Ending Sexual Harassment in STEM

Dr Kathryn Clancy and colleagues conducted a study that finds sexual harassment is a widespread occurrence amongst researchers in the field. Women are especially likely to be harassed by a senior colleague. The study makes reference to three broad existing approaches that may be used to manage sexual harassment: “codes of conduct, principles of community, and sexual harassment policies.” The researchers note that despite these avenues, few of the participants in the study reported their experience of harassment. Few people knew how to report harassment. It is also likely that both victims and bystanders feared the immediate career repercussions of reporting harassment, as well as the after effects, such as ongoing trauma and career performance. The researchers note that of the minority who did report on sexual harassment, they were predominantly unsatisfied with the outcomes.

This post picks up on the existing avenues of action, centred on the principles of community approach.

Principles of community

Clancy and colleagues write:

Adopting principles of community, role-modelling, and embracing the collective action of support and respect can generate the culture change needed to prevent perpetrators from harassing and assaulting our most vulnerable colleagues – our trainees. Supervisors are the primary determinants of workplace culture. Therefore, principal investigators have the greatest power and responsibility to steward field sites that foster worker wellbeing and thus promote productivity and retention of junior scientists.

So what are these principles of community? They functions as a set of ethical guidelines or collective values that all researchers might receive training on. In 2013, one of the study’s co-authors, Dr Katie Hinde, offered some initial ideas on how we might instil these principles. On the Dynamic Ecology blog, Katie writes:

“Helpfully, meta-analyses of sexual harassment in the workplace suggest that implementing a “principles of community” or code of conduct can set expectations very well, although personally I like the phrase principles of community better. People are very good at performing to expectations, especially in academia. Plus this way if you see anyone behaving questionably you can gently suggest that they revisit the principles of community and that if they have any questions they can follow-up with you. This affords people the ability to self-regulate more minor behaviours that may lead to chilly climate.”

The self-regulation is not necessarily a good model without institutional change. We already see problems with scientists thinking that sexual harassment is subjective. It isn’t. The law covers a range of behaviours, from inappropriate comments to verbal and physical assault. Yet people still think of sexual harassment as being on the extreme continuum. This paves the way for a culture of doubt and silence about sexual harassment if we leave it for individuals to police their own morals.

The principles of community could work as a collective mode of regulation, through ongoing education. We might think of it as training that socialises all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers to understand that sexual harassment goes against the principles and collective interests of STEM. In particular, it might provide a common language for us to identify, address and report sexist behaviour, by making it clear that this violates what it means to be a STEM practitioner. Hinde continues:

“Also along with the principles of community documents (that a lot of universities already have and can be found through their human resources portal) you can also provide multiple pathways for reporting- directly up the hierarchy or obliquely to a home campus omsbuds office. This way if there is the perception that a report up the hierarchy is tricky they is an alternative pathway. Together these things signal importantly that there is vigilance and responsibility to this issues from the PI (Principal Investigator).”

Hinde also suggests that PIs can be more proactive about addressing sexual harassment issues before they develop. For example, she knows one PI who creates a space for gender conversations using scientific data and scientific exercises:

“I know one PI who keeps an eye on her field dynamic and if she is concerned she assigns weekly seminar readings about the sex-differentiated psychological biases about interpreting signals- that studies have shown men tend to over-interpret and women tend to under-interpret friendliness, which can at times problematically escalate.”

Hinde notes that these are just initial ideas, but that it’s important that conversations about increasing women’s safety is happening across disciplines.

Training on the principles

Hinde mentions that she’s read one article suggesting that explicit sexual harassment training can make things worse, but the social science literature does not support this. Next to actual enforcement of the existing laws and policies, training is another avenue (though not the primary way) to address sexual harassment. The effectiveness of training, however, depends upon how the training is aligned with and reinforced by organisational culture. This begins with academia and extends into industry.

For example, it’s no good giving women safety lessons because that tells everyone the onus is on individuals from one gender to look after their own wellbeing. Instead, people of all genders need to be trained together on gender issues, such as recognising what sexual harassment is and what to do about it. This includes acting to eradicate the so-called “grey” areas, such as “benign sexism” (sexist “compliments” or “jokes”) and other modes of everyday sexism. As Michael Habib put it on our STEM Women blog, we also need to develop a culture in STEM where no one is a spectator to sexism. Instead, we all work actively to eliminate the everyday behaviours that can lead to sexual harassment.

Similarly, training is less likely to be effective if leaders do not model behaviour. As we saw in Clancy’s team study, senior researchers are the main offenders, so the message from managers and Executives needs to be consistent: gender dynamics, gender safety and gender inclusion is every STEM worker’s responsibility. This goes from the undergraduate student walking into their first lecture, to the prominent Professor awarded major prizes, to the retiring university Chancellor.

Erin Kane talked through similar ideas in our discussion on STEM Women, suggesting that gender issues, such as safety in the field, might be introduced into STEM courses. She says:

“Professionalisation is being built into the degree program. We get a course on teaching anthropology and we have a course on grant writing. One of the things that we’ve been talking about is a course on doing fieldwork, because it’s something that’s expected for you as an anthropologist. It’s not even necessarily to do a course, but even half an hour during orientation where people are told, ‘So if this happens – and if you’re working in particular parts of the world, and it’s conceivable that it will – here’s a way to approach the situation.’”

STEM professionalism would doubtless benefit from standard gender training, such as through a principles of community model. Weeding is a good analogy for the job ahead. A healthy garden requires constant attention. Working together, through a common set of principles and stronger gender awareness training, would help us weed out harassment. But we will all require ongoing training, monitoring, support and evaluation to ensure that we effectively end this behaviour. Weeds have a tendency to crop back up if left unattended.

What do you think about the principles of community and how can you implement them at your workplace? Can you see another model for addressing sexual harassment in a consistent manner across STEM fields?

This popst was first published on Google+.

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