The Sciences Grapple With #MeToo Revelations, Recommendations

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By Porter Wells

The #MeToo reverberations just keep on coming, and the upper echelons of academia and medicine are the latest to brace themselves for impact.

Academia has seen at least 25 reports of sexual harassment in 2018 thus far. That’s according to Julie Libarkin, a Michigan State University professor of geocognition, the study of how people perceive and make decisions about the earth. Since she started archiving harassment reports two and a half years ago, Libarkin has logged 664 sexual misconduct investigations on university campuses across the country. These types of cases aren’t rare and don’t happen just “at the elite institutions that grab national headlines,” she told Bloomberg Law. They’re “everywhere,” she said.

Some claims of sexual harassment at the scientific workplace have already made it to court. The University of Texas Health Science Center is defending a sexual harassment suit brought by a medical resident who alleges she was suspended and terminated from her residency after complaining about her supervisor. And a University of Minnesota doctoral candidate won a hostile work environment claim against the university in March 2017 after charging that she was harassed by her supervisor while they were out in the Alaskan wilderness.

“If we don’t correct this problem, we will continue to damage the scientific enterprise of this nation,” Lawrence A. Tabak , principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, said June 14. He was speaking at the NIH’s annual Meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director during a panel updating the community on the institute’s sexual harassment policies and procedures.

The NIH, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, grants $32 billion a year for medical research. It’s drafting a new policy manual chapter on sexual harassment in the workplace and will contract with third-party investigators to make independent judgments about complaints, Tabak said.

The #MeToo Legal Shift

Although a recent National Academies report notes that many of the workplace stressors women deal with often don’t meet the “severe and pervasive” threshold of a hostile work environment, litigators are starting to see a change in that.

That’s according to Monica Khetarpal , a partner at Jackson Lewis, based in Chicago. She represents higher education clients and founded the Chicago office’s higher education group.

“It’s been more challenging to get sexual harassment claims dismissed. What used to not set off alarm bells for the courts before is getting their attention now. The issue at the moment is that it’s all ad hoc,” she told Bloomberg Law.

That means judges in different jurisdictions are making different calls. It will take time for cases to get to federal appeals courts, which will then take more time to review and affirm or reverse the rulings of the lower courts. Only then will practitioners have more solid guidance on the evidence a court expects to see laid out for hostile work environment claims.

But the key now is to move beyond simply putting a policy in a handbook, Khetarpal said. The National Academies report emphasizes the need for multiple avenues for reporting harassment complaints and for employers to take stronger, clearer stances against workplace impropriety.

It’s advice that benefits all industries, not just the academic sciences, Khetarpal said. “You retain employees, you have happier employees—there’s no downside in a robust system of educating managers and HR staff,” she said.

Climate, Culture, and Consequences

Fifty percent of female faculty experience sexual harassment by colleagues, students, and superiors, according to the National Academies report, “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.”

Twenty to 50 percent of female graduate students and medical students and residents experience sexual harassment by peers and superiors, depending on the institution surveyed and the particular field of study, according to a 2018 study cited in the report.

Experiencing sexual harassment increases anxiety, depression, and stress, and decreases female scientists’ enthusiasm and commitment to their present positions and programs as well as their desire to pursue long-term careers in the sciences, the report said.

“We invest money and resources in recruiting women that these programs clearly consider to be excellent at the application and acceptance phase. But then they end up being driven out of field sites and laboratories,” Anna Kirkland, professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan, told Bloomberg Law. She’s a member of the committee that researched and wrote the report.

Anecdotal evidence bears out the report’s statistical findings. On Twitter, there are separate sets of hashtags where people discuss their past experiences and present scandals in the academic sciences: #MeTooPhD and #MeTooSTEM.

The Medical Education Problem

There’s a 16 percentage point difference in the rates of harassment reported by medical students and residents versus non-medical graduate students. Things appear to be worse for medical students. Thirty-six percent of them report experiencing sexual harassment by faculty or staff members while at work, according to the report. By contrast, 20 percent of other graduate students did so.

The harassment numbers are disappointing but not surprising, Dr. Alison Whelan, chief medical education officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, told Bloomberg Law.

AAMC started collecting data on harassment in the medical education field about five years ago and the numbers then were similar to the National Academies’, Whelan said, though their results were based on different survey questions.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Whelan said. But the AAMC and its member organizations and institutions have been working together to improve the learning environment for medical students, residents, faculty, and researchers, she said.

The hierarchical and insulated nature of adviser-student relationships are ripe for abuse across the scientific community, the report said. The apprenticeship model of medical training could contribute to the higher reported rates of top-down harassment, Dr. Janis Orlowski told Bloomberg Law. She’s the chief health-care officer for AAMC.

The report recommended that medical teaching facilities break up narrow, hierarchical structures with alternative mentoring options, provide alternate reporting mechanisms, and encourage upper-level management to be more proactive and recommit to a higher standard of professional conduct.

Those are things the AAMC will continue to think over, Orlowski said.

Looking Forward

Libarkin said it was good to get a report funded and published by the National Academies because scientists and academics value these institutions and their findings. But the report also noted that data is still thin on the ground in some areas.

Kirkland pointed out, for example, that there’s some evidence that women faculty of color deal with a higher level of harassment and disrespect by male students. That “creates yet another problematic outcome for those women professionals,” she said, noting the need for more climate surveys and proactive harassment training.

Libarkin said there’s also not much data on what types of training actually works to reduce workplace sexual harassment. “We know that we need to help people learn how to create these diverse environments, but we don’t know what actually accomplishes that yet,” she said.

“We can move beyond sexual harassment, too. There are still problems with racial harassment and harassment of disabled persons in the workplace,” Libarkin said. She said she hopes that’s where the conversation moves next.

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