings could reinforce implicit, gender-based biases.

But another speaker, organizational psychologist Eden King of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said that trainings could be effective and that the issue isn’t so black-and-white. If a training lasts more than 4 hours or is conducted face to face, she said, it tends to be more effective. One strategy that can backfire is informing trainees that everyone holds implicit biases, King noted. This information could make the behavior seem okay because everyone does or thinks it, which the trainers should try to avoid. Instead, King said, trainers should emphasize that although we all hold implicit biases, everyone has a desire to “do better.”

2. Responsibility Without Authority

In another panel on how academic institutions tackle sexual harassment, David Mogk, a geologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, recalled the challenges in 2014 of processing sexual harassment cases in the department that he chaired at the time. Several women came forward that summer with official complaints about two professors within the Department of Earth Sciences. The ensuing investigation lasted more than a year and shook up the department in a permanently damaging way, Mogk said.

“For the affected individuals, [there] are traumatic and irreversible consequences,” he said. Affected students requested lock changes for their work spaces or required psychological counseling or medication. Some were afraid to enter the department building or were forced to give up research projects entirely.

As for the two perpetrators, Mogk said, they were suspended with full pay. Although the two men were not actively working, Mogk said he was not provided funding to hire new faculty, and the department suffered.

During open discussion with the audience after the panel, Mogk said that neither the president nor the provost of the university offered support or intervened in the situation. He said that a lack of support from his superiors greatly diminished his ability to support students who had suffered serious trauma.

“I needed someone higher up in the food chain to stand up and say these actions will not be tolerated,” Mogk said. As department chair, he had “a huge amount of responsibility but not necessarily the authority to deal with many issues,” he said, including gathering and documenting evidence and working with the university’s legal team.

Eos asked Montana State University’s Office of the President about the case. The school’s executive director of university communications, Tracy Ellig, replied that the university promptly “took action upon receipt of the information and handled all complaints in a manner that was consistent with the requirements of our policies and the applicable laws of the state of Montana.”

In addition to conducting an investigation, the university took “appropriate actions in response to the investigation,” Ellig said. However, because of confidentiality requirements surrounding such cases, “the actions taken by the university would not have been within Dr. Mogk’s direct knowledge.”

3. Possible Policy Changes?

In another panel, Miriam Goldstein, the legal director for Representative Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), discussed a bill that Speier introduced to Congress last year that would require institutions to report any substantiated cases of sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination to their funding agencies. The bill would then require agencies to consider these reports when awarding future grants to the institution. Goldstein noted the “deafening silence” that came from several large scientific organizations who did not come out in support of the bill.

Panelist Janet Koster from the Association for Women in Science offered reasons why her organization chose not to support the bill. One reason, she told Eos, was that there is no standard definition for “sexual harassment” and every institution has its own definitions, which could lead to uneven reporting. For instance, if someone made an untoward comment, was reprimanded, and changed his behavior, would that university still be required to report the individual? Does the bill differentiate between harassment of that nature and assault?

During the panel, Goldstein responded to this concern. The bill does differentiate between different kinds of harassment, she said, and it considers whether the perpetrator changed his or her behavior.

—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2017), Tackling sexual harassment in science: A long road ahead, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO071243. Published on 07 April 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • ScienceTim

    On the policy issue — when the bill indicates that a history of reported sexual harassment would be considered in future grants, what does that mean? As phrased, it implies that if a university does the right thing and clearly reports such incidents, it will be considered *negatively* with respect to future funding. That seems like a disincentive to be honest and effective. If the intention is that such self-reporting will improve the institutions’ standing, then how would that be quantified? Any incentive applied to grant-funding at the institutional level that is apart from technical merit suggests an opportunity for corruption and damage to someone’s life and career, either students or employees.