Sexual Harassment in Science

2019-04-22T15:02:03+00:00 March 5, 2018|
US Capitol in daylight

(Credit: Kevin McCoy/Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0)

What It Was

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing titled, “A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science.”

Why It Matters

A longstanding problem, sexual harassment in the sciences not only has negative consequences on the victims but also on the profession itself. Most sexual harassment is directed towards women, who hold only 24 percent of all science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, and that number continues to dwindle. As retention lowers due to sexual harassment, there must be proactive policies to deter such behavior and procedures for reporting to ensure a safe STEM pipeline.

Key Points

There was bipartisan agreement that women are discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM fields due to unwanted harassment.

Experts from all sectors testified about how sexual harassment in the sciences must be approached to create a safe learning and working environment (even in remote field locations) and how there must be a culture shift to keep harassment from being viewed as tolerable.

Witnesses were in agreement that most cases of sexual harassment are mishandled, whether that is how the principle investigator handles the claim, non-enforced punishments on the harasser, or simply the lack of resources to safely report without retaliation. Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (VA-10) questioned that if a Ph.D. student is being harassed by her advisor in her own lab, what safe avenues does she have for reporting the misconduct without derailing her education and career? The answer at most universities? None.

Ms. Kristina Larsen (Attorney, Law Office of Kristina K. Larsen) emphasized the lack of legal repercussions, since many abusers are influential scientists who manage large federal grants. These professors or advisors can heavily influence universities and exert significant control over the education and training of young scientists.

Ms. Christine McEntee (Executive Director, American Geophysical Union) suggested establishing universal standards, creating transparency in the reporting process, improving training to emphasize how bystanders can offer assistance, and instituting reforms for universities and labs to improve their environments and not just punish harassers.

Dr. Kathryn Clancy (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois) suggested moving away from compliance, specifically unenforced policies (e.g., procedures that are never utilized when harassment occurs) and towards actual change and enforcement.

A positive step members and witnesses lauded was the National Science Foundation’s recent decision requiring that universities seeking grants maintain clear antiharassment policies and report any violations to the agency. Ms. Rhonda Davis (Office Head, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, National Science Foundation) noted positive responses from those in institutions of higher education and awardees who operate their facilities.


“In a climate where perpetrators are being centered, we need to let the victims know we hear you … you are the reason we do this work.” – Dr. Kathryn Clancy (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois)

“NSF has proposed a change to their award terms, requiring mandatory reporting of all harassment claims. No taxpayer dollars shall be awarded to a university that does not comply with the laws and policies on harassment … We cannot afford to lose another female scientist because she did not feel safe in her lab.” – Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (IL-3)

“A fisheries biologist had experienced sexual harassment while conducting research on a ship owned by NOAA. After reporting, she had been grounded from furthering her career, her research was derailed, and she was counseled against going back out to sea for her own safety. Since then, NOAA has changed their policies, made it easier to report sexual harassment, implemented new training, and changed their investigation protocol.”– Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1)

“Don’t write a zero-tolerance policy until you know what it is you don’t tolerate.” – Ms. Christina Larsen (Attorney, Law Office of Kristina K. Larsen)

Next Steps

The hearing was intended to identify productive steps to reduce sexual harassment in the STEM workforce to continue bringing young female scientists into STEM jobs and retaining them. Improving the process begins with learning how institutions handle accusations under current policy while assessing the impact of harassment on students and researchers, then providing recommendations for improving the culture of harassment. Committee members said they will consider legislation after receiving input from universities.

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing here