Universities Must Do More to Stop Harassment: New Report

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, highly respected independent agencies, issued their first-ever report on sexual harassment and found that universities have failed to prevent sexual harassment. Pam Belluck of the New York Times writes that the conclusions of the 311-page report are the result of a two-year study started before the #MeToo movement began. Belluck notes that “academic workplaces are second only to the military in the rate of sexual harassment.” One study cited in the report found that 58 percent of academic employees report experiencing sexual harassment. The report also cited a 2017 survey by the University of Texas system of students in scientific fields that found the following rates of sexual harassment:

  • 20 percent of female science students.
  • More than 25 percent of female engineering students.
  • More than 40 percent of female medical students experience sexual harassment from faculty or staff members. In addition, female medical students experience sexual harassment from patients.
Belluck notes that the report identified three types of sexual harassment in universities:
  • Sexual coercion
  • Unwanted sexual attention
  • Gender harassment, described as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status.”
Gender harassment was by far the most common type women experienced. The National Academies report notes that the cost of any form of sexual harassment for women is high and can “undermine work and well-being in a whole host of ways.” For example, the experience can trigger depression, sleep disruption, cardiac stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Lilia Cortina, a member of the study team. Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, notes that sexual harassment experiences can be even worse for women of color and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. The cost to the scientific fields themselves is also high because women leave and the fields are not able to retain a full range of talent. The National Academies report states that universities must stop focusing on “symbolic compliance with current law” and on avoiding liability for their institutions and instead focus on preventing sexual harassment. Belluck notes that the report offers fifteen detailed recommendations, including
  • Overhauling academic advising systems so that students and junior researchers are not at the mercy of one senior researcher for advancement and access to grants.
  • Establishing informal ways for students and staff to report sexual harassment.
  • Urging legislators to pass laws so people can file harassment lawsuits directly against faculty and not just the university.
  • Abolishing nondisclosure agreements where settlements are made. These agreements currently allow a perpetrator to move on to other academic institutions without disclosure of their inappropriate behavior.
  • Adopting training programs that focus on changing behavior, not beliefs.
Ultimately, the cultures of academic institutions have to change if sexual harassment is to be prevented. Power structures, policies, and procedures that protect powerful faculty and prioritize protecting the institution from liability will never be able to create safe and respectful work environments for students and staff.   Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash]]>