Sexual harassment at universities must stop, report says

The second-worst place to be a woman? Academia
by Maggie Fox /  / Updated 
Graduating Michigan State University students in 2012.
Graduating Michigan State University students in 2012.Eric Seals / Detroit Free Press via AP file

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Geosciences professor Julie Libarkin doesn’t wear dresses in public.

It’s not because she has to get down on the ground to do her job — she doesn’t dig up rocks — but because she cannot stand the constant harassment that comes when she does.

“I don’t wear dresses any more because almost every time I have worn a dress, I have been assaulted,” said Libarkin, who is now a full professor at of Michigan State University.

Libarkin is far from alone. More than half — 58 percent — of women in academia have been sexually harassed, the the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) says in a new report.

That makes academia second only to the military in terms of rates of sexual harassment. Nearly 70 percent of military women say they’ve been sexually harassed.

Science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields are the worst, the report finds.

It lays down a road map for universities and other academic institutions to do something about it.

“Through our work it became clear that sexual harassment is a serious issue for women at all levels in academic science, engineering, and medicine, and that these fields share characteristics that create conditions that make harassment more likely to occur,” the study group’s co-chairs, Wellesley College president Paula Johnson and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sheila Widnall wrote in the report’s introduction.

Concrete ways to help make it stop include sending a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated; supporting women who report incidents; making investigations clear and open; and diluting the power of male superstars, who often control the careers of everyone below them.

Libarkin approves of this proposal. Academic careers often hinge on a single mentor, and that’s not good for men or women, she said.

“I would suggest that even before entering STEM, (women) use social media to build a community of people,” said Libarkin, who heads the Geocognition Research Lab at Michigan State University.

“Expand your community and recognize that mentoring doesn’t come from one person.”

Academia is especially prone to sexual harassment because of the hierarchical nature of institutions, the report says.

“Research has consistently shown that institutions that are male dominated — with men in positions that can directly influence career options of women who are subordinate to them — have high rates of sexual harassment.”

And of course, most universities and colleges are male-dominated.

“Most department chairs and deans are men. Most principal investigators are men. Most provosts and presidents are men,” the report reads.

That doesn’t mean that all men harass all women, but it’s clear that when there’s a boy’s club atmosphere, with tacit signals that sexual harassment or discrimination will be winked at, bad behavior flourishes.

“An emeritus professor came up behind me at a public retirement party on campus, bent his knees, and humped me. And, yes, I was wearing a dress,” Libarkin wrote. "No one jumped in to rescue me, and no one seemed to have realized that I had just been assaulted.”

It’s so bad that women have started an online community to share their experiences.

Jen, who did not want to use her real name, said she suffered after she quietly asked a colleague to stop verbally harassing her.

“He must have complained,” she wrote on the #MeTooSTEM blog.

“I was then taken out of the lab by senior members who said I was not to create a bad environment for everyone, and was sent to HR (human resources) by the PI (principal investigator) with the postdoc. I now see that everyone will lie to side with who is strong and no one will defend the lower ranking woman who is being wronged.”

“Lily” says she was raped and has suffered pervasive sexual harassment, but says her worst moment was when her academic adviser asked her to be ‘the estrogen in the room’ at a meeting.

“He didn’t ask me to go because of my strong communication and negotiation skills, or because of the work I’d done leading up to this moment, or because I was co-managing the project. He asked me to go because I was a girl,” she wrote.

“This isn’t going to force anybody to do anything.”

This kind of behavior must stop, the NASEM report says.

“Academic institutions should be as transparent as possible about how they are handling reports of sexual harassment,” the report reads. Cover-ups make things worse.

“Academic institutions should consider power-diffusion mechanisms (i.e., mentoring networks or committee-based advising and departmental funding rather than funding only from a principal investigator) to reduce the risk of sexual harassment,” it adds.

And women who report harassment should be treated as “honorable and courageous,” not as trouble-makers.

Having to battle sexual harassment is wasting time and money, the report said. And it’s costing society when women drop promising careers — or fail to even pursue them.

“What is especially discouraging about this situation is that at the same time that so much energy and money is being invested in efforts to attract and retain women in science, engineering, and medical fields, it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields,” the report reads.

Libarkin said she cannot even guess how much work she has lost because of the harassment she has experienced.

“This stuff takes an inordinate amount of time,” Libarkin said.

Image: Julie Libarkin
Julie LibarkinCourtesy Julie Libarkin

“Just dealing with sexual harassment, the emotional consequences take a lot of time. I lost several papers because I just didn’t work on them. I didn’t write them.”

Libarkin says the report is a good first step. Institutions also must address discrimination and harassment of ethnic and other minorities, she said.

And the National Academies are highly respected, even if the organization is advisory only.

“One of my colleagues pointed out that of course the report has no teeth,” she said.

“This isn’t going to force anybody to do anything.”

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