Sexual harassment of women in academic settings is regrettably common and pervasive, and its consequences are grave. At the same time, it is a remarkably difficult problem to solve. The “me-too” movement has shed welcome light on specific individual offenders and has generated more awareness of some aspects of the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct. But we have not yet come to a public awareness of the changes needed to create a genuinely inclusive and non-harassing environment for women across the spectrum of mistreatment that has been documented. The most common institutional response following an incident is to create a program of training and reporting, with a public commitment to investigating complaints and enforcing university or institutional policies rigorously and transparently. These efforts are often well intentioned, but by themselves they are insufficient. They do not address the underlying institutional and cultural features that make sexual harassment so prevalent.
The problem of sexual harassment in institutional contexts is a difficult one because it derives from multiple features of the organization. The ambient culture of the organization is often an important facilitator of harassing behavior — often enough a patriarchal culture that is deferential to the status of higher-powered individuals at the expense of lower-powered targets. There is the fact that executive leadership in many institutions continues to be predominantly male, who bring with them a set of gendered assumptions that they often fail to recognize. The hierarchical nature of the power relations of an academic institution is conducive to mistreatment of many kinds, including sexual harassment. Bosses to administrative assistants, research directors to post-docs, thesis advisors to PhD candidates — these unequal relations of power create a conducive environment for sexual harassment in many varieties. In each case the superior actor has enormous power and influence over the career prospects and work lives of the women over whom they exercise power. And then there are the habits of behavior that individuals bring to the workplace and the learning environment — sometimes habits of masculine entitlement, sometimes disdainful attitudes towards female scholars or scientists, sometimes an underlying willingness to bully others that finds expression in an academic environment. (A recent issue of the Journal of Social Issues (link) devotes substantial research to the topic of toxic leadership in the tech sector and the “masculinity contest culture” that this group of researchers finds to be a root cause of the toxicity this sector displays for women professionals. Research by Jennifer Berdahl, Peter Glick, Natalya Alonso, and more than a dozen other scholars provides in-depth analysis of this common feature of work environments.)
The scope and urgency of the problem of sexual harassment in academic contexts is documented in excellent and expert detail in a recent study report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (link). This report deserves prominent discussion at every university.
The study documents the frequency of sexual harassment in academic and scientific research contexts, and the data are sobering. Here are the results of two indicative studies at Penn State University System and the University of Texas System:
The Penn State survey indicates that 43.4% of undergraduates, 58.9% of graduate students, and 72.8% of medical students have experienced gender harassment, while 5.1% of undergraduates, 6.0% of graduate students, and 5.7% of medical students report having experienced unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. These are staggering results, both in terms of the absolute number of students who were affected and the negative effects that these experiences had on their ability to fulfill their educational potential. The University of Texas study shows a similar pattern, but also permits us to see meaningful differences across fields of study. Engineering and medicine provide significantly more harmful environments for female students than non-STEM and science disciplines. The authors make a particularly worrisome observation about medicine in this context:
The interviews conducted by RTI International revealed that unique settings such as medical residencies were described as breeding grounds for abusive behavior by superiors. Respondents expressed that this was largely because at this stage of the medical career, expectation of this behavior was widely accepted. The expectations of abusive, grueling conditions in training settings caused several respondents to view sexual harassment as a part of the continuum of what they were expected to endure. (63-64)
The report also does an excellent job of defining the scope of sexual harassment. Media discussion of sexual harassment and misconduct focuses primarily on egregious acts of sexual coercion. However, the authors of the NAS study note that experts currently encompass sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment under this category of harmful interpersonal behavior. The largest sub-category is gender harassment:
“a broad range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes about” members of one gender (Fitzgerald, Gelfand, and Drasgow 1995, 430). (25)
The “iceberg” diagram (p. 32) captures the range of behaviors encompassed by the concept of sexual harassment. (See Leskinen, Cortina, and Kabat 2011 for extensive discussion of the varieties of sexual harassment and the harms associated with gender harassment.)
The report emphasizes organizational features as a root cause of a harassment-friendly environment.
By far, the greatest predictors of the occurrence of sexual harassment are organizational. Individual-level factors (e.g., sexist attitudes, beliefs that rationalize or justify harassment, etc.) that might make someone decide to harass a work colleague, student, or peer are surely important. However, a person that has proclivities for sexual harassment will have those behaviors greatly inhibited when exposed to role models who behave in a professional way as compared with role models who behave in a harassing way, or when in an environment that does not support harassing behaviors and/or has strong consequences for these behaviors. Thus, this section considers some of the organizational and environmental variables that increase the risk of sexual harassment perpetration. (46)
Some of the organizational factors that they refer to include the extreme gender imbalance that exists in many professional work environments, the perceived absence of organizational sanctions for harassing behavior, work environments where sexist views and sexually harassing behavior are modeled, and power differentials (47-49). The authors make the point that gender harassment is chiefly aimed at indicating disrespect towards the target rather than sexual exploitation. This has an important implication for institutional change. An institution that creates a strong core set of values emphasizing civility and respect is less conducive to gender harassment. They summarize this analysis in the statement of findings as well:
Organizational climate is, by far, the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment, and ameliorating it can prevent people from sexually harassing others. A person more likely to engage in harassing behaviors is significantly less likely to do so in an environment that does not support harassing behaviors and/or has strong, clear, transparent consequences for these behaviors. (50)
So what can a university or research institution do to reduce and eliminate the likelihood of sexual harassment for women within the institution? Several remedies seem fairly obvious, though difficult.
- Establish a pervasive expectation of civility and respect in the workplace and the learning environment
- Diffuse the concentrations of power that give potential harassers the opportunity to harass women within their domains
- Ensure that the institution honors its values by refusing the “star culture” common in universities that makes high-prestige university members untouchable
- Be vigilant and transparent about the processes of investigation and adjudication through which complaints are considered
- Create effective processes that ensure that complainants do not suffer retaliation
- Consider candidates’ receptivity to the values of a respectful, civil, and non-harassing environment during the hiring and appointment process (including research directors, department and program chairs, and other positions of authority)
- Address the gender imbalance that may exist in leadership circles
As the authors put the point in the final chapter of the report:
Preventing and effectively addressing sexual harassment of women in colleges and universities is a significant challenge, but we are optimistic that academic institutions can meet that challenge–if they demonstrate the will to do so. This is because the research shows what will work to prevent sexual harassment and why it will work. A systemwide change to the culture and climate in our nation’s colleges and universities can stop the pattern of harassing behavior from impacting the next generation of women entering science, engineering, and medicine. (169)