by Lindsay Davis, GSA Science Policy Fellow

On 27 February, 2018, four witnesses appeared before the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology during a hearing entitled A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science. During the opening statements, Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) noted that sexual harassment and misconduct have been occurring for a long time; however, a “sense of urgency” has developed in light of the many cases and stories that have been exposed over the past few years. They explained that the hearing was being held to explore how misconduct, specifically sexual harassment, is affecting the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEM fields, and how different stakeholders are responding to the problem. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) emphasized that there is a need for fair, timely, and consistent procedures, and that no taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a university researcher who engages in misconduct.

Attendees await the proceedings of A Review of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct in Science, a public hearing held by the Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology. Photo by Lindsay Davis

In her testimony, Dr. Kathryn Clancy, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, described different types of sexual harassment, such as “come-ons” and “put-downs.” Put-downs are much more common, according to Dr. Clancy, and include actions such as rumor-mongering, sabotaging of promotions, and denying the victim equal access to equipment. The witnesses explored a variety of methods to decease the impact of sexual harassment against women and minorities, including through consistent policies; better reporting methods and procedures; more support for victims; bystander intervention training; a shift from compliance to location-based, contextual solutions such as co-advising; increased emphasis on leaving a good legacy rather than on litigation; rewards and recognition for institutions taking action to prevent sexual harassment; and legislation.

The National Science Foundation recently adopted new terms and conditions for its awards based on recommendations from a cross-agency special task force that was convened to bolster their Title IX compliance program, according to Rhonda Davis, the head of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Ms. Davis testified that NSF will not tolerate harassment, sexual or otherwise, from anyone receiving their funding. To facilitate discovery of and intervention in these cases, they have created a portal so that anyone can report misconduct directly to NSF. Likewise, they have produced instructional videos for field sites, ships, Antarctic research, and other unique sites.

These advancements will help to decrease sexual harassment at universities, organizations, and institutions, but also in isolated field sites. The case involving Dr. David Marchant, a professor at Boston University accused of harassing a graduate student during field research in Antarctica, was given as an example by Dr. Clancy in her opening statement. Although the woman did not come forward until after she achieved tenure, she helped encourage changes, including some of the policies NSF has created, as highlighted in questions by Rep. Loudermilk (R-GA). Rep. Bonamici (D-OR) continued the discussion of misconduct in isolated field sites, citing an example of a fisheries biologist who was advised to leave her project on a NOAA ship due to concern for her safety resulting from sexual harassment. It was only when Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, who was the NOAA Administrator at the time of the incident, facilitated a policy change that the scientist was able to return to a safe and productive work environment. Dr. Clancy advised that implicit (e.g., a team meeting about acceptable behavior the first day of fieldwork) and explicit rules (third party guidelines) at field sites can prevent many types of sexual harassment.

Hearing witnesses Christine McEntee, Kristina Larsen, Dr. Kathryn Clancy, and Rhonda Davis listen as Chairman Barbara Comstock (R-VA) gives her opening remarks. Photo by Lindsay Davis

Several organizations have adopted new policies and put other strategies into practice in an effort to decrease instances of sexual harassment. Ms. Christine McEntee, the executive director of the American Geophysical Union, testified that AGU is “extremely proud” that their policies define harassment, bullying, and discrimination as scientific misconduct. She stressed that improvement requires a community effort. She noted that AGU hopes that other organizations will adopt strong policies and shared that AGU is establishing an ethics resource center which will provide tools, resources, research, and training that can be used by the community. She commended the American Geosciences Institute and the American Astronomical Association as organizations that have already adopted equally-strict policies.

More than one witness cautioned against simply “slapping on a policy,” as Dr. Clancy put it. Kristina Larsen, an attorney with her own practice, noted the importance of considering what is causing women to feel uncomfortable before making a policy change, and recommended, “Don’t write a zero-tolerance policy until you are clear about what actions you won’t be tolerating.” However, Dr. Clancy was clear that policies put into place and effectively enforced reduce sexual harassment, and that it is necessary to create a climate of diversity, inclusion, and respect. Ms. Larsen corroborated, explaining that “People don’t change because they see the light; they change because they feel the heat.”

Other committee members questioning the witnesses expressed concern about the detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of women, and the threat that sexual harassment and subsequent attrition of women from the pipeline poses to scientific progress. Many cited the effects on the economy and the loss of talent and innovation as problems, and all were supportive of ensuring that the proper steps are taken to eradicate sexual harassment. Both the members of Congress and the witnesses are excited and determined to get more women into the STEM fields at a young age and to ensure that they are supported and protected throughout their education and careers.