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Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (CWSEM)
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
May 24-25, 2016 Beckman Center
Huntington Room
100 Academy Drive
Irvine, CA

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With support from the Luce Foundation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (CWSEM) held a scoping workshop on May 24-25, 2016 at the Beckman Center in Irvine, California on addressing sexual harassment in the science, engineering, and medical workplaces. Over the course of the two-day workshop the committee heard presentations from legal experts; leaders in social science research on sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, academia, and medicine; and representatives from federal agencies, universities, and academic and medical associations. Presentations from this diverse group of stakeholders, leaders, and scholars, provided breadth and nuance to the discussion, and offered important information, perspectives, and data for the committee to consider as it moves forward with an effort to launch a full Academies’ consensus study on the topic of addressing sexual harassment in the science, engineering, and medical workforce.

The workshop began with introductory remarks from the CWSEM Chair, Dr. Rita Colwell. Dr. Colwell's remarks emphasized the seriousness and pervasiveness of sexual harassment and touched upon sexual harassment as a moral and ethical issue that has far-reaching social and economic impacts on our nation. Dr. Colwell reinforced CWSEM's passionate commitment to addressing the issue of sexual harassment and reasserted the committee's intention to use the workshop as the first step toward launching a full scale Academies’ study, consensus report, and dissemination and outreach effort.

The first panel focused on challenges for academic institutions and was comprised of Laura Faer, the Chief Attorney of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in San Francisco; Christopher Krebs, Senior Research Social Scientist at RTI International; Lilia Cortina, Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at University of Michigan; and Vicki Magley, Professor of Psychology at University of Connecticut. Speaking as a representative of the federal government’s office responsible for the enforcement of Title IX, Faer provided an overview of the definition of sexual harassment under Title IX and of the different kinds of harassment that can occur, including administrative (supervisor to subordinate), peer-to-peer, and third-party harassment. She went on to provide an overview of the factors the OCR considers in a Title IX case, including the type of harassment, the degree to which the harassment is severe, pervasive, and persistent; the impact on the victim and the school climate; and the nature of accountability in different circumstances. Faer concluded with OCR's guidelines for schools in effectively upholding Title IX. Faer's presentation was followed by a presentation by Christopher Krebs on the findings from a Campus Climate Survey of nine institutions of higher education that examined the prevalence and reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses. Krebs’ data showed a high prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment on campuses, with a high degree of variation across the nine campuses studied. The survey also found that only a small percentage (roughly 10 percent) of those victimized by sexual assault and sexual harassment reported these violations—a finding consistently reported by other presentations throughout the two-day workshop. Krebs' presentation was followed by presentations from Cortina and Magley on sexual harassment in the workplace. Cortina began by introducing the social science definition of sexual harassment and its relationship to the legal definition. In contrast to the legal definition, the social science definition breaks down sexual harassment into three related behaviors: sexual coercion (quid pro quo), unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment. Cortina presented data on the high prevalence of sexual harassment in male dominated environments, such as the military, and drew parallels between aspects of the military environment and aspects of the environment in some fields within science, engineering, and medicine, such as the male dominated nature of many of these fields, the power relationships that exist in hierarchical workplaces, and the isolated and remote working environments that some scientists, engineers, and medical professionals must work in in order to conduct their research and practice. Cortina also presented data showing the negative impact of sexually harassing behaviors on the physical, psychological, and professional well-being of victims, regardless of whether the victim labeled the harassing behaviors as sexual harassment,. She showed data that demonstrated that gender harassment, rather than sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention, is the most common form of harassment experienced by victims. Moreover, Cortina’s data showed that “gender harassment (and sexism) has at least as great-- if not greater-- impact on professional and personal health, compared to unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.” Magley’s presentation examined individual and organizational responses to sexual harassment with a particular focus on the factors that influence victim’s well-being and reporting of sexual harassment and the efficacy of organizations’ efforts to prevent sexual harassment through training. Her findings demonstrated that fear of retaliation is one key factor in linking the victim’s experiences with their well-being and likelihood of reporting. Magley also addressed the paucity of data on the effectiveness of organizations’ sexual harassment training and raised the topic of civility and respect training as a possible precursor to sexual harassment training (though she was clear to point out that civility and respect training should not be conducted in such a way that minimizes the significance of sexual harassment as a particular issue unto itself within the workplace). Magley spoke to the growing evidence on the importance of cynicism among sexual harassment training participants as a barrier to training effectiveness. She highlighted this point as potentially important to efforts to design more effective sexual harassment interventions. Finally, Magely raised the point, made by other speakers as well, that efforts to address sexual harassment must take context into account, as sexual harassment occurs within particular units in an institution and any effective intervention has to consider the culture and climate of these units and the role of the unit leadership in promoting a climate that is intolerant of sexual harassment. As with all the workshop panels, this panel was followed by a rigorous discussion between the CWSEM committee members, the panelists, and the workshop attendees.

