The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently released a comprehensive report on Sexual Harassment of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The long (over 300 pages) report is based on decades of research and is a must-read for everyone in academia. The authors of the report show how and why sexual harassment — and the ignorance and disregard of it — is tightly woven into the fabric of academia. This is not surprising to many of us who have experienced harassment, but the sheer magnitude and universality of women’s experiences is still astounding. There is no single ‘ah ha!’ moment; rather, the report provides a steady stream of data-driven and evidence-based conclusions that all point to the fact that academic institutions as they exist today are either unwilling to or fundamentally incapable of addressing sexual harassment. The report validates the experiences of many; for many more, it reinforces our frustration with lack of meaningful progress over the last three decades. The personal stories of women who have struggled and suffered in academic systems are a must read to understand how broken the system truly is.

The report makes it abundantly clear why institutional and legal policies that claim to address sexual harassment simply do not work. Despite many recommendations for how to implement meaningful change included in the report, the way forward remains unclear: when and how can recommendations be implemented? Who will be responsible for overseeing these changes? Can we rely on the National Academies or any other leading scientific and academic institution to meaningfully lead the way on fixing sexual harassment? The Academies are rife with their own issues of sexual harassment and harbour many culprits, yet have been unwilling to enact meaningful change — making it hard to believe that the organization is willing to set an example and lead the charge to hold others accountable.

We 500 Women Scientists applaud the National Academies for publishing a report that arms us with concrete data as we work with institutions to implement policies that protect people from harassment as well as hold the harassers accountable. But before we can roll up our collective sleeves and get to work, we have to have a shared understanding of what harassment is, name the problem, confront the ugly consequences, and come up with immediate steps to root out harassment in academia, something the NASEM report fails to do. So stick with us, we summarize the report below and begin to lay out a path forward.

NOTE: We 500 Women Scientists want everyone (even if you think you know the problem inside and out) to read the entire NASEM report. But in lieu of that, we want everyone to read all the way to the bottom of this article and face the discomfort, learn from it, and help us fix it.

The report lays out in stunning clarity the full scope of sexual harassment in academia. Broadly speaking, sexual harassment includes sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, which fall under the category of “come-on” behavior. It also includes the more common but usually dismissed behavior of gender harassment or “put down” behavior, defined by the report as ‘‘a broad range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes.” Put down behavior is commonplace and becomes obvious once you know what to look for. 

Understanding sexual harassment starts by identifying what sexually harassing behavior is; the report goes on to explore the motivations. Come-ons and sexual advances are aimed at sexually exploiting women. Come-ons have little to do with sexual attraction, but are “motivated by the desire to devalue women or punish those who violate gender norms.” Gender harassment  (“put-downs”) comes in two forms: sexist hostility and crude harassment. Instances of sexist hostility from the report are “demeaning jokes or comments about women, comments that women do not belong in leadership positions or are not smart enough to succeed in a scientific career, and sabotaging women”; crude harassment is “the use of sexually crude terms that denigrate people based on their gender [...] such as “slut” to refer to a female coworker or “pussy” to refer to a male coworker.”

The report also describes the fact that sexual harassment goes far beyond the prototypical isolated model of an older, senior, male sexually harassing a junior woman. More often than not, the perpetrators and victims of harassment are peers. Harassment can also be bottom-up: “contrapower harassment” (experienced by 42% of women in one study) is when harassment comes from those with less power in the organization — for instance, faculty experiencing harassing behavior from students. Student evaluations are another manifestation of the same issue since they can often be affected by gender and racial biases and affect  promotion decisions. As the report cites:

Even in situations in which a woman has clearly defined authority, gender continues to be one of the most salient and powerful variables governing work relations.

In addition to these individually targeted forms of harassment, “ambient harassment” is common, yet rarely recognized. The authors compare ambient harassment to second-hand smoke, where even those who are not directly targeted for harassment are negatively affected by frequent harassing behaviors in their workplace. For instance, if you see other students and coworkers regularly experience unwanted sexual attention, you may experience ambient harassment even if you are not the direct target. Studies cited in the report show that ambient harassment can be as damaging and harmful as any other harassment by negatively affecting the mental health and productivity of those in a toxic, disrespectful environment that tolerates various forms of incivilities (including “microaggressions”).

The report demonstrates that harassment in all its different forms is widespread and tolerated by institutions. Incidents of sexual harassment are often a collective responsibility, tied to organizational culture. Hierarchical environments with rigid power structures — like the military and academic institutions — have higher rates of harassment since they discourage the questioning of authority. These institutional cultures are more likely to permit put-down behavior and negative attitudes towards women. Workplaces with worse gender ratios have even higher rates of gendered harassment — tied into organizational tolerance and the “othering” of women.

Many in science may recognize that they have probably experienced sexual harassment in some form, based on the definitions in this report. And everyone should consider the possibility that at best, we have been silent witnesses to it, or at worst, actively perpetrated harassment.

