Scientific field work has long been rife with sexual harassment in part because of its remote nature, and despite the impression that institutions are responding to these claims via high-profile academic cases that have stalled or ended careers, very little is changing.
A 2018 National Academies of Science (NAS) report found that more than half of women faculty and staff, and up to half of women students, have experienced sexual harassment. This incidence is second only to the military. Outside the personal psychological destruction sexual harassment causes, it negatively affects careers, and affects what research that gets done and who does it. This is unfair and bad for science. Yet despite the severity of the issue, harassment statistics in the sciences haven’t budged since the 1980s.
Harassment is forcing women out of the sciences and damaging their mental and physical health. In the meantime, however, academic institutions tout their approaches to dealing with sexual harassment, including how they educate, how they handle reporting and how they investigate claims. Yet, several prominent women in science have shared stories with us of how these approaches aren’t stopping predatory activity and how institutional failures leave women feeling unsupported, undefended and unsafe.
The experts we spoke with say that unless scientific institutions make major structural changes, the incidence of sexual harassment will never improve. But solutions exist, and they are backed up by research. In addition, new laws are aimed at stopping sexual harassment at academic institutions. We welcome these efforts and hope that they will empower the next generations of women scientists to be innovative, exploratory and successful.
Sexual harassment includes forcing people into sexual activity, giving unwanted sexual attention to someone and making unwanted comments or threats to someone based on their gender. The negative effects of sexual harassment also apply to the people who witness it and the organizations involved. The first thing that experts say needs to be overhauled is traditional sexual harassment training.
The computer-based format of some training modules is familiar to anyone starting a new job, including us. We remember laughable scenarios that were, at best, out of touch with how real people behave, or showed only the most extreme examples of harassment. The training was unrealistic, unmemorable and something to click through as fast as we could. Such passive, simplistic training typically fails, as sociologists Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University found in a Harvard Business Review analysis in 2020.
Training needs to be more in-person, according to experts. People can interact with a live instructor who has specialized knowledge of awkward topics and how to talk effectively about them. The trainers can take the backgrounds and ages of people in the group into account, answer questions in real time, and tailor their program to the organization; what people at a nonprofit might need could be different from workers at a big-box store or in an academic setting. And even in academia, training for scientists who work in the field could be different than for those who work in a lab.
But a bigger part of the problem is how universities and academic institutions approach sexual harassment—as a liability they need to protect themselves from, rather than something that they should be protecting their communities from. Trainings reflect that, says Jennifer Freyd, an expert on the psychology of sexual violence and founder of the Center for Institutional Courage.
“They’re not looking at the big picture of doing the right thing, and often not actually even reducing lawsuits,” she told us. She says this approach doesn’t work, and instead creates “a culture of distrust” for victims at the institution.
Kate Clancy, a University of Illinois anthropologist and co-author on the NAS report, agrees, especially when cases end up in a U.S. legal system that often puts the victim on trial more than the accused. Sexual harassment is hard to prove, so when a case doesn’t have physical evidence, and the court exonerates the accused, people tend to believe the victim lied rather than understand how difficult it is for the accuser to overcome the burden of proof. “There's this intense feeling of betrayal,” she told us. Research shows that when people respond positively to the victim in such cases, the prospects for recovery are better. In fact, in the extreme case of sexual assault, the reaction from people the victim tells about the assault is one of the strongest predictors of whether the victim will develop more or less severe PTSD. Unfortunately, positive, trauma-informed responses are far from universal.
Another issue is mandatory reporting—where university policy dictates that an employee must report suspected harassment, even if the victim doesn’t want the report. Their harasser may be a mentor and block their efforts to publish says Madeline St Clair, marine biologist and founder of Women in Ocean Science. The harasser could block advancement, tenure, access to funding, and ultimately the outcome of their career. And mandatory reporting can prevent healing and resolution through restorative justice, triggering instead a cascade of events beyond the victim’s control. Freyd calls this a double victimization; the harasser or the person committing the assault is trying to take power away from their victim, and any policy forcing someone to report harassment when so much is at stake robs that victim of their agency.
At most science institutions, safety lectures for field researchers and support staff teach how to avoid sunstroke, deploy emergency flares, and handle variables such as wild animals and flammable liquids. Sexual harassment is also a safety issue; it deserves the same respect.
According to the NAS report, effective trainings include face-to-face, tailored instruction by a supervisor or outside expert who uses specific examples of inappropriate behavior, establishes standards of behavior, and addresses the organization’s specific needs as identified by data collected from all employees. It also must be mandatory for all, including the higher-ups who often excuse themselves from trainings and who, because of their power, are more likely to be offenders. Everyone should leave knowing what exactly harassment is and specifics about what to do if they experience it or see it.
Bystander training, which teaches everyone in a group how to respond to sexual harassment they witness, can be a part of changing norms. Victoria Banyard, a professor and associate dean of the Rutgers University School of Social Work, has seen some success with bystander trainings, which she’s run since the 1990s, especially among college students. The best training will help people feel a sense of responsibility and will give them skills, in her words “expanding their toolkit,” so that when they see someone being harassed, they will know better how to respond.
