Science Group Asks Congress to Change Sexual Harassment Laws

A study committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine is urging sate legislatures and Congress to pass new laws to better protect targets of sexual harassment from retaliation.

In a recently released report,  the Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia states that current laws, policies and procedures don’t work because targets of sexual harassment fear retaliation if they report the perpetrator. The group stresses a change in culture and climate is necessary to halt sexual harassment in academia.

The committee, which began its work in 2016 prior to the #metoo movement, estimates that more than 50 percent of women faculty and staff and from 20 to 50 percent of women students “encounter and experience” sexually harassing conduct in academia.

The committee  includes scientists, engineers, physicians and experts in sexual harassment research, legal studies and psychology.

Judicial decisions encourage employers to achieve legal compliance and avoid liability, not to prevent sexual harassment.

The committee was highly critical of the judicial interpretation of sexual harassment laws which, the group says, have “incentivized” organizations to focus on “symbolic” compliance and avoiding liability but “not on preventing sexual harassment.”

Currently, the committee notes, employers are permitted to maintain secrecy around sexual harassment policies and the outcomes of investigations, arbitrations and settlement agreements.

The committee urges lawmakers to:

  • Prohibit confidentiality in settlement agreements that enable sexual harassers to move to another institution and conceal past adjudications.
  • Ban mandatory arbitration clauses for discrimination claims.
  • Allow lawsuits to be filed against alleged harassers directly (instead of or in addition to academic employers).
  • Require institutions receiving federal funds to publicly disclose results from campus climate surveys  and/or the number o sexual harassment reports made to campuses.
  • Ask the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to devote research funds to conduct a follow-up study to determine whether progress has been made on implementing the report recommendations and where to focus future efforts.

Meanwhile, the group urges federal agencies to increase support for research and evaluation of policies, procedures and training on sexual harassment. The group questions the effectiveness of online and video anti-harassment training and recommends hiring live trainers.

While stressing the importance of institutional transparency, the group  recommends that institutions create “alternative and less formal means of accessing support services, recording information, and reporting incidents without fear of retaliation.”

According  to the report, two characteristics are associated with environments that have higher levels of sexual harassment:  (1) male-dominated gender ratios and leadership and (2) an organizational climate that tolerates sexual harassment (e.g., leadership that fails to take complaints seriously, fails to sanction perpetrators, or fails to protect complainants from retaliation).

The report, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” will be published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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