Sexual harassment is only one form of harassment; people of color deal with racial harassment and women of color experience both. Unfortunately, racial harassment, particularly its effects when combined with sexual harassment, have not been well studied to date. Addressing this knowledge gap is particularly urgent given the fact that women of color are much more underrepresented in science and academic fields than white women. One recent study of women in space sciences found that women of color were more likely than white women and men of color to report feeling unsafe because of their gender (40%) as well as race (28%). The report finds that women of color experience more sexual harassment “as a manifestation of both gender and race discrimination”. As many women of color can attest, it is difficult to disentangle the cause of harassment when it manifests in the form of “put-downs” — both racial and gender harassment result in women of color being demeaned and isolated. Besides, or in addition to racial harassment, people who are marginalized along sexual and gender minority axes — lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans women, as well as gay and trans men — also experience higher rates of harassment in academia. Therefore, to understand its full scope, we must view harassment through the lens of intersectionality. Academic fields are overwhelmingly white and male — a fact that is certainly correlated with the prevalence of and tolerance for sexual and racial harassment.

Sexual harassment has real and sustained negative impacts on women in academia. One study found that:

When women were exposed to sexist comments from a male coworker, they experienced cardiac and vascular activity similar to that displayed in threat situations.

Victims’ health outcomes have been found to be increasingly more distressing when their harassers are more powerful. The feelings of helplessness, fear of the perpetrator’s ability to coerce sexual cooperation, and fear of job-related repercussions for failing to cooperate all contribute to sustained health problems and poor performance at work.

Coping with harassment is burdensome. Some women attempt to ignore or appease the harasser, some seek social support from their friends and family or therapy from professionals. Coping mechanisms also include:

Minimizing or normalizing the incidents ...; strategizing about how to be better prepared to respond to future incidents ...; engaging in mindfulness, spiritual, and self-healing activities; engaging in exercise or physical activity; trying to get tougher; and staying focused on their careers.

Although some women who experienced harassment received empathy and support from colleagues, particularly other women, many women received negative reactions along the lines of “this is not going to go well for you if you report.” So most women do not report harassers - only 25% of targets file formal complaints with their organization (Cortina and Berdahl 2008), and women of color — Black women, Latina women, Asian American women — report less frequently. Reporting is often a burdensome, drawn out process, with no guarantee of justice; the same study also found that women are reluctant to report because of the “fear of blame, disbelief, inaction, retaliation, humiliation, ostracism, and damage to one’s career and reputation.” Those who do report to immediate superiors are often asked to simply “work it out” and are discouraged from further reporting. The likelihood of paying a career price, including retaliation, is especially high because confidentiality is not guaranteed. Indeed, the NAS report found that:

Women and nonwhites often resist naming something “discrimination” because it promotes their victimhood and loss of control [including] negative reactions such as contempt and laughter against women and African Americans who claim to have experienced discrimination.

Thanks to decades of activism by feminist groups, there are two existing federal laws applicable to sexual harassment in academic settings. Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964, “prohibiting sex discrimination and construing harassment as part of discrimination,” applies to employees — in academic institutions, this applies to faculty, staff, researchers, and often, students. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 bans “discrimination on the basis of sex under any education program or activity receiving federal funds” — applying to almost any educational institute in the US.

Although these laws prohibit sexual discrimination, their implementation in addressing sexual harassment has been problematic. In particular, the interpretation of institutional liability by the courts, including the Supreme Court, has allowed institutions to get away with doing the bare minimum without holding harassers accountable or changing hostile environments. The report says that: 

The incentive is to avoid liability by creating policies and procedures, and the assumption is that targets will quickly and vigorously use them ... the courts in practice require employers to show only “file cabinet compliance” (i.e., the existence of policies and procedures on paper) before shifting the burden to the harassed employee to prove any retaliation or fears of retaliation or to justify why she delayed in reporting the harassment.

The stark truth is existing structures that claim to address sexual harassment are inadequate and not designed to bring justice to victims. They primarily protect institutions from legal liability; the report goes on to state that “though laws have been in place to protect women from sexual harassment in academic settings for more than 30 years, the prevalence of sexual harassment has changed little in that time.” Almost every formal complaint to a Title IX office does not yield meaningful resolution because the process lacks transparency and is so cumbersome that it dissuades victims from filing complaints in the first place.

In practice, a combination of multiple legal, institutional, and sociological factors keep victims from getting justice:

  1. Gender harassment is the most common type of harassment, but it is not widely recognized by institutions as a form of sexual harassment; ambient harassment is rarely acknowledged or addressed.

  2. Universities function as “quasi governments” with their own internal police forces, dispute and grievance resolution systems, counselors and mental health services, and administrators overseeing these systems. How these systems function differs across institutions and these systems are rarely accountable to outside authorities, especially in private institutions.

  3. The tenure system, unique to academic institutions, results in extreme employment inequality: those with tenure can almost never be fired; those on the tenure track are dependent on their tenured colleagues and are therefore dissuaded from reporting; those without tenure are entirely dependent on the goodwill of tenured faculty to advance in their careers — therefore, most have little incentive to report.

