House Panel Unites Against Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

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Publication date: 
6 March 2018
Number: 
25

At a recent House Science Committee hearing, members were united in calling for changes necessary to ensure institutions of research and higher education are free of sexual harassment. Witnesses on an all-woman panel called for changes within a culture they say remains permissive of harassment and other misconduct.

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House Science Committee panel discusses issue of sexual harassment in the sciences

A panel of experts testifying on the issue of sexual harassment in the sciences before the Research and Technology Subcommittee of the House Science Committee on Feb. 27. Left to right: Rhonda Davis, Kathryn Clancy, Kristina Larsen, and Christine McEntee. 

(Image credit: National Science Foundation)

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) opened the House Science Committee hearing on sexual harassment and other misconduct in science with a true story drawn from recent events:

Imagine being a young astronomer and your dream of working with one of the most well renowned astronomers in the world comes true. And then imagine the horror when the professor you hope will be your mentor turns into your tormentor — a predator. You’re in his office and he tries to kiss you. You spurn his advances, but later at a work dinner, he puts his hand on your leg and slides it up your thigh under the table. You try to report the behavior, but some at the university are more interested in protecting one of their most powerful and lucrative researchers.

Speaking before a four-woman panel of witnesses representing academic, legal, scientific society, and federal agency perspectives, Comstock, who is the Chair of the Research and Technology Subcommittee and has become a champion for victims of sexual harassment in Congress, declared, “Sexual harassment, abuse of power, and intimidation in the workplace, classroom or research field site is unacceptable in any situation.”

The hearing’s focus on sexual harassment in the sciences takes place against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, which has spurred national momentum over the last year to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault.

However, this is not the first time sexual harassment in the sciences has risen to the attention of federal policymakers. The issue first gained widespread media attention in 2015 after several prominent men in the astronomical sciences were accused of sexual harassment. In 2016, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced legislation in response to the growing number of such accusations. And in 2017, five science funding agencies and three private organizations launched a National Academies study to examine the impacts of sexual harassment in academia and potential interventions to prevent and address it.

In addition, earlier this year House Science Committee leaders sent a bipartisan letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting a review of how federal science agencies handle harassment claims against researchers, the latest step in the committee’s investigation into how agencies and academic institutions respond to sexual harassment.

The National Science Foundation also recently announced that it plans to require all grantee institutions to report to the agency any harassment investigations and associated disciplinary actions.

Lawmakers worry sexual harassment damaging scientific enterprise, economy

While harassment and misconduct can happen in any workplace, regardless of gender identity, Comstock noted in her opening statement that women in the sciences are “particularly vulnerable.” She also pointed out that “Concerns about sexual harassment occur against a backdrop of women continuing to lag in many STEM fields and occupations.”

Comstock said the impacts of sexual harassment extend beyond victims to the broader society. She added,

This is such a human rights issue, it’s a sexual harassment issue, but we really need to look at this – how it impacts wages and the individuals and the economy in the bigger context. … This isn’t just doing the right thing, which is first and foremost very important. This is economically an issue that is costing our economy if we don’t get this right.

House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) raised concerns that harassment undermines federal efforts to promote women and girls in STEM. He said the scientific enterprise has a dual responsibility for ensuring a “fair, functioning process under the law” for addressing sexual harassment and establishing safe workplaces.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) pointed out that addressing this issue will remove barriers to scientific innovation. “A working environment that is free from harassment and abuse and power abuse will mean that researchers can focus their full attention on finding the next great scientific achievements,” she said.

Incremental forms of harassment most prevalent, but hardest to address

Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that while “come ons” — unwanted sexual advances and coercions — tend to be the focus of discussion of forms of harassment, it is “put downs” — offensive remarks, small exclusions, coffee-making requests, and other denigrating activities — that are more prevalent and are the main reason why women leave science.

Attorney Kristina Larsen said these types of gender-based transgressions are “nearly impossible to prove” due to their “incremental” nature and that many are not considered illegal under discrimination laws. Furthermore, she said that limitations in policing individual academic faculty actions make it easy for faculty to abuse their authority.

Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments protects individuals at all federally funded education programs or activities from gender-based discrimination — including sexual harassment and sexual violence. It requires federal grant-awarding agencies to enforce institutional compliance with the law, which typically entails investigating complaints and conducting compliance reviews. If the agencies find an institution has not remedied discrimination , Title IX gives them the discretion to terminate funding or refer the institution for judicial action. However, GAO has found that agency enforcement of Title IX compliance varies, a situation that the House Science Committee leaders called “troubling” in their letter.

In addition, Larsen said that there are still a number of problems with how institutions report and adjudicate complaints under anti-discrimination laws like Title IX that inhibit victims from coming forward. She said these include confusion over where to get help, secrecy surrounding the processing of complaints, and the potential for detrimental professional and personal consequences for women who do come forward.

