Harassment Leads to a Loss of Talent, Innovation in Sciences

Meg Urry, a professor and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics who has advocated to increase the number of women and minorities in science, delivered a topical lecture on sexual harassment at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Professional Images Photography

Participants at the 2016 American Astronomical Association meeting had signed a code of conduct that warned against sexual harassment. At the registration desk they also were met by a five-foot sign reminding them of the problem. Then at that very meeting an undergraduate student standing beside her research presentation was asked, “What’s attractive about this poster beside you?”

In a topical lecture delivered at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting, Urry, a former president of the American Astronomical Association, used the story to illustrate how such incidents are driving early-career researchers away from the sciences.

“It’s clear to all of us, I’m sure, that sexual harassment is just plain wrong,” said Urry. “But I also think about what science loses when we have sexual harassment. We lose talent, the immense talent that we are not exploiting, the new ideas that people who have left a field might have had and the kind of different thinking that leads to innovation.”

“Harassment whether it is egregious … or cunning or just stupid — some oblivious idiot who hasn’t been paying attention — all of it is very demeaning and damaging to the victims and is destructive to our profession,” she added.

Sexual harassment thrives when there are unequal numbers of men and women in a field and when there is a strong hierarchy of power within the profession, Urry said, noting that both conditions are prevalent in science and engineering fields and in academia.

“I also think that it’s deeply ingrained in our society. It’s baked in that women are inferior to men, and our inability to see them as equals contributes both to the harassment and the dismissal of their talent as not a big loss,” Urry said.

She cited a 2014 internet survey published by PLOS One, on the prevalence of sexual harassment at fieldwork sites throughout the sciences. In the survey, 84% of women and 68% of men in the trainee stage of their careers said they had received unwanted comments or experienced a hostile work environment in the field.

The difference, Urry said, is that men were more likely to report that the harassment came from their peers, while women were more likely to say they had been harassed by people above them in the professional hierarchy.

“It’s much harder to put off a superior than it is to put off a peer,” she said, “because they can in many cases control your future.”

In a special session held Feb. 16 at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting, representatives from several scientific associations met in a town hall to discuss how their societies are handling sexual harassment among their membership. The town hall was moderated by Shirley Malcom, the director of the Education and Human Resources Program at AAAS.

The societies have been updating their ethics and conduct guidelines for attendees at their national meetings and for their award winners and governance boards. Often this means expanding the definition of “misconduct” in these guidelines, to move beyond research issues such as falsification of data or plagiarism to include professional misconduct such as harassment.

For instance, the American Geophysical Union now requires self-disclosure of professional misconduct incidents on its award nominations “in the same way that you might report a conflict of interest in your research,” said Billy Williams, the staff partner of the AGU Ethics committee.

Many of the audience members asked about how societies are handling the adjudication of harassment claims. It can be a significant expense for societies to investigate these claims and in some cases it is unclear whether these societies have legal obligations to inform the researchers’ home institutions of their findings, said Jodi Wesemann, assistant director for educational research at the American Chemical Society.

In her talk, Urry said universities and scientific societies should remember that one of their first obligations is to teach and train new professionals. “Universities have to refocus from preventing lawsuits by disgruntled fired faculty to protecting students and trainees from harassment.”

In early February, the National Science Foundation announced new standards for its research grants, under which grantees could have their funds suspended or revoked if their institution finds that a grantee has committed harassment.

Some researchers have suggested that harassment misconduct should not be part of the grant-making equation, since it does not bear on the quality of science being considered for funding. But Malcom echoed Urry in saying that harassment compromises the scientific work environment and pushes younger researchers out of the field who might otherwise stay and make important contributions.

“And quite frankly, if you are a person who cannot be trusted to train another person without abusing them, should you have the resources to train them?” she asked.

[Associated image: Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash]