Tag Archives: sexual harassment

NIH’s efforts to fight sexual harassment fall short of expectations

On October 21, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) new policy to fight sexual harassment in science went into effect. This policy requires institutions that receive NSF funding to report to the agency any findings related to sexual harassment, including coercion, assault and other forms of harassment (as defined here), by principal investigators (PIs) and co-PIs, within ten business days of the report. This policy also requires the institutions to report any administrative actions that have been taken against such PIs, including putting them on a leave during an investigation. This policy, originally drafted in February of this year, will apply to any new grants and any extensions to existing grants made on or after that date, and is considered as the “strictest action yet by a US research funding agency” to fight sexual harassment.

In comparison, the NIH’s new efforts to battle sexual harassment pales when held up to the NSF’s new policy. Several months after the NSF’s initial undertaking to design their policy, NIH Director Francis Collins unveiled the new anti-sexual harassment website containing a centralized reporting system for sexual harassment and violence, and updated policies that would apply to the institutions that receive NIH funding. These policies require the institutions to also develop and foster an environment that prevents gender violence, increase accessibility to reporting of incidents, respond to any reported incidents and notify the NIH in case of status change of the PI/co-PI on existing grants.

While these policies seem sound, a comparative analysis between NSF and NIH’s efforts reveal the lukewarm nature of such policies. The NSF requires that the agency be notified by funded institutions whenever a PI/co-PI has been placed on administrative leave, faces any administrative action related to the incident, or is under investigation for violating the award policies or the codes of conduct related to sexual harassment. In contrast, the NIH only requires that it be notified when there is a change of status for the PI/co-PI (a change of status is required when a PI/co-PI is no longer able to substantially contribute to the research efforts of the grant awarded). In addition to requiring that incidents be reported within ten business days, the NSF also has a review process for evaluating such incidents. The NIH has no such timeline, provides no guidance on investigating such incidents, and has no proper review process in place for determining the course of administrative action. It should be noted that both the NSF and NIH are dependent on the investigation performed by the alleged perpetrator’s host institution, which is a problem in itself given how universities seem reluctant to pursue sexual harassment cases.  

The starkest difference between the NSF and NIH policies seems to revolve around the question of what will happen to the funding situation for the alleged perpetrator if they are to be found in violation of the codes of conduct. Under the NSF policy, the PI/co-PI can be either removed from/substituted in the award, or have their funding amount reduced, or have their award suspended or terminated. However, in the FAQ section of the new NIH website, the question of removal of funding is described as a “complex issue” and refers to an existing policy requirement that is not specific to gender violence and sexual harassment issues. NIH Director Francis Collins pointed out that NIH grants are awarded to “institutions, not to individuals”; he also mentioned that due to the legal constraints the NIH faces since it is under the Department of Human and Health Services (HHS), immediate termination of the perpetrator’s funding cannot be applied as it can from the NSF, which is an independent agency.

Critics argued that Collins’ rationale appears contradictory and unclear. NIH policies allow grantees to transfer their funding when they change institutions, which is directly opposite to his statement that NIH grants are awarded to institutions and not individuals. Additionally, there are other mechanisms that the NIH can use to address time-sensitive issues, such as those of sexual harassment when they threaten the safety of scientists. The disappointment and frustration expressed towards NIH’s lukewarm efforts to fight sexual harassment is amplified by the fact that Collins had announced this topic to be on his agenda back in 2016. Critics pointed out that if the NIH had actually started working on this issue when they promised, they would have already made progress with the the complex rulemaking process. Collins has promised to work with the government and his counterpart in NSF, France Cordova, to work on these issues.

The issue of gender violence and gender bias in STEM fields have taken a center place with the burgeoning #MeTooSTEM social media movement. It was given a more concrete place in policymaking with the report from the National Academy of Sciences, published on June 12, that showed how pervasive these issues are, the failure of current Title IX policies, and the absence of any specific policies to address them. In this report, female STEM students in the University of Texas system reported higher levels of sexual harassment and related issues compared to non-STEM majors, with the highest level in Medicine; similar trends were found when female graduate students in the Pennsylvania state system in a separate survey. The report also showed how sexual harassment is also harming careers and driving women away from pursuing scientific careers altogether. All this data build on previous research which showed that prevalence of sexual harassment in academia stands at 58%; women of color, LGBTQIA and gender minority folks experienced a higher rate of harassment. The NIH’s new policy does not take into account the barriers victims face when reporting incidents of sexual harassment and violence due to established power dynamics and the pervasive patriarchy in society; nor does it take into account that it is more often than not that the victim suffers in their professional careers more than the perpetrator. The latter is exemplified in the case of the tobacco researcher at UCSF, who has been found guilty of sexually harassing a post-doc (although the perpetrator has denied responsibility), but is still employed and lauded by UCSF for winning a large NIH grant, whereas the post-doc had to leave the university and her work has not been published. This only adds to the argument as to why the NIH needs to take serious action against perpetrators and not reward them further with more funding. 