Banyard says a bystander could call a person out on their behavior, but acknowledges that can be hard when harassment is coming from someone more powerful. Indirect bystander actions can be easier, and still effective, like a co-worker helping to physically distance someone from their harasser, or create a distraction to stop his advances.
St Clair says it’s critical to educate new scientists about sexual harassment policies from day one. “Why are we not saying, ‘here's how you report harassment at university? Here’s the designated sexual harassment officer. And here are the policies and procedures. This is what we tolerate. This is what we do not tolerate. This is how we take action. This is exactly what will happen’?”
Male domination and how acceptable harassment seems in an organization are by far the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment, the NAS report found, so prevention must consider structures of power. If there are “strong, clear, transparent consequences,” the environment is less friendly to harassers and people are less likely to harass, according to the NAS report. Universities must also reward those who come forward. Often the most effective reward is for the victim to receive public acknowledgement of her bravery in coming forward, or acknowledgement from the harasser of harm.
“I think it's important to have a sexual harassment officer in place, someone that people trust and they know of and is really visible,” says St Clair. But a Title IX officer is not enough. A 2022 lawsuit filed by students at Harvard alleges that the Title IX coordinator for faculty of arts and sciences took no action despite multiple sexual harassment complaints, instead advising the victims to contact the press. According to our experts, an effective sexual harassment officer must have the motivation and power to act outside the interests of the university, rather than simply reduce liability. Many experts suggest a third party, like an ombudsperson.
How harassment is handled can make the difference between substantial trauma and healing for the survivors—and a trauma-informed response can also encourage others to speak out.
According to Freyd, the proper response from anyone the victim tells about the experience includes: avoiding blame or invalidating the victim’s experience, attentive listening, and allowing the victim to remain in control of decision-making. Reporting should be confidential and outside a power structure that could negatively affect the victim, and the victim should have control over how the information she has provided is used.
Control over the outcome is key for survivors. As an alternative to punishment, some may choose a face-to-face mediation or an apology that demonstrates the perpetrator understands the harm of his actions. Often survivors simply want these actions to stop, and for no others to have to suffer similar experiences.
Another effective tool, says Wayne State University law professor Nancy Chi Cantalupo, is part of the updated Violence Against Women Act. The Biden administration and Congress have authorized mandatory anonymous “climate surveys” that all institutions receiving federal funds must conduct every two years, starting in 2024, on the true state of sexual harassment on campus and in the field. Such surveys, which would be more inclusive than current requirements that institutions only report cases of harassment that are officially documented, would allow members of any academic community to share what they’ve witnessed or experienced. We think this is an excellent step forward because these reports will capture more of what’s really happening, and while it will allow institutions to better understand how pervasive sexual harassment is, it will also tell the public what is happening.
The recently passed bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act is another legislative win. Among billions of dollars appropriated for semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research, the act appropriates $32.5 million to combat sex-based harassment in STEM. Referencing NAS reports on sexual harassment in science, the act requires the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies to collect data, fund more research, and develop evidence-based strategies to address and prevent sex-based harassment and mitigate its effects on the people who experience it. Freyd is “very pleased” about this progress: “It is based on evidence and forward looking, with a heavy emphasis on investing in research on sexual harassment—research that will pay off in the years ahead…. It is significant to see the reality of sexual harassment in STEM recognized in this way.”
Decades of stagnant progress should leave us jaded. But like our experts, we are guardedly optimistic. This time, finally, legislators talked to women activists and scientists to develop regulations based on evidence about what actually works.
Perhaps best of all, harassers are starting to get hit where it hurts the most—in the money bags. In 2018 the NSF announced that it would require notice if a university has placed a funded scientist on leave for sexual harassment. We encourage funding agencies to go further, adding multiple carrot and stick motivators to encourage universities and scientists to get serious about addressing sexual harassment. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that it “very actively” addresses sexual harassment, even removing harassers as grant leaders, but the agency tends to not be public about it. We would like to see those doors work more like open windows. A civil rights manager at NASA has spoken out to encourage victims to contact their harassers’ federal funding agencies, using a “shotgun approach.” That sounds good to us.
Someday, a new generation of scientists and engineers will hopefully be free to discover, document, invent, and solve problems without worrying about being belittled and objectified by colleagues. But for women like Tess Havell*, a marine scientist who has been sexually harassed several times in her career, it’s too late.
When Havell reported a recent incident to her employer, she submitted a statement and affidavits that backed up her allegations from four witnesses who were colleagues. And just as Freyd described, Havell’s report caused her further trauma when university leadership gave that information to her harasser. He happened to be a high-level, popular supervisor whom she had no choice but to interact with. The case dragged on; she heard nothing for months despite following up the university’s designated committee multiple times.
She has since decided to leave academia; the harassment, and callous handling of her case convinced her she would never be valued. “My mental health has been in a truly dire state. It has been excruciatingly painful to make the decision to leave.”
Despite publishing more than 100 papers, building a successful research program and earning a promotion, she told us when we spoke, “all I feel is devastated.”
*Havell’s name has been changed to protect her identity
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.