Report: Academia Must Approach Sexual Harassment as Cultural Problem

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In order to prevent and effectively respond to sexual harassment, higher education institutions need to approach it as a cultural problem instead of a legal one, according to a new report.

The report, conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and released on June 12, examines sexual harassment of women in academic sciences, engineering and medicine.

Overall, the report concluded that the current approach to sexual harassment in those academic fields has led to significant damage in research integrity and loss of talent.

Additionally, it found there is no evidence that current policies, procedures and approaches – which the study describes as focused on symbolic compliance with the law and on avoiding liability – have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment.

According to a survey conducted by the University of Texas System of undergraduate and graduate students, 20 percent of female science students, more than 25 percent of female engineering students and more than 40 percent of female medical students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

Similarly, another report conducted by the Pennsylvania State University System found 33 percent of its female undergraduates and 43 percent of its female graduate students in all disciplines experienced sexual harassment from faculty and staff, along with 50 percent of female medical students.

The report also found gender harassment to be by far the most common form of sexual harassment, which includes verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender, the report says.

Gender harassment, says the report, communicates that women do not belong or do not merit respect and although it is often unrecognized as a type of sexual harassment, it can result in the same negative outcomes as instances of sexual coercion.

What Can Higher Ed Institutes Do to Prevent Sexual Harassment?

Colleges, universities and federal agencies must move beyond basic legal compliance and adopt holistic, evidence-based policies to address sexual harassment, says the report. Sexual harassment is less likely to occur when systems support diversity, inclusion and respect, it continues.

“A change to the culture and climate in our nation’s colleges and universities can stop the pattern of harassing behavior from impacting the next generation of women entering science, engineering, and medicine,” said Paula Johnson, co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and president of Wellesley College.

Recommendations include welcoming women to all stations of campus leadership and diffusing power hierarchies. One way to do the latter, says the report, would be to move away from a single adviser-advisee model to one in which students are advised by a group of mentors and in which graduate students’ funding is tied to the department instead of a single faculty member.

In many cases, graduate students who have reported harassment said they felt pressure not to compromise a relationship with a key adviser whose grants provided them funding, even when the relationship was abusive.

Furthermore, the study urges Congress and state legislatures to consider a range of actions, including prohibiting confidentiality in settlement agreements and letting lawsuits be filed directly against alleged harassers and not just their institutions.

Judges, academic institutions and administrative agencies are also urged to rely on scientific evidence about the behavior of victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment when assessing compliance with the law and the merits of individual claims.

To read more on the report’s findings, click here.

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