Sexual Harassment in Academic Science, Engineering, and Medicine

A Report in 2018 by the National Academies.

The persistent sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine, and its adverse impacts on women’s careers, is jeopardizing more rapid and sustained progress in closing the gender gap in these fields.

Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

Over the last few decades, research, activity, and funding has been devoted to improving the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine. In recent years the diversity of those participating in these fields, particularly the participation of women, has improved and there are significantly more women entering careers and studying science, engineering, and medicine than ever before. However, as women increasingly enter these fields they face biases and barriers and it is not surprising that sexual harassment is one of these barriers.

Over thirty years the incidence of sexual harassment in different industries has held steady, yet now more women are in the workforce and in academia, and in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine (as students and faculty) and so more women are experiencing sexual harassment as they work and learn. Over the last several years, revelations of the sexual harassment experienced by women in the workplace and in academic settings have raised urgent questions about the specific impact of this discriminatory behavior on women and the extent to which it is limiting their careers.

Sexual Harassment of Women explores the influence of sexual harassment in academia on the career advancement of women in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce. This report reviews the research on the extent to which women in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine are victimized by sexual harassment and examines the existing information on the extent to which sexual harassment in academia negatively impacts the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women pursuing scientific, engineering, technical, and medical careers. It also identifies and analyzes the policies, strategies and practices that have been the most successful in preventing and addressing sexual harassment in these settings.

Key Highlights

Addressing and preventing sexual harassment requires attending to all three forms of sexual harassment:

1) gender harassment (sexist hostility and crude behavior),

(2) unwanted sexual attention (unwelcome verbal or physical sexual advances), and

(3) sexual coercion (when favorable professional or educational treatment is conditioned
on sexual activity).

Attending to an organization’s climate is crucial to preventing and addressing harassment because organizational climate is the greatest predictor of sexual harassment. Organizations with tolerant, or even perceived tolerant, climates show higher rates of sexual harassment than those seen as intolerant. Unfortunately, academic institutions are often perceived as tolerant, and based on the best available studies to date, more than
50 percent of women faculty and staff report having been harassed. Student surveys of university systems show disturbingly similar high rates, with 20–50 percent of women students experiencing sexually harassing behavior perpetrated by faculty/staff, and women students in academic medicine experience more frequent sexual harassment than those in science and engineering.

The persistent sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine, and its adverse impacts on women’s careers, is jeopardizing more rapid and sustained progress in closing the gender gap in these fields. Across all industry sectors, occupations, races, ethnicities, and social classes, sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and their mental and physical health. For women faculty in science, engineering, and medicine, the professional outcomes from being sexually harassed include stepping down from leadership opportunities to avoid the perpetrator, leaving their institution, and leaving their field altogether. Additionally, when sexual harassment occurs in research environments it can undermine core values of research integrity. The cumulative effect of sexual harassment is significant damage to research integ- rity and a costly loss of talent in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine.

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