Rep. Jackie Speier Introduces Bill to Tackle Sexual Harassment in the Sciences

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Following a spike in reports of sexual harassment in the sciences, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has spent the year shining a spotlight on the issue in Congress.

Universities are supposed to be in the business of illumination, but as we’ve seen … that’s not always the case. … The light of knowledge can cast some dark shadows,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) in a January speech she delivered on the House floor about sexual harassment and assault in U.S. science and engineering.

Citing examples of serial sexual harassers who continued to hold their position at U.S. universities, Speier warned that the problem persists. She underscored that harassment inflicts harm not only on victims but also on the ability of the nation to retain scientific talent and achieve greater gender equity in science and engineering.

At a September press event on Capitol Hill to announce the introduction of legislation to address the issue, Speier spoke further on the damage that perpetrators do to victims:

Too often these cases are handled in a grossly inappropriate fashion. Most of the time, allegations are simply swept under the proverbial rug. This allows sexual predators to reoffend over and over again. Some studies suggest as many as six or seven times before they are finally caught and action is taken against them. In the case of faculty, they move between universities in a scheme that some openly refer to as ‘pass-the-harasser.’ … Left in their wake is a trail of broken, damaged careers and lives. Survivors (often graduate students and post-docs) lose years of research, their funding, their confidence, and even sometimes their careers.

With these concerns at the forefront, Speier introduced the “Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act” on Sept. 21. The legislation, which currently has eight Democratic co-sponsors, would require universities to operate under greater transparency with respect to substantiated cases of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and assault. In particular, universities would be required to report any substantiated instance of sexual harassment or assault to federal agency funders, with identifying information.

Furthermore, funding agencies would be required to consider this information when deciding how and whether to award competitive funding. The bill would not, however, require agencies to take any particular punitive action against offenders or an institution that employs an offender.

The bill would also direct the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a comprehensive study on the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment in higher education in science, engineering, and medical university departments. As a part of that study, it would charge the NAS with evaluating strategies for curtailing sexual harassment and reducing its negative impacts.

Spike in reports of sexual harassment in the sciences draws national attention

Following a spike in reports of high-profile sexual harassment cases in the astronomical sciences toward the end of 2015, a number of major media outlets covered the issue, including the Washington Post, Atlantic, New York Times, and Nature.

Some articles cited an influential study, published in 2014 by the journal PLoS ONE and led by University of Illinois anthropologist Kate Clancy, which found (of a sample of 600 field scientists) 71% of women and 41% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment. In that study, 26% of women and 6% of men also reported experiencing sexual assault.

At Speier’s press event last month, Clancy spoke as an invited guest, explaining the findings of her study:

Female trainees were the most frequent targets of both harassment and assault, and when women were harassed or assaulted the perpetrator was more likely to be someone above them in the workplace hierarchy, such as a boss, the director, or the lead investigator of the project. Research shows that these kind of vertical abuses have a severe impact on job satisfaction and mental health.

In January, Speier indicated she believes this is a significant reason why women hold less than one-third of faculty positions in science and engineering at national universities. And she called on any researcher who has experienced sexual harassment to call her office.

When an audience member asked about what else beyond Speier’s legislation could be done to address sexual harassment in the sciences, Clancy suggested the idea of separating funding sources for graduate students and their sponsoring faculty. This could provide graduate students with their own sources of funding and reduce dependence on any one particular faculty member. Clancy also recommended that professional societies write stronger codes of conduct and ethics and called on them to endorse Speier’s bill.

Scientific societies and agencies responding to sexual harassment concerns

NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) addressed the growing concerns about sexual harassment by issuing, respectively, an official letter and a press statement.  

In the NASA letter dated Jan. 15, Administrator Charles Bolden wrote:

Let me be perfectly clear: NASA does not tolerate sexual harassment, nor should any organization seriously committed to workplace equality, diversity and inclusion. Science is for everyone, and any behavior that demeans or discourages people from fully participating is unacceptable.

The NSF press statement says the research agency will not tolerate harassment at grantee institutions and emphasizes its “strong commitment to preventing harassment and to eradicate gender-based discrimination in science.” While the Department of Energy does not have a recent publicly available statement on the matter, it does have an updated sexual harassment policy dated March 2016.

A group of scientific societies, with support from NSF, have also been addressing the problem this year. At a Sept. 9 workshop titled “Sexual Harassment in the Sciences: A Call to Respond,” more than 60 leaders in science convened to discuss a number of related topics and draft a set of organizational principles for addressing harassment. The American Geophysical Union, which was a con-sponsor of the workshop, hosts a webpage with links to various articles and resources related to harassment in the sciences.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS), an AIP Member Society, has also worked to promote a harassment-free culture within the astronomical sciences, with society leaders addressing the issue in several missives. Speier quoted the past AAS president in her January floor speech:

I am in agreement with Dr. Meg Urry, the president of the American Astronomical Society, who said, ‘In my view, this is what it would take to move the needle: severe and visible consequences for violating past policies of harassment. And they do have to be visible.’


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