  4. The system presumes that targets of harassment will report without fear of retaliation, which is far from reality;  the existing legal framework does not sufficiently protect targets from retaliation and has a high bar for what constitutes as harassment or a hostile work environment (link to Clark County School District v. Broden Title VII case)

  5. Many institutions have mandatory reporting requirements — i.e., require their employees to report any disclosures from students about sexual assault or harassment. This can be harmful because it takes control away from those who’ve already been victimized and further dissuades reporting; mandatory reporting can also increase victims’ post traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.

  6. Sexual harassment training policies, which typically amount to little more than symbolic compliance, do not reduce harassment. However, there are no incentives to modify training and the report says that “fears of legal liability often prevent institutions from being willing to effectively evaluate training for its measurable impact on reducing harassment.” Thus, institutions fail to train employees or protect victims yet these same institutions are fully legally compliant with anti-harassment laws.

The systematic ineffectiveness of anti-harassment policies, including Title IX regulations, leads to a question: is it ethically responsible to tell victims to report harassment to their institutions and their Title IX offices? The report describes that the most effective coping mechanisms for targets of harassment are the support of friends and family and mental health counseling. They almost never receive any real form of institutional support — all the burden is therefore placed on the victims and their families/friends.

In the absence of any other levers of power, how can we ensure that universities take action and fundamentally change how they deal with and punish harassment? Although Title VII and Title IX have the teeth we need, Supreme Court rulings and institutional inaction has rendered them ineffective to deal with sexual harassment. We need more targeted legislation that specifically addresses sexual harassment and holds institutions accountable. We also need institutions to be willing to implement them as intended, to protect the victims and create safe working environments at their institutions.

The report stresses that existing hierarchical power structures (largely male and white), combined with a culture that is wholly dismissive of women’s experiences and a system that prioritizes avoiding liability over protecting victims have all led to a truly toxic environment for women and other marginalized groups in academia. The entire system needs to be overhauled at every level, grounded in the revolutionary idea that women — women of color, non-cis women, immigrant women — deserve to feel safe and welcome in their work environments. Women deserve to have careers in academia and lives unburdened by harassment in all its dubious forms.

The “meritocracy” of academia fails women repeatedly — it fails to account for the many negative career impacts of harassment, including mental and physical health impacts, decrease in scientific output, various other career sacrifices, and potential retaliation from harassers and others in power. People in positions of power maintain are complicit in the rampant sexual harassment in academia, whether they are harassers themselves or whether they choose to turn a blind eye to the harassment at their institutions. And academic institutions are complicit in creating and perpetuating the system that does little to protect victims, thereby severely damaging the integrity and quality of scholarly work.

The report includes a comprehensive list of solutions. They focus on the need to change the culture and climate of academia itself, from how organizations are structured, to the need to pass legislation that acknowledges the reality of harassment, to “diversity and inclusion” initiatives, cultivating a respectful environment, creating a supportive environment for targets of harassment, improved transparency and accountability from institutions, and effective sexual harassment training. Federal agencies that control research funding have a significant role to play, and agencies like the National Science Foundation are beginning to institute stricter policies. The report emphasizes that we need to change behaviors, not beliefs, through laws, policies, and training.

The National Academies is the most prominent and prestigious scientific organization in the U.S., created by an act of Congress to provide expert scientific advice to the federal government. Many prominent members of the Academies have been publicly accused of sexual harassment; many more have not been publicly ‘outed’. Although the majority of the sexual harassment report  authors are not elected members of the Academies, this report is from the NASEM and clearly outlines the pervasiveness of harassment in science. After having published this report, how is NASEM doing to address the prevalence of sexual harassment within its own membership? This report says that highest incident of sexual harassments are in the male dominated environments and within environments with clear and rigid power structures. Most of the NAS members are men, usually in positions of power — and some of those men have been accused of sexual harassment repeatedly. So far, they remain members of the National Academies and the report’s set of recommendations does not appear to apply to them or broadly to the National Academies.

In the past, NAS has refused to acknowledge that sexual harassment is scientific misconduct. In a 1992 NAS report on integrity in the research process, “the NAS defined research misconduct as fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism,” and said “sexual harassment and financial mismanagement are illegal behaviors regardless of whether scientists are involved, but these actions are different from misconduct in science because they do not compromise, in a direct manner, the integrity of the research process.” This NAS definition, and exclusion of sexual harassment as a form of research misconduct, influenced how the federal government and most government-funded institutions defined misconduct. What the NAS says and does matters beyond its own doors, beyond the ivory tower. The NAS has the opportunity to set policy and fundamentally change how we address sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and discrimination in academia. What an incredible opportunity for NAS to truly make a difference. We hope they take this opportunity to create change instead of publishing another report stating what we already know: that academia is a hostile environment, that sexual harassment is commonplace, and that harassers go on with impunity.

This report is the beginning, not the end, of the institutional and legal effort to end harassment. The suggested solutions in it, as the report states, should be seen as the minimum standard. We need to overhaul institutional practices, legislation to hold institutions and offenders liable, and work to change the behaviors and beliefs of those in academia. And we need to continue speaking out.

To learn more about what individuals can do to root out sexual harassment, you can read our op-ed for Scientific American, published in December 2017.