Panelists discuss workplace sexual harassment of women in STEM

Oct. 30, 2018, 2:12 a.m.

On Monday, the Stanford Humanities Center hosted a panel discussion on a recent consensus study report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) regarding the lasting effects of sexual harassment toward women pursuing academic careers in STEM.

The study, titled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” has gained national recognition under the hashtag #sciencetoo.

It found that current legal mechanisms are not sufficient for reducing the prevalence of sexual harassment in STEM academia, and that continued harassment — beyond being injurious to survivors themselves — can lead to damaged research integrity and a “costly loss of talent.”

“Science is worse as a result,” said Mills College president and study committee member Elizabeth Hillman, one of the panelists at Monday’s event. “How are we going to address issues like climate change when we are pushing so many talents away?”

To produce the consensus study report, experts collaborated on an examination of pre-existing research about sexual harassment in academia and its effects on the “recruitment, retention and advancement” of women pursuing work in STEM and healthcare fields. The end result of the research was a consensus recommendation on how to combat sexual harassment in those fields.

The panel centered on the report’s findings and was cosponsored by WISE Ventures and the offices of the Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity and the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs. 

Alongside NASEM program officer Frasier Benya and Hillman were Stanford Sexual Harassment Policy Office director Laraine Zappert, sociology professor Shelley Correll and history professor Estelle Freedman.

Benya and Hillman began the discussion by acknowledging that the panel consisted entirely of white women, which they said reflected a general need for a greater diversity of perspectives in research. Although they noted that the NASEM study did engage with various identities, the results were specific to the sexual harassment of women.  

Notably, Benya and Hillman explained that current legal procedures for addressing sexual harassment, many of which focus merely on “symbolic compliance” with the law, are insufficient.

“[We need to] move beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate,” Hillman said. “If we rely only on formal reports to know that there’s a problem, we will fail to solve the problem and continue to place the burden on those who have been harmed the most.”

According to Hillman, students who have been the victims of sexual harassment are more likely to change majors, miss class, drop a field of study and leave an institution. Women subjected to sexual harassment in the workforce are more likely to withdraw, be less productive and change their career course.

“Sexual harassment degrades mental and physical [health] of the individual targets in profound ways,” Hillman said.

The NASEM study did find evidence that changing workplace culture could significantly reduce harassment. According to the consensus report, male-dominated workplaces, especially those that concentrate funding and promotion power in individuals, increase the likelihood that women in STEM fields will be the targets of sexual harassment.

“Sexual harassment is a symptom of an already sick culture,” Correll said, quoting Tina Tchen, a former assistant to President Barack Obama.

The report makes several recommendations for how to address these issues. One such proposal is to qualify sexual harassment as a form of research misconduct; another is to focus on identifying and targeting gender harassment such as sexist comments, derogatory or hostile remarks and any other behavior that signals to women that they do not belong in the workplace.

The panelists also urged Stanford students to participate in research and surveys that would provide the opportunity to discuss their own experiences with sexual misconduct. Despite previous research on the issue, information exploring the role of race and other intersectional identities in sexual misconduct cases is lacking, the panelists said.

 

Contact Julia Kwak at julkwak ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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