National Academies: Academic institutions’ response to sexual harassment in STEM is lacking

Sexual harassment remains a major problem in science, engineering and medicine, and responses from academic institutions have had a limited impact, according to a new report. 

That's in part because the organizations' policies have been more focused on symbolic compliance with the law and reducing liabilities instead of getting at the meat of the problem, according to the report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

"Even as more women enter science, engineering and biomedical fields and assume faculty or leadership positions, the evidence suggests that far too often women end up bullied out of career paths," said Marcia McNutt, Ph.D., president of the National Academy of Sciences, at a press briefing marking the report's released. 

A survey at the University of Texas found that 20% of female science students, more than 25% of engineering students and 40% of medical students had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff members, according to the report. A similar survey at the Pennsylvania State University found 55% of its female medical students had experienced such harassment.

RELATED: 5 steps to protect residents, medical students from sexual harassment 

Penn State responded to the findings through a comprehensive review of all of its policies, instituting staff training and creating a bystander intervention program, the university said in a statement emailed to FierceHealthcare. It will also repeat the survey this year.

The report divides sexual harassment into three types including gender-based harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. Gender harassment, the researchers found, is by far the most common. At academic centers where such harassment is common, researchers also found that cases of unwanted attention or coercion were more likely. 

Though sexual harassment in STEM is common, researchers said women are not likely to report it. Instead, women who are sexually harassed are likely to drop out of their academic pursuits, report low job satisfaction and higher stress. They are also at greater risk for mental and physical health problems. 

RELATED: It happens here, too—Sexual harassment occurs in healthcare field 

The report offers several steps that academic institutions—including academic medical centers—can follow to strengthen their response to sexual harassment and better protect the women working and studying in their facilities: 

  1. Enact policies to prevent gender harassment: Taking steps to address the most common form of sexual harassment can prevent other types of harassment from occurring.
  2. Be accountable and transparent: Policies, including disciplinary actions, must be clearly written out and any discipline should be disclosed in a timely manner.
  3. Foster diversity and inclusion: Academic institutions should make a diverse and respectful environment a priority.
  4. Change the dynamics between faculty and trainees: Create a more equitable team dynamic to discourage harassment.
  5. Support women who have been victims of sexual harassment: Encourage trainees and staff members to report instances of harassment and ensure they have access to mental health and other support services. 

"I'm confident that if we take action we will see lasting, positive change for the entire research enterprise and, most importantly, for the women who are so essential to its success," McNutt said.