Symposium About Sexual Harassment in Science: Continuing the Conversation

“Sexual Harassment in Science: Continuing the Conversation” was a symposium which took place virtually at the 2021 ACS Fall National Meeting on August 23, 2021. This program was a continuation of a symposium called “Science of Sexual Harassment”, which was presented at the 2018 ACS Spring National Meeting. This year’s symposium was organized and chaired by Dr. Stephanie Hare, who did an excellent job in both regards. Hare kicked off the event by introducing the current state of the issue and introduced the speakers.

The first speaker, Joanna Grossman, Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law and Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University, gave a talk entitled “The Impact of the #MeToo Movement on academia”. The #MeToo movement drew attention to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace, how targets were emboldened to speak up, and how it put pressure on institutions to respond. Grossman discussed the current state of legal protections and limitations in sexual harassment, specifically its shortcomings in addressing sexual misconduct and effecting meaningful change.

The second speaker was NiCole Buchanan, Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. Her talk concerned “Racialized sexual harassment in science”, which covered the effects of experiencing harassment while belonging to multiple marginalized groups. Such individuals experience multiple forms of harassment, which leads to worse psychological outcomes. Buchanan also discussed the combination of racial harassment and sexual harassment as racialized sexual harassment and illustrated different stereotypes as examples. The net effect of these negative experiences results in women, and especially non-white women, to exit STEM fields at a faster rate than their male counterparts.

The third speaker, Vicki Magley, Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut, spoke on “Organizational antecedents of sexual harassment: A lesson for change”. Her talk detailed the nuances between sexual and gender harassment: the former is more overt and involves unwanted sexual attention or coercion for example, whereas instances of the latter can be more subtle, such as put downs aiming to diminish the target’s worth. Because gender harassment is more difficult to quantify, it can lead to a more significant impact on the target’s health and workplace satisfaction. Gender harassment has a higher prevalence in settings in which women are in the minority and hold less power within the structure and may only be mitigated by improving parity in the workplace.

The last speaker of the morning session, Jamie Lewis Keith of the Education Counsel, discussed “Sexual Harassment in science: Continuing the conversation, contributions of the societies consortium on sexual harassment in STEMM, a collective leadership effort of 127 societies” and its mission to “advance ethical, professional, and inclusive conduct, climate and culture” by working to address harassment and all forms of gender inequity. The consortium advises on policy to promote conduct changes and to build a community for longer term culture change. Keith outlined the Consortium’s executive and membership structure and roles. The American Chemical Society is proud to be an inaugural member of the Consortium.

The morning session finished with a panel discussion with the speakers and the second part resumed the same afternoon.

The first speaker of the afternoon was Donna J. Nelson, Professor of Chemistry, University of Oklahoma and 2016 ACS President. She used the recent C&E News story “Sexual Harassment and its Aftershocks” (3/15/2021) as an introduction to the de facto tolerance of harassment toward women and marginalized groups. Nelson identified and analyzed harassers’ methods of successful psychological manipulations and continual manipulative behaviors to victimize and isolate their targets. Nelson also spoke about her perspective and experience of harassment as a Native American.

The next speaker, Valery E. Forbes, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior and Dean of the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, gave a talk on “Combatting sexual harassment in academia: Lessons learned the hard way”. Her talk explored the Gianluigi Veglia sexual harassment case. Forbes outlined the progression of the investigation, which began with complaints filed in November 2016. Following an investigation, in March 2017 the EOAA recommended Veglia’s termination, but the recommendation was not followed by the sanctioning committee, which imposed lesser sanctions. By October, #MeToo gained momentum in the US and renewed attention to the Veglia case; by May 2018, the details of the case were published in City Pages and caused a public backlash. In reaction, a misconduct task force was established to develop more impactful ways to address harassment. After Veglia’s sanctions expired, the C&E News (March 2021) and MN Daily (April 2021) articles were published, again renewing public outcry. Several key changes were made as a result of the progression of the Veglia case, including increasing transparency, excluding the harasser’s colleagues from the sanctioning body, enforcing a compact between the advisor and junior lab members and supporting the lab members should policy be violated. Forbes acknowledged that there is huge inertia against fixing systemic flaws, but major events such as this one can catalyze change.

The third speaker of the afternoon, Jeffrey J. Gray, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, discussed his work in “Cultivating inclusion in research and campus environments”. He recognizes that fostering inclusive, equitable cultures reduces the incidence of sexual harassment, and that there is a disparity between the faculty and student body. Gray discussed his efforts to promote inclusivity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, and sexual orientation in the RosettaCommons project and within his department. He talked about the JEDIs (Rosetta Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee members) in the program and their efforts to further this goal.

The final speaker of the symposium, Meg Urry, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy, spoke on “Addressing sexual harassment in astronomy”. Urry was the President of the American Astronomical Society in 2015. Although the AAS had an anti-harassment policy, in practice, it was toothless and young women members were subject to harassment and unwanted attention at meetings. As President of the AAS, Urry had the society implement strategies to discourage inappropriate behavior, such as deploying Astronomy Allies to help defuse bad situations. Coincidentally, in 2015, Geoff Marcy’s long history of sexual harassment and predatory behavior became public, underscoring the prevalence of this problem and the lack of real consequences in academia. Urry identified “strong gender asymmetry”, isolated work conditions, and a power imbalance are conducive to harassment without consequence. She opined that sexual harassment should be viewed as research misconduct.

The symposium was concluded with a panel discussion with the afternoon speakers. We thank the speakers for their insightful talks on the current status of sexual harassment in the sciences and changes which took place since #MeToo, for identifying conditions that allow harassment to persist, and for working to mitigate this problem and to foster a more equitable environment for women and underrepresented people to flourish in STEM.

Article by Anna Sromek