Federal and Congressional Leaders Establish Much-Needed Regulations to Combat Sexual Harassment

By: Jossie Flor Sapunar, AWIS Communications Manager

Two meaningful changes in policy and legislation were introduced this fall to help reduce sexual harassment and discrimination in STEM fields, which are notorious for these transgressions. The progress comes after years of advocacy by key groups like the leading advocate for women in STEM the Association for Women in Science.

Reporting Sexual Offender Principal Investigators to NSF

According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) statement, effective October 21, 2018, awardee organizations must report if an NSF-funded principal investigator (PI) or co-principal investigator (co-PI) has committed harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault and the placement of the PI or co-PI on administrative leave or of the imposition of any administrative action relating to a harassment or sexual harassment finding or investigation.

The leading advocate for women in STEM, the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) praised the change in the condition for awards.

“The NSF is sending the message that sexual harassment must no longer be tolerated by penalizing institutional cultures that allow sexual predators to thrive,” said AWIS National Governing Board President Susan Windham-Bannister, PhD. “This much-needed action is one of many steps that need to be taken to against these dangerous norms, which tragically abandon women, hinder their careers and stifle the contributions that women in STEM make to innovation.”

The NSF, in consultation with the awardee organization, will determine what action is necessary under those circumstances. Consequences may include substituting or removing PIs or co-PIs, reducing award funding and/or suspending or terminating awards.

Bill Researches Causes and Consequences of Sexual Harassment

Not long after the NSF’s announcement, Science, Space and Technology House Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced the Combating Sexual Harassment in Sciences Act of 2018. After providing counsel on policy language, AWIS endorsed the bill which commissions research and requires data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the sciences.

“These data are desperately needed to fill the gaps in our understanding of the issue and how to best address it,” said Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister. “Every year women in STEM leave workplace environments that tolerate gender discrimination and sexual harassment. As a result, the STEM community loses creative, energetic, highly educated women who could potentially develop better vaccines, discover smarter technologies, start new companies and make the world a better place.”

The bill expands research efforts to better understand the causes and consequences of sexual harassment affecting individuals in the STEM workforce, including students and trainees, and to examine policies to reduce the prevalence and negative impact of such harassment.

“Equitable access to education and research experiences cannot be ensured for women in the sciences until gender discrimination, implicit bias, and sexual harassment are no longer potential barriers to their success,” stated Ranking Member Johnson in a statement issued by her office. “We cannot afford – morally, scientifically, or economically – to continue to lose these skilled scientists and engineers, particularly from groups that are already underrepresented in STEM.”

These two much-needed policy changes are the first of many steps that need to be taken against these dangerous norms, which tragically abandon women, hinder their careers, and stifle the contributions that women in STEM make to innovation.

Research Well Overdue

There are notable concerns in STEM fields which perpetuate a climate of fear and violence that sometimes governs the lives of women scientists in the workplace.

6 in 10

Almost six out of 10 (58%) of individuals in the academic workplace experience sexual harassment, the second highest rate when compared to the military, private sector and government, according to a 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report.

About AWIS:
The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is a global network with 80 grassroots chapters and affiliates connecting more than 100,000 professionals in STEM with members, allies and supporters worldwide. Founded in 1971, AWIS has been the leading advocate for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to achieve business growth, social change, and innovation. We are dedicated to driving excellence in STEM by achieving equity and full participation of women in all disciplines and across all employment sectors. To learn more, visit www.awis.org and follow us @AWISNational on Twitter and Facebook.