In the second panel of the day, the committee heard from Kathryn Clancy, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Gilda Barabino, Dean of Engineering at the City College of New York. Clancy, who recently published a study that reported on sexual harassment at scientific field sites, and is currently in the process of publishing a study on sexual harassment in astronomy, spoke to the importance of interrogating power and privilege in addressing sexual harassment and to considering how the intersectionality of race and gender in sexual harassment acts to drive minority women out of scientific, engineering, and medical fields at a disproportionate rate compared to white women. Clancy’s data on sexual harassment at scientific field sites showed that female trainees were most likely to be harassed, that this harassment was most likely to come from a supervisor or mentor, and that sexual harassment is reported at a strikingly lower rate than it occurs. Clancy challenged federal science agencies to terminate funding to perpetrators of sexual harassment. Barabino also spoke to the intersectionality of race and gender in sexual harassment and reiterated the point—made by many speakers throughout the workshop--that while the cases of grievous sexual assault may garner the greatest public and media attention, the more subtle forms of sexual harassment that take the form of gender harassment, sexism, and microaggression are much more common and have an insidious influence that likely contributes to the underrepresentation of women, and minority women in particular, in many fields.

The final panel of the day focused on challenges to business and industry. The committee heard from Telle Whitney, the CEO and President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. Whitney shared the findings of the “Elephant in the Valley Survey” that surveyed 200 people in the tech industry and found that 60 percent had experienced sexual harassment, only 10 percent had reported the harassment to human resources, and 39 percent did not report out of fear that it would negatively impact their careers. Of those that did report, 29 percent signed a non-disparagement agreement. Whitney also spoke to the ways that different types of businesses (venture capital, start-ups, large established companies, etc.) may differ in terms of workplace culture and the maturity of company policies and procedures intended to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. For example, Whitney mentioned that tech start-ups that tend to have very few, mostly male, employees often lag behind large established companies in sexual harassment policies and procedures, such as required sexual harassment training. Whitney also spoke to the value of women’s conferences, such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, as safe places where women can come together and provide candid feedback on their negative workplace experiences and share concerns related to sexual harassment, such as a lack of trust for human resources, fear of retaliation, lack of transparency, and conference cultures that are actively hostile toward women.
The first day of the workshop ended with remarks from Gail Wyatt, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science and Director of the Sexual Health Program at University of California, Los Angeles. Wyatt spoke to the committee over dinner and focused her remarks on the intersectionality of race and gender in harassment, with a particular focus on the historic sexual abuse of African American women. Wyatt spoke personally about her own experience during the Anita Hill court trial during which she contacted Hill’s lawyers in a stymied effort to share data relevant to the court case.
The second day of the workshop began with a panel focused on healthcare professionals and funding agencies. The panel was comprised of Phyllis Carr of Massachusetts General Hospital, Patricia Recupero of Butler Hospital, and Brent Stanfield, the Acting Deputy Director, Office of Extramural Research, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health. Carr began with a presentation of her work on sexual harassment in academic medicine. In keeping with studies in other sectors, Carr's data demonstrated a high prevalence of sexual harassment among women in academic medicine, with nearly half (48 percent ) having experienced sexist remarks or behaviors and nearly 30 percent experiencing more severe forms of harassment. Carr’s findings also demonstrated that sexual harassment influenced career satisfaction for women, but not for men, and those women who had experienced sexual harassment perceived more gender bias in their institution than those that did not. Carr's presentation was followed by a presentation by Recupero, who presented data from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) Medical School Graduate Questionnaire, a study of sexual harassment and assault at a private northeastern university, and the results of a 2015 American Association of Universities (AAU) Campus Survey of Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. Again, these studies demonstrated that the prevalence of sexual harassment was high among women and that rate of reporting was relatively low. The final presentation of the panel was from Stanfield who provided an overview of NIH's ongoing efforts to measure and address sexual harassment. Stanfield also provided some clarification of the institutional and legal parameters within which NIH must work when responding to title IX violations by extramural researchers.

