- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Widespread sexual harassment in academia is jeopardizing efforts to close the gender gap in the fields of science, engineering and medicine, according to a new report.

Issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the report found that sexual harassment undermines women’s jobs and leads to emotional and physical ailments.

“The time has come to take action,” said Sheila E. Widnall, co-chair of the committee for the report and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While women are still outnumbered by men, universities are recruiting more women to science-related fields than ever before. The new report makes clear that pervasive sexual harassment puts those gains at risk.

“If we are losing talent in science, engineering and medicine, then that is something that is detrimental to our country and quite frankly to the world,” Wellesley College President Paula Johnson, who co-chaired the report, told The Associated Press.

The report defined sexual harassment as behavior that comprises gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion.

Gender harassment, which is most prevalent, is defined as “behaviors that communicate that women do not belong or do not merit respect,” such as “offensive sexual teasing,” “vulgar name calling” and “gender slurs,” the report said.

Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, said sexual harassment has not faded despite companies and schools having strengthened their sexual harassment policies and improved their reporting systems as required by law.

“According to research, even when sexual harassment contains nothing but sexist insults without any unwanted sexual pursuit, it takes a toll on victims,” Ms. Cortina said.

The “circle of harm” surrounding sexual harassment can negatively affect people observing the harassment, as well, she said.

“The circle of harm extends to both witnesses and work friends, so research shows that people who merely see sexual harassment targeted at others in the same setting reported negative outcomes that parallel those of direct victims,” Ms. Cortina said.

She also said she does not believe that universities are doing a good job at preventing sexual assault through their compliance programs, and that institutions need to move toward “a culture of respect.”

According to the report, universities’ compliance with federal antidiscrimination laws has not prevented sexual harassment.

“An increased focus on symbolic compliance with Title IX and Title VII has resulted in policies and procedures that protect the liability of the institution but are not effective in preventing sexual harassment,” the report said. “However these policies and procedures are based on the inaccurate assumption that a target will promptly report the harassment without worrying about retaliation.”

Institutions of higher education recently have become a major targets of the #MeToo movement, with several high-ranking administrators stepping down over sexual misconduct cases.

Michigan State University agreed to settle a lawsuit for $500 million with more than 300 women and girls who were sexually assaulted by the university’s sports doctor Larry Nassar. In addition, university President Lou Anna Simon agreed to step down in light of the revelations. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison.

C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California, resigned in May following complaints of misconduct by a gynecologist who had worked at a school-run clinic for 30 years.

Among the report’s recommendations:

An organization’s climate is the single most important factor in whether sexual harassment is tolerated. Colleges and universities should promote greater gender and racial equity in leadership positions and stress diverse, inclusive and respectful environments.

Institutions should find alternatives to the traditional hierarchy, such as mentoring networks, so that students and junior faculty aren’t dependent on one supervisor.

Colleges must protect targets of harassment from retaliation and convey that reporting the problem is “an honorable and courageous action.”

Colleges should spell out escalating consequences for sexual harassment, with discipline based on an investigation process that is fair to both sides rather than focused on the institution’s liability.

Congress and state legislatures should consider prohibiting confidentiality agreements and other actions that shield harassers.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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