Scientists are not just waiting for NIH to catch up on the times to fight gender violence – Beth McLaughlin, the founder of #MeTooSTEM, and others have launched a petition to Francis Collins to stop funding perpetrators of sexual misconduct. Julie Libarkin has created a detailed spreadsheet of publicly available information on sexual misconduct in academia. Maryam Zaringhalam and Angela Saini are trying to bring Saini’s book Inferior, which details how gender bias in STEM fields have been constructed over decades, to public schools in the US to educate the youth, and especially encourage girls to pursue scientific careers. These trailblazers are, unsurprisingly, all women. It is also critical to note that neither these policies nor a critical examination of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in academia would have come to light without these young women scientists blowing the whistle at great risk of their careers. Ultimately, the effects of gender violence and gender bias affects all sexes, and we should all be doing our part, especially the male scientists, to fight against it and not leave the burden on those who are affected by it the most.

NE GWiSE Spring to Action

Guest Post by Alyssa DiLeo (Neuro), Tufts Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE)

Tufts was host to the first Spring to Action event organized by the newly formed New England Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (NE GWiSE). The group represents graduate women in STEM from universities across New England in advocating for greater representation and resources for women in STEM fields. Within the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaign, the forum focused on sexual harassment within our scientific communities with the goal of reviewing and creating school specific policy to be presented to each school.

Organizing Executive Board, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

Dr. Leena Akhtar, a lecturer in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality from Harvard University kicked off the event as the keynote speaker. She walked the audience through the history of sexual harassment in the workplace and the landmark court cases that ultimately provided protection against sex discrimination. The 1964 Civil Rights act banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. But, it almost wasn’t. Apparently, the provision on sex was included to sink the bill. That’s right, protection against discrimination based on sex was considered the most unlikely and ridiculous concept to be included in the law at the time.

As the 60s and 70s went on, many court cases, mostly brought by African American women, reinforced the law and made sexual harassment and hostile work places unlawful. Liberal and radical feminist groups organized to hold the government accountable to enforcing these laws and provided resources to women suffering injustices, something that is still relevant today. However, the cultural and societal backlash to the feminist movement was brutal. Change was not welcome in historically male institutions and newspaper articles summed up the feeling over the new law through obscene political cartoons and agonized over the idea of qualified women applying for traditionally male jobs. To quote Mona Lisa Vito, “What a frickin’ nightmare!”

Fast forward to present day and women are still fighting pay disparities, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination. Power structures in academic sciences are still very much in place and institutions mostly want to protect their tenured professors who bring in grant money rather than expendable graduate students. Deviant behavior perpetrated by scientists are usually notorious and well-known within their institutions and can persist because of bystander inaction. A panel including title IX coordinators and sexual misconduct specialists from BU, Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, and Tufts answered questions from a NE GWiSE moderator and the audience inspiring conversation about policies and reporting guidelines in place at each university. NE GWiSE also provided an overview of sexual harassment policies and offices among the New England universities represented at the event. Surprisingly, many do not require sexual harassment training for faculty and staff, especially older faculty, which is an incredibly irresponsible decision that can easily be fixed.

Title IX Panel, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

Breakout groups formed to discuss these existing policies and create a list of “asks” to be brought back to each school. Tufts will be proposing to mandate tailored Title IX training that includes mental health and cultural sensitivity modules every few years, as well as further incorporating sexual misconduct into ethics classes. In order to better inform these trainings, a climate survey will go out to students, faculty, and staff about sexual harassment and the workplace environment at Tufts. 

Breakout Groups, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

Despite the fight laid out before us, everyone left this event with hope in their hearts and fuel to continue fighting for justice in academia. This past year we saw Nasty Women unite and march on Washington the day after the president was inaugurated. Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Louie C.K are facing consequences for their inexcusable behavior and the world is taking sexual harassment allegations seriously. The conversation about sexual harassment is finally shifting from the perpetrator to the victim and focusing on what can be done to stop these behaviors rather than suggesting the victim was asking for it. These situations are reinforced by power structures and vulnerability often found in the sciences, but it’s beginning to even out as women have the support to continue their careers into higher level faculty positions. Victims of sexual harassment and gender-based violence are being lent a voice to speak out about the injustices they face within the workplace. As Dr. Leena Akhtar said, “this movement is a reckoning” and we’re just getting started.

The NEGWiSE Spring to Action Attendees, Courtesy – Siobhan McRee

If you’re interested in getting involved at Tufts, GWiSE chapters on the Boston and Medford chapters have been established this year and welcome all members of the graduate and scientific community to attend events.