Research agencies have been urged to tie funding decisions to universities’ strategies to tackle sexual misconduct, after a damning report found that the majority of female scientists in US academia had experienced or encountered sexual harassment.
A study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine highlights the prevalence of sexual harassment in those fields, claiming that the dominance of men in positions of power, the hierarchical and dependent relationships between academics and their trainees, and the isolating environments in which these staff and students spend their time (such as laboratories and hospitals) created “higher levels of risk for sexual harassment to occur”.
It claims that academic science, engineering and medicine has an “organisational tolerance for sexually harassing behaviour” because it fails to take complaints seriously, sanction perpetrators or protect complainants from retaliation, and that universities are overly focused on policies that represent basic legal compliance rather than trying to change their culture to prevent harassment.
More than half of female faculty and staff and 20 to 50 per cent of female students in those subjects experience sexual harassment in academia, according to the report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which recommends treating sexual misconduct as seriously as research misconduct in terms of its effect on the integrity of research.
The report sparked an international debate on how the higher education sector should deal with misconduct on campus.
Anna Bull, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth and co-founder of the 1752 Group, a research and lobby organisation working to end sexual misconduct in higher education, said that the report “shows ways in which the US is further ahead than the UK in tackling sexual harassment within academia”.
“Even the publication of this report is far beyond the kind of investment and attention we have seen here in the UK to date on this issue,” she said.
She said that research funders, “most urgently UK Research and Innovation, should follow the lead of the Wellcome Trust and the US National Science Foundation, in tying receipt of funding to appropriate institutional structures to deal with sexual misconduct”. They should also implement guidelines around restrictions to funding for “staff who have had disciplinary charges of sexual misconduct upheld against them”, she said.
“After all, universities have to ensure the physical safety of students and staff within laboratories or on fieldwork, in handling dangerous materials, for example, so why isn’t being safe from predatory sexual attention from supervisors or other staff also part of universities’ responsibilities?” she asked.
Dr Bull added that Athena SWAN gender equality accreditation should also introduce guidelines on prevention, data gathering, and responses to sexual harassment as part of the requirements for obtaining an award, and the Office for Students should record the number of reports, investigations and outcomes of sexual harassment complaints within universities across the country.
Janet Bandows Koster, executive director of the US-based Association for Women in Science, said that while the National Academies report “confirms the depth to which sexual harassment continues to be pervasive, it shrinks from addressing real systemic issues along the entire STEM career pathway including peer review, publishing, and how science is funded”.
“Only when we shine a light on and tackle these outdated norms will we be able to truly achieve diverse and inclusive STEM workplaces,” she said.