Jun 12, 2018

The big picture: Title IX’s limits exposed by major study of sexual harassment in sciences

Astronomer Geoff Marcy was accused of harassment at Cal-Berkley in 2015. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images

Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in science and academia, and it's going to take a cultural shift to stop it, according to a new study released from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Between the lines: The study paints a bleak picture of scientific institutions' culture and treatment of women. It affirms the longstanding argument that Title IX regulations don't go far enough to protect women and prevent harassment, and shows that a cultural shift needs to take place to solve the issue.

The methodology

The study surveyed women in sciences across multiple college campuses to nail down just how many women have experienced some form of harassment while working.

  • Georgia State researcher Kevin M. Swartout compiled data from the University of Texas system as well as the Pennsylvania state system, which combined represents more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate female students enrolled in science programs, as well as some female faculty, the Washington Post notes.

The backdrop: The report comes out in the midst of the #MeToo movement which is rocking major industries such as entertainment and media, but science has long had a problem with sexual misconduct. The Twitter hashtag #ScienceToo sprang up around the report on Tuesday. Several prominent examples of sexual harassment in the sciences during the past few years helped create demand for this study. For example, Geoff Marcy, a world famous astronomer and a professor at Cal-Berkley, was found to have repeatedly violated campus sexual harassment policies without receiving proportionate discipline from the university, BuzzFeed reported in 2015.

Julie Libarkin, an environmental scientist at Michigan State, has compiled a database of 659 cases stretching back to the early 1980's. This isn't new.

The results
  • The study found that 58% of women in all of academia, not limited to science, engineering and medicine experienced some form of sexual harassment.
  • In the University of Texas system, 20% of female science students, more than 25% of female engineering students and 40% of female medical students experienced sexual harassment in some form from faculty or staff.
  • In the Pennsylvania State University system a similar survey found that 50% of female medical students have experienced some form of harassment.

The study also found that women don't typically report these instances because they correctly assume that, if they do, they'd be held back in progressing their careers.

It also found that Title IX, the mechanism used to report sexual harassment on campuses, hasn't worked. Institutions are complying with Title IX in a way that avoids liability, but it isn't going far enough to significantly punish abusers and prevent harassment in the first place.


The report says institutions should reduce the power faculty members hold over students through mechanisms such as group advising. Currently, a single advisor can make or break a graduate student's career.

Organizations should treat harassment accusations with heavy punishment, the study says, like what is currently done for research misconduct allegations, per the Post. It also calls upon institutions to be more proactive in creating an inclusive and diverse culture for women — most notably women of color, who experience harassment more often.

Yes, but: The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine must be held accountable as well. It still lists Marcy as a member despite his accusations and resignation.

The bottom line: In addition to new policies and procedures, a far-reaching culture change is needed in the sciences to prevent harassment moving forward.

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