National Academies: Policies Must Change to Curb Sexual Harassment

A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that despite increased attention on inappropriate behavior, efforts to reduce misconduct have not worked.

Jun 12, 2018
Ashley Yeager

Up to half of women in science experience sexual harassment, and the policies to prevent it aren’t working, according to a report released today (June 12) by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“Despite significant attention in recent years, there is no evidence to suggest that current policies, procedures, and approaches have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment,” the 311-page report states. It offers several detailed recommendations, some focused on changing funding and mentoring in academia, including a shift in advising so that students and less-experienced researchers don’t rely on a single senior scientist for grants and career coaching. Another recommendation was to develop laws so that suits could be filed directly against harassers rather than their employers, and so that those who settle cases cannot keep them confidential from future university employers, The New York Times reports.

The report is a “spectacular and encyclopedic piece of research and writing, and will no doubt serve as the touchstone for research, policy and advocacy in this area for years to come,” Southern Connecticut State University philosophy professor Heidi Lockwood, who advocates for victims of sexual harassment in academia, tells The Washington Post.

There’s a touch of irony with the issuing of the report. The National Academies are among the institutions that have not taken action against their members found guilty of misconduct at their home colleges and universities. Among them is University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy, who resigned from the school but is still a member of the National Academy of Science, and Columbia University neuroscientist Thomas Jessel, who was fired in March but also still remains and Academy member.

See “Prominent Neuroscientist Fired by Columbia, HHMI

In May, Vanderbilt neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin launched a petition asking the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to revoke the memberships of anyone found guilty of sexual harassment. The Scientist reported at the time that NAS’s response to the petition was that its bylaws do not allow for revocation. For the president of NAS “not to have cleaned house is offensive to me as a woman,” McLaughlin tells The Washington Post. “And it certainly undermines the credibility of the National Academy to implement meaningful change.”

See “Petition Asks National Academy of Sciences to Boot Sexual Harassers

According to Buzzfeed, McNutt says the NAS governing council plans to vote on a proposal to expel members found guilty of sexual harassment at a meeting in August. On the council, 11 of the 17 members are women. If it passes the proposal, the academy’s 2,400 members—mostly men—would then vote on it.

“I feel confident that the NAS will appropriately address the very real problems of sexual harassment, guided by this report. This was our intent all along,” McNutt tells Buzzfeed in an email.

The report found that women of color or LBTQ women suffer more harassment than white, straight women. Women who experience harassment are prone to health issues, including depression and, over time, increased risk for coronary heart disease.

“What victims are really looking for is to get back to work and to have the behavior stop,” University of Illinois anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, who helped write the new report, tells The Washington Post.