NIH announces plan to take on sexual harassment in #MeToo era

The National Institutes of Health is renewing its focus on addressing sexual harassment, with Director Francis Collins instructing a working group to propose actions and policies to promote a safe and inclusive culture at NIH-supported labs and research conferences.

"Pervasive harassment creates obstacles for women—who are particularly more likely to be subject to sexual harassment—at all stages of their scientific career," read a statement released by NIH on Tuesday.

The statement pointed to 2018 report from the National Academies, which found no evidence that current policies, procedures and approaches have significantly reduced sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering and medicine.

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.

The problem can lead to a costly and substantial loss of talent in STEM fields, the report concluded.

RELATED: Women in healthcare are saying #MeToo about sexual harassment in hospitals

A statement from the NIH said the institutes recently developed resources to outline the institutes' policies, practices and initiatives to address sexual harassment at NIH, as well as the institutions it supports through funding.

The high-level working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director has been charged with further actions, including:

  • Assessing the state of science: The group was charged with assessing the current state of sexual harassment allegation investigation, reporting, remediation and disciplinary procedures at NIH-funded organizations.
  • Proposing accountability actions: They were asked to advise on oversight, accountability and reporting measures for awardee institutions to reduce and prevent sexual harassment in biomedical research laboratories.
  • Proposing new policies: They were asked to recommend policies to "promote a safe and inclusive culture at NIH-supported research conferences."
  • Suggesting systemwide changes: They were charged with examining how to make changes to culture and climate "to prevent harassment and gender discrimination through diffusion of hierarchical environments by mentoring networks and committee-based advisement."

RELATED: Study: Women make up only 30% of healthcare executives. Here's a look at why

Science and healthcare are among industries that have remained stubbornly resistant to gender disparities and reports of sexual harassment.

Last year, the New England Journal of Medicine published an opinion piece from one researcher about the sexual harassment problem in science. More than 1 in 4 (27%) physicians have been sexually harassed by a patient within the last three years, according to a survey of more than 3,700 doctors by Medscape. And in another report from Medscape, more than half (54%) of all physicians who reported harassment said their organizations either did nothing or trivialized the incident.

At the same time, women in science and healthcare fields are struggling in many cases to reach parity with men.

When it comes to the C-suite at U.S. hospitals and insurers, women make up only about 30% of healthcare executives and 13% of CEOs, according to recent research from consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Rock Health, a digital health venture fund, surveyed more than 630 women between May and June 2018 and found that 55% believe it will take 25 years or more to achieve gender parity in healthcare.