How Universities Deal With Sexual Harassment Needs Sweeping Change, Panel Says

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It “undermines work and well-being in a whole host of ways,” triggering symptoms like depression, sleep disruption, cardiac stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Lilia Cortina, a panel member and professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. She said experiences can be worse for women of color and lesbian, bisexual or transgender women. But they also affect witnesses to the behavior, further impeding the scientific work.

“Women leave, their co-workers leave, even the men leave — they don’t’ stick around to watch their valued colleagues being disparaged and they certainly don’t want to become the next victim,” Dr. Cortina said during the briefing.

One paradox is that academia’s emphasis on merit-based advancement can discourage women from reporting harassment and limit their career progress, the committee noted. “The system of meritocracy does not account for the declines in productivity and morale as a result of sexual harassment,” says the report. “It can make her question her own scientific worth. Additionally, it can make scientific achievement feel like it is not worth it.”

That may partly explain another paradox. “There are more women in these fields, yet there’s still sexual harassment,” said Elizabeth L. Hillman, a committee member who is president of Mills College and an expert on sexual assault in the military.

Billy Williams, a committee member and director of science for the American Geophysical Union, said simply complying with laws like Title IX has not worked because the laws assume women will file formal complaints, when fears of retaliation have made that “the least common response.” As a result, Dr. Johnson said, universities should establish less formal ways for women to report their experiences.

The report did not evaluate investigative processes, imposing discipline or the rights of accused harassers, except to say that procedures and consequences should be fair to all sides. The panel said institutions should adopt training programs that focus on changing behavior, not beliefs. The programs should be evaluated for effectiveness and “not be based on the avoidance of legal liability.” When institutions survey people about their experiences with sexual harassment, they should use validated questionnaires and “avoid specifically using the term ‘sexual harassment’” in the questions.

In recent years, the University of Texas system has been taking many of the steps the report recommended, said Wanda Mercer, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, including making survey data public and providing more informal ways to report harassment allegations.

But, she cautioned, “I think it’s very difficult to change the climate. I think that’s a hard thing to do because higher education has been around a long time and those power structures are in place, the people are in place.”

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