Guest blog by Evelynn Hammonds, PhD

Sexual Harassment of Women cover image

On June 12, 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a groundbreaking report entitled, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. As in other arenas of American life, the issue of sexual harassment of women has finally been recognized as a problem in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine. The report focuses on “the ways in which sexual harassment in these fields causes significant damage to research integrity and leads to a costly loss of talent in these academic fields.”

The report was prepared under the auspices of the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine of the National Academies (Full disclosure: I am a member of this committee.) which convened a distinguished committee of experts from higher education, medicine and the corporate and political sectors to review the issues and prepare an evidence-based report on the impact of sexual harassment in academia.

The report forcefully states that colleges, universities and federal agencies “…should move beyond basic legal compliance to adopt holistic, evidence-based policies and practices to address sexual harassment.” But most importantly the report notes that “sexual harassment often occurs in an environment of generalized incivility and disrespect. In contrast, sexual harassment is less likely to occur when organizational systems and structures support diversity, inclusion, and respect.”

In what I consider to be an unusual step for the National Academies, this report puts its findings forcefully front and center. Here is a short list of some of its findings:

  1. “Sexual harassment is common in academic science, engineering, and medicine.”
  2. “The best available analysis to date found that 58 percent of women faculty and staff in academia (all disciplines, not limited to science, engineering and medicine) experienced sexual, harassment…. Other research shows that women of color experience more harassment – sexual, racial/ethnic, or a combination of the two – than other groups.”
  3. “Organizational climate is the single most important factor in determining whether sexual harassment is likely to happen in a work setting.”
  4. “Gender harassment is by far the most common form of sexual harassment”.
  5. “Sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health.”
  6. “Sexual harassment training has not been demonstrated to change behavior.”

The recommendations in the report are intended to provide a roadmap for academic institutions that want to change the culture and climate that has allowed sexual harassment to go on unchecked including:

  1. Address the most common form of sexual harassment: gender harassment.
  2. Move beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate.
  3. Create diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments.
  4. Improve transparency and accountability.
  5. Diffuse hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty.
  6. Provide support for the target.
  7. Strive for strong and diverse leadership.

In summary—“colleges and universities need strong leadership, increased transparency and accountability.”

I strongly urge everyone who is concerned about the advancement of all women in STEM fields to read this report and take its findings to heart. It deserves to be read, discussed and debated in every college and university across the country.

(All quotes, findings and recommendations cited in this post are taken from the highlights of the report prepared by the National Academies.)

Dr. Evelynn Hammonds is the Chair of the Department of the History of Science and Professor of African American Studies at Harvard University. She is a member of the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine that provided oversight in the drafting of this report.

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