Report Calls for Widespread Change to Combat Sexual Harassment in Academia

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A majority of women in academia say they have been sexually harassed, and that harassment remains a significant barrier to women in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields, according to a new report.

The report — released Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — warned that persistent sexual harassment is jeopardizing any progress toward closing the gender gap in STEM fields.

“What is especially discouraging about this situation is that at the same time that so much energy and money is being invested in efforts to attract and retain women in science, engineering, and medical fields, it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields,” the report says. “Even when they remain, their ability to contribute and advance in their field can be limited as a consequence of sexual harassment.”

According to the report, the problem is particularly pronounced within STEM fields because they continue to function as a male-dominated hierarchy where power is often concentrated with one person who has “academic star power.” In addition, the meritocracy in such fields might not forgive the lack of productivity or morale that can result when a person becomes the victim of harassment.

Though the study was launched in 2016, its release comes amid a national reckoning over sexual harassment and the treatment of women in the workplace. Accusations of assault and harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein kicked off a wave of allegations against male leaders in other industries, including academia.

Even before the #MeToo movement began, there was the high-profile example of UCLA history professor Gabriel Piterberg, who was fired for sexual harassment in 2016 — but only after years of legal battles and student protests.

“This is a shameful waste of precious human resources and our investment in human potential, and it can be devastating for the women who are harassed, undermining their professional and educational attainment and their mental and physical health,” National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt said in a statement Tuesday.

But the NAS, which helped author Tuesday’s report, has also been accused of excusing the behavior of harassers. A petition started last month called on the NAS to revoke the membership of people who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment or assault.

The report recommends 15 solutions, calling on universities to foster diverse, inclusive environments; diffuse hierarchical relationships between trainees and faculty members; and provide better support services on campus, among other things.

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