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Pervasive sexual harassment takes a toll on women in the sciences

Sexual harassment is pervasive in science, engineering and medicine, particularly when it comes to academia, according to a new landmark report. Studies show that between 20 and 50 percent of female students in those fields experienced harassment, often from faculty and staff. Yamiche Alcindor learns more from Dr. Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, it turns out the fields of science, engineering and medicine face their own MeToo moment.

    A new landmark report finds sexual harassment is pervasive in those fields, particularly when it comes to academia.

    Yamiche Alcindor looks at the toll this is taking on women, whether it happens in the lab, a lecture hall, a hospital, or in the field where research is being conducted.

    It's the focus of this week's science segment, The Leading Edge.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine is the most comprehensive study done yet about harassment in these fields.

    And, in fact, academic workplaces are second only to the military in the rate of sexual harassment. The report cited studies that found between 20 percent and 50 percent of female students in science, engineering and medicine experienced harassment, often from faculty and staff.

    More than 50 percent of faculty said they too experienced harassment. The problem is even worse for women of color and women who are LGBTQ.

    Dr. Paula Johnson is the co-chair of the panel that wrote this report. She is the president of Wellesley College.

    Thank you, Dr. Johnson.

    The committee identified three types of sexual harassment, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment. What leads to this pervasive culture of harassment?

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:

    Well, you know, it is the culture.

    And when there are permissive cultures that allow or — allow this type of harassment to occur, the most common being gender harassment, so we like to view it as the put-downs, rather than the come-ons, statements that make women feel unwelcome, are denigrating to women, or pictures or other things in the environment.

    That's the kind of environment that actually not only has a negative impact on women, particularly in their careers, but in other ways, but also sets the stage for sexual coercion, which is more the quid pro quo, sleep with me in order to work with me, or you will be fired, that type of relationship, or with unwanted sexual attention, unwanted kissing, stroking, everything to sexual assault and rape.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    LGBTQ women and women of color are more likely than their straight white counterparts to be harassed.

    Why are these groups targeted more than their what and straight counterparts? And, also, what happens to the women of all races and sexual orientations, to their careers? What happens to these women?

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:

    So, it's important to know that women, racial and ethnic minorities and sexual minorities do experience all forms of harassment, when you put it all together, more frequently.

    And this is something we — you know, I think one can make assumptions, if you put sexism together with racism and other types of discrimination. But this is work that really needs to be better understood, so more research really needs to be done.

    And in terms of the impact, what happens to women in their careers, we know that women who have experienced sexual harassment are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, PTSD, and then are also more likely to take a step away from their careers, remove themselves from situations, whether it be a committee or a lab or an actual job.

    So the outcome and the impact not only for the individual, but also for the entirety of science, engineering and medicine, is significant. It's a loss of talent.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The report talks about the fact that there needed to be a change in the culture and the climate at universities.

    What were the most important recommendations that came out of this report, in your mind?

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:


    And this report, I'm glad that you're really focusing on this, because this report not only focuses on what we need to do to better handle cases, to better handle how we can look to when there are reports of sexual harassment, but how do we prevent it, because we have to, one, make sure that the perpetrators of sexual harassment are addressed.

    But we have to involve — we have to really change the environment, so that it doesn't keep happening. Leadership from the very top has got to be committed to really making the end of sexual harassment a priority.

    We also have to really integrate the values of diversity, inclusion and respect into every single policy. We have to have very clear and communicated policies. We also have to make our leadership at every level more diverse. And that has to do with diversity in terms of gender, and also race and ethnicity.

    We have more and more women coming in to science, engineering and medicine, but we can't really wait for those women to make their way through that pipeline. We have to make sure that we're actively advancing women.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I want to talk to you about the MeToo movement.

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:


  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The report was in the works last two years, well before the MeToo movement. But how do you think the MeToo movement and the conversation about harassment in other fields is going to impact how this report is received by the sciences?

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:

    Well, it has raised the profile of how we are thinking about sexual harassment.

    One thing I think we do — so, that's a good thing, right? It's unfortunate that it is so pervasive across all areas, but one of the things is, it does raise awareness.

    But I think we have to be very clear that a lot of the MeToo movement is focused, again, on the most egregious perpetrators. We have to really think about, again, the culture, of how we are changing the culture, so that we truly prevent sexual harassment from occurring.

    And also, through that, how do we also support the targets of sexual harassment? And that's a very important set of recommendations in the report.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I want to ask you one other question. And it's about the fact that there was a petition launched last month urging the national academies to revoke the membership of anyone found guilty of harassment or assault.

    Is it time to revoke the membership of people found guilty?

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:

    So, what I'm going to say to that is the national academies are reviewing their policies and procedures, and they will come to a set of decisions around how they will move forward.

    They're doing that based on the findings of this report, and we really hope that all institutions that are impacted in academia do the same.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, should they or should they not revoke the membership of…

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:

    I think that that is really something that the academies have to take up. And this is our report and how we are putting forth the recommendations.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Dr. Paula Johnson, thanks for joining us.

  • Dr. Paula Johnson:

    Thank you.

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