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Harassment in the Academies

​Incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace continue to garner more public attention, and a major new report finds that the problem is also prevalent in academic settings.

"Sexual harassment is a serious issue for women at all levels in academic science, engineering, and medicine," write the authors of the study, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report was issued in June by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, a nonprofit organization consisting of three academies based in Washington, D.C. The National Academy of Sciences was first established in 1863 by an Act of Congress signed by President Lincoln. The other two academies were established much later, and the three now work together to analyze and advise on complex national problems. The academies' membership includes more than 300 Nobel laureates.

The authors state that important recent gains have been made by women in the science and engineering disciplines in the United States, with the numbers of female faculty members and administrative leaders at an all-time high. But sexual harassment is jeopardizing more sustained progress in closing the gender gap in these fields, the authors argue.

"What is especially discouraging about this situation is that…it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields," the authors write.

The report cites a recent University of Texas System survey that found that more than 40 percent of female medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff, and a recent Pennsylvania State Univers­ity System study that found that 50 percent of female medical students experienced harassment from faculty or staff.

Why is harassment so common in academic settings? The study found that five factors create conditions that makes sexual harassment likely to occur: a perceived tolerance for harassment in academia; workforces where men often outnumber women; hierarchical organizational structures where power rests with a select few; policies and procedures that protect institutions from liability more than they protect potential victims; and leaders who lack the tools and focus to eliminate harassment.

Moreover, when harassment does occur, there are four other factors that tend to silence targets of harassment and hurt their career opportunities: dependence on advisors or mentors for career advancement, a merit-based system that does not account for declines in productivity due to harassment, a "macho" culture in some areas of engineering and the sciences, and an informal grapevine that spreads rumors and accusations.

Given these factors, the study's recommendations on how to reduce harassment focus on alleviating the harmful factors. The recommendations include creating diverse and respectful environments, moving beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate, improving transparency and accountability, diffusing hierarchical relationships, providing support for victims, measuring progress, and incentivizing change.

In addition, the study also calls for professional societies to accelerate their efforts to push for culture changes in workplaces and provide support and guidance for victims.