Address harassment now

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Science  21 Sep 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6408, pp. 1167
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav4171

We have a problem in the academy. According to an extensive meta-analysis cited by the U.S. National Academies in their 2018 report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, more than 50% of women faculty and staff at academic institutions in the United States report having been sexually harassed—as do some 20 to 50% of women students, depending on their field and level of study.


“The problem is systemic, as are its impacts…it hinders the process and progress of science.”

As troubling as this is, the problem, according to the National Academies report, is particularly egregious in the sciences, engineering, and medicine (SEM). It notes that SEM environments have four main characteristics that contribute to the problem: They have long been dominated by men; at an organizational level, they tolerate sexually harassing behavior; their mentorship structure of a hierarchy of individuals based on expertise and professional position creates dependent relationships between trainees and faculty mentors; and they often isolate faculty and trainees for considerable periods of time in labs, field sites, clinics, and hospitals.

None of this will come as a surprise to women who work or study in SEM fields. Many have experienced sexual harassment firsthand or know colleagues who have. This harassment distorts their environment and undermines the effectiveness of the communities in which they work. The problem is systemic, as are its impacts: It affects the physical and emotional health of victims and alters their career pathways and opportunities—it hinders the process and progress of science.

It's time for systemic change. The scientific community must act with urgency to create an inclusive organizational culture and professional standards of behavior that will allow all of its members to reach their full potential. Recognizing this, last week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science) Council approved a new policy (www.aaas.org/FellowsRevocation) that defines sexual and gender-based harassment as a breach of professional ethics. The policy enables the revocation of elected AAAS Fellows “in cases of proven scientific misconduct, serious breaches of professional ethics, or when the Fellow in the view of AAAS otherwise no longer merits the status of Fellow.” The policy will go into effect on 15 October 2018.

This is only one step among many that need to be taken in the months and years ahead. AAAS and other professional organizations can foster change by using their networks and influence to bring attention to policies and practices that support a culture of equality and integrity. Many scientific and engineering societies, funding organizations, and institutions are already doing important work on this front, but much remains to be done. To that end, AAAS will continue to host discussions across the national and international scientific community to facilitate the exchange and dissemination of policies, procedures, and best practices for the adoption and enforcement of professional standards.

The goal to end sexual harassment across the scientific community is achievable only through sustained attention and commitment. Our community must no longer tolerate harassment in its labs, classrooms, clinics, hospitals, and other institutions. The health, quality of life, and productivity of all members of the scientific community depend on everyone's response to this problem.

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