Academic institutions can do more to change culture to prevent sexual harassment

photo of group of women facing away from the viewer, against a blue backdrop. Text reads "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine"
photo of group of women facing away from the viewer, against a blue backdrop. Text reads "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine"

Three University of Michigan professors on committee that released new national report
by Jared Wadley, Senior Public Relations Representative
University of Michigan News

 

In the #MeToo era, academic institutions can do more to prevent sexual harassment, especially in historically male-dominated fields, such as science, engineering, and medicine.

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine finds that a systemwide change to the culture and climate in higher education is needed to prevent sexual harassment. The current policies, procedures and approaches have not resulted in significant reduction in sexual harassment.

A 21-member committee who worked on the report included three University of Michigan researchers:

  • Lilia M Cortina, professor of psychology, women’s studies, and management and organizations

  • Timothy R.B. Johnson, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Studies

  • Anna Kirkland, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Women's Studies and director, Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG)

Some of the report’s findings:

  • Organizational climate is the single most important factor in determining whether sexual harassment is likely to happen in a work setting.  

  • When women are sexually harassed, their least common response is to formally report the experience. These women fear retaliation or other negative outcomes if they report the incidents.

  • Sexual harassment training has not been demonstrated to change people’s behaviors or beliefs.

The report called upon university leadership -- from college and university presidents to department chairs -- to heed several recommendations, including:

  • Improve transparency and accountability. Academic institutions should develop and share clear policies on sexual harassment and standards of behavior.

  • Diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between faculty and trainees.

  • Provide support for targets of sexual harassment.

Cortina said academic institutions must move beyond the policies and trainings that often focus on symbolic compliance with the law and on avoiding liability. In addition, the focus should not simply involve obvious acts of abuse, she said. “Those acts simply don’t happen without a firm foundation of disrespect and derision and devaluation of women,” Cortina said.

More than half of women faculty and staff and 20-50 percent of women students encounter or experience sexually harassing conduct in academia, the report finds. In addition to students, trainees, and faculty being harassed by colleagues and those in leadership, they also report harassment from patients and patients’ families.

“Among the groups we surveyed, we found that female students in academic medicine experienced the most frequent gender harassment perpetrated by faculty, staff and patient families,” Johnson said. “Several factors may increase risk for sexual harassment in medicine. It’s a male-dominated and isolating environment in which faculty and trainees spend considerable time, and hierarchical and dependent relationships between faculty and their trainees are prevalent.”

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

“This report delivers some really tough news,” Kirkland said. “Laws against sexual harassment haven't solved the problem, trainings do not seem to be very effective, and women continue to be driven from careers in science, technology, and medicine through exclusion and contempt, not just sexual advances. Administrators and attorneys in higher education must realize that we need new approaches that grapple with what the research and the targets themselves tell us."

The new report is titled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.”

Report hightlights are availabe here (PDF).

Infographic from National Academies report: "Preventing Sexual Harassment in Academia"

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