Witnesses describe how harassment manifests in the sciences, suggest solutions

According to Clancy, sexual harassment occurs more frequently in workplaces that are male-dominated or have a male-oriented culture. Within the sciences, she said the prevalence of harassment may also stem from a culture that regards it as bound up with “intellectual rigor and meritocracy.” Chris McEntee, executive director of AGU, added that with much research in the Earth and space sciences involving remote field sites, it can also be quite difficult to enforce common workplace norms.

In the sciences, Clancy said sexual harassment has certain telltale signs:

Women having less access to their advisors, to the materials they need to conduct their research, and withstanding constant questioning of their intelligence and worth. I have stories from my research of sabotaged lab equipment, of intentional safety violations, or rumor mongering, and yes, sometimes of sexual assault and rape.

She argued further that science suffers from the loss of perspectives from women and other underrepresented groups, and alluded to a case of harassment by an Antarctic researcher: 

I’m thinking of the victims and the science we’ve lost. We’ve lost their ideas, we’ve lost their perspectives. We scientists do this work because we want to give the best of ourselves to the advancement of science. Women keep trying to give us their best, and we blow ash in their faces and push them down mountains.

To move forward, Clancy said the scientific enterprise needs to “move away from a culture of compliance and toward a culture of change.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) asked whether the impact of the #MeToo movement could generate fear and backlash against women in the sciences. McEntee responded “that fear already exists” and that “we can’t allow fear of backlash to stop us from trying to address and create the kind of positive work environment we need for science.”

Asked by Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) how science organizations and workplaces can be more proactive, Clancy and Larsen emphasized the importance of workplace climate surveys in identifying the underlying problems. Clancy stressed they “need to do a lot more of the hard work, not just slapping on a policy.” Larsen similarly advised against a standalone policy, saying, “I often tell people don’t write a zero-tolerance policy until you’re really clear on what you’re not tolerating.”

When Comstock asked the panel whether checklists of appropriate conduct could help, Clancy replied,

It’s on the PI or the boss or the director of the field site to be the one creating that checklist and the one responsible for it. … It really has to be the person in charge demonstrating leadership and making clear what’s acceptable and not acceptable in both implicit and explicit codes of conduct.

McEntee also added that bystanders should be trained to recognize and report harassment and misconduct. 

Federal efforts to tackle harassment ramping up

Rhonda Davis, head of NSF’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, testified at the hearing that the agency’s new grantee reporting requirements will go into effect following a 60-day public comment period. In addition, she said that NSF instituted a foundation-wide special task force to examine and collect “promising practices and model codes of conduct.” The agency also will soon launch a new web portal to make it easier for the research community and the public to access information about relevant policies and report harassment.        

Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) stressed that NSF needs to ensure that the new reporting requirements do not “chill the investigations of assault for fear of making a finding that jeopardizes grant money.” He then asked Davis whether NSF-funded researchers will be able to report misconduct directly to the agency, and she replied that the web portal will allow any individual to do so. Commenting on Lipinski’s concerns about a potential chilling effect, Davis said that institutions shying away from investigations “could be at their own peril.”

Policymakers are also exploring ways to update how sexual harassment is addressed through Title IX. For instance, the Higher Education Act reauthorization legislation approved by the House Education and Workforce Committee in December would require institutions to conduct confidential workplace climate surveys periodically, provide institutions the discretion to suspend or delay proceedings that are being investigated by local law enforcement, and ensure that investigations are “prompt, impartial, and fair to both the accuser and the accused.” Meanwhile, Politico reports that another idea gaining interest is the creation of independent regional centers that would examine allegations independently of institutions’ own investigations.

Scientific societies are key actors too

Scientific societies have also taken steps to address sexual harassment. McEntee explained how AGU has updated its ethics policy to define harassment, bullying, and discrimination as scientific misconduct and has revised its norms of acceptable scientific behavior. She said violations of the new policy could lead to revocation of awards or membership.

McEntee also noted that several other scientific societies, including the American Astronomical Society (AAS), an AIP Member Society, and the American Geosciences Institute have implemented similar guidelines and policies. AAS leaders have prominently addressed the issue of sexual harassment among individuals in the society in several missives.

Lipinski stressed the importance of the role scientific societies play in setting scientific culture. McEntee agreed, saying that addressing sexual harassment is “a community effort.” She described how AGU is collaborating with other societies and research institutions to develop an ethics resource center “that everyone in the community can benefit from.”

While committee members and witnesses applauded the recent steps some societies have taken to combat sexual harassment, McEntee stressed that additional efforts are still needed. Among her recommendations were implementing “universal policies” that have transparent reporting and adjudication processes, establishing new “smart training” approaches that encourage intervention, and passing legislation that “holds harassers accountable and encourages a safer, more inclusive environment for all scientists.”