The final panel of the workshop was focused on challenges to remedying sexual harassment in the workplace. The committee heard from Christopher Uggen, a Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Minnesota; Anita Levy, a Senior Program Officer at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); and Yesenia Gallegos, Partner, Fox Rothschild LLP. Uggen began with a presentation of his longitudinal survey work on the personal financial impact of sexual harassment. He also raised the issue of contrapower harassment, in which female senior officials experience harassment by junior male colleagues. Uggen stated that there is no gold standard for measuring sexual harassment and that comparison groups are important. His data shows long-term, negative mental health and financial impacts of sexual harassment. Uggen's presentation, like others, emphasized that the rate of reporting incidents of sexual harassment is low, but he added that those that do report to friends or family are more likely to go on to formally report the harassment. He also raised the point that while we know a lot about the victimology of women who are sexually harassed, we know very little about the men who harass. Uggen presented a preliminary criminological model of how organizational climate and the psychological profile of the perpetrator may contribute to the occurrence and type of sexual harassment perpetrated and perpetuated. Uggen's presentation was followed by Levy’s remarks summarizing the recent AAUP report on the uses and abuses of Title IX. She asserted that the OCR made changes to their guidance to institutions in 2011 that conflated sexually harassing conduct and speech and expanded the definition of "hostile environment" and that these changes have led to overzealous and inappropriate enforcement of Title IX that threatens freedom of speech and academic freedom. Furthermore, Levy's remarks reflected concerns put forth in the AAUP report about the use of lower evidentiary standards in Title IX cases that require a "preponderance of evidence," as is typical in civil cases, rather than a higher standard of "clear and convincing evidence." Levy argued that since these cases can result in a faculty member's dismissal from the university, which is the "capital punishment of the academy," a higher evidentiary standard is more appropriate. The panel concluded with remarks from Gallegos on the legal perspective and challenges for employers. Gallegos echoed the point made by other workshop presenters that sexual coercion and quid pro quo type harassment are rare compared to claims of a hostile work environment stemming from gender harassment and sexism. Gallegos remarked that employers struggle with fundamental confusion over what constitutes sexual harassment and often put strict policies into place out of fear of lawsuits. She also raised the point that cultural factors can play a role in different perceptions of which behaviors constitute sexual harassment and that employers have to develop responsible policies to prevent real or perceived retaliation since "plaintiffs win cases over retaliation." Gallegos clarified that, in California, any company with over 50 employees must provide mandatory sexual harassment training.

The workshop concluded as it had begun, with remarks from CWSEM Chair, Rita Colwell. Dr. Colwell thanked the presenters for their valuable contributions and once again articulated the seriousness of the issue of sexual harassment and the committee's commitment to move forward with a full study on sexual harassment in science, engineering, and medicine.

Emerging Themes

Several themes arose during the two days of presentations, among which were the following:

• The prevalence of sexual harassment of all forms was high. Studies from a variety of sectors, institutions, sample populations, timeframes, and using a variety of methodological approaches, reported that somewhere in the range of 40-70 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment during their careers or as students. This range of prevalence was strikingly consistent across different studies, though it should be noted that the Campus Climate Survey conducted by Krebs et al., showed a great deal of variation in prevalence among nine different universities, suggesting that some universities’ approaches to preventing sexual harassment may be more effective than others.

• The most common form of sexual harassment is gender harassment; with unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion occurring less frequently.

• Only a small percent of victims of sexual harassment report the harassment.

• One major reason victims are unlikely to report harassment is fear of retaliation.

• Though many institutions and organizations provide sexual harassment prevention training, these trainings are very rarely evaluated for their effectiveness. Those few trainings that have been evaluated demonstrate only weak efficacy.

• The nature of the scientific enterprise, including the frequency in which small groups of scholars and researchers are required to work long hours in isolated settings, and the extent to which the academic and career advancement of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals is dependent on securing the approval and endorsement of a single powerful supervisor/mentor, is something that merits much deeper study in terms of understanding the effects of sexual harassment on the retention of women in STEM careers.

• There is an important need for a comprehensive national study of this issue, both to analyze the existing data (and formulate findings and recommendations that arise from such an analysis) and to better understand the existing data gaps and how further research can address them. For example, any Academies’ study will have to address the relative lack of data on the influence of sexual harassment on the career choices of women, either by conducting original research or by commissioning additional research; the effectiveness of existing training practices; and the economic impact on women’s professional careers in STEM fields.

Suggested Remedies

Several of the presenters proposed recommendations for addressing sexual harassment. Those proposals included:

• Create a central body within an institution, at an appropriate administrative level, and outside of the chain of command of the complainant, to which claims of sexual harassment could be reported and through which the claims would be investigated.

• Since sexual harassment often occurs within a local context, within a unit inside a larger organization or institution, sexual harassment interventions should be tailored to these contexts. For example, within a university, it may be appropriate to provide the chairs of academic departments with specialized training in sexual harassment prevention, policies, and procedures.

• Identify mechanisms that will allow federal funding agencies to withdraw or reallocate funding from violators of Title IX within an appropriate timeframe.

• Learn more about those institutions in which sexual harassment is less prevalent in order to find out what best practices are in place.

• Ensure that institutions provide sexual harassment trainings and that these trainings are evaluated for their effectiveness. Consider reframing sexual harassment in the context of training on workplace civility and respect as a precursor to sexual harassment training.

• Promote transparent executive leadership that positively influences workplace culture.