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Study Sheds Light on Institutional Sexual Harassment

June 21, 2018

A new study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is making waves by suggesting the causes of sexual harassment are often not what we think. Instead of identifying and punishing individuals who engage in inappropriate behavior, the study concludes that altering the culture, or organizational climate, of a company or organization, is far more critical when it comes to reducing incidents of harassment.

Additionally, the study recommends systemic changes to higher education should be adopted to prevent and adequately respond to incidents of sexual harassment. The evidence suggests that current policies and procedures have demonstrated only a minimal reduction in sexual harassment.

A Focus on “Culture and Climate”

Changing the culture and climate to one of respect and civility will require organizations move beyond mere legal compliance to adopt, evidence-based policies and practices to address and prevent all forms of sexual harassment. The study recommends that institutions should consider sexual harassment as equally crucial as research misconduct from a perspective of disciplinary enforcement to avoid significant loss of academic talent.

Researchers set forth three primary forms of sexual harassment: 1) gender harassment (sexism and crude behavior), (2) unwanted sexual attention (including verbal or physical sexual advances), and (3) sexual coercion (when sexual activity is used to garner favorable treatment). Of these three variations, gender harassment is identified as the most prevalent.

When it comes to organizational attitudes of tolerance of sexual harassment, perception does seem to feed reality. Even a perceived tolerance for harassment within an organization yields higher instance of misconduct than organizations where the climate is understood to be stricter. In academia, where the perception is generally of a more tolerant atmosphere, the researchers found that over half of women faculty and staff report having been harassed. Between 20–50 percent of female students reported sexually harassing behavior by faculty and staff.

Steps to Address Institutional Sexual Harassment

The study concludes that the challenges in preventing sexual harassment are significant but crucial for numerous cultural and economic reasons. The researchers give seven recommendations that focus on how academic institutions can address and prevent sexual harassment.

1. Specifically, identify and address gender harassment.

Institutional leaders should pay increased attention to and enact policies that cover gender harassment. As the most common form of sexual harassment, gender harassment usually accompanies other forms of harassment, so addressing it will have a considerable impact on stopping different types of harassment as well.

2. Move beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate.

Academic institutions, research and training sites, and federal agencies must move beyond policies of basic legal compliance relying solely on formal reports made by victims. Sexual harassment needs to be addressed as a significant culture and climate issue.

3. Create diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments.

Institutions should develop diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments, combining anti-harassment and civility-promotion programs. The focus should be on training to prevent and address sexual harassment. Tailored for specific populations, provides skills needed by all members of the academic community, teaches how to interrupt and intervene when harassment occurs and focuses on changing behavior, not on changing beliefs.

4. Improve transparency and accountability.

Academic institutions should develop clear, accessible, and consistent policies on sexual harassment and standards of behavior. These policies should include a range of clearly stated, appropriate, and escalating disciplinary consequences for perpetrators found to have violated policy or law. These consequences should be punitive, not something often considered a benefit, such as a reduction in teaching load or time away from campus service responsibilities. Policies should also include an investigative and decision-making process that is fair to all involved, and that is undertaken and completed promptly.

5. Diffuse the hierarchical and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty.

Academic institutions should identify and enact mechanisms to diffuse concentrated power and dependencies in relationships between trainees and faculty/advisors, such as using mentoring networks and committee-based advising and providing independent funding.

6. Provide support for victims.

Academic institutions must make it clear that reporting sexual harassment is a necessary and brave action and provide (1) access to support services regardless of if a formal report is filed, (2) alternative and informal ways to record information about an incident, and (3) approaches that prevent the target from experiencing or fearing retaliation.

7. Strive for healthy and diverse leadership.

It is critical for all levels of leadership be held responsible for creating the needed changes described above. Institutional leaders at all levels must publicly state the goal of reducing and preventing incidents of sexual harassment is one of their highest priorities, and they should engage all stakeholders, including students, faculty, and staff in efforts to achieve that goal during their tenure.

Whether these measures will be enacted or ignored by institutions nationwide remains to be seen, but the mere existence of serious academic research into the causes of harassment in our institutions can only be a positive step. The more we understand how to create positive environments in our workplaces and academic institutions, the closer we are to making those places safe and comfortable for everyone.

Contact a Lawyer

It is an undeniable reality that sexual harassment is a serious problem in academic institutions across America. From faculty to staff to students, anyone can be a victim. Institutions have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for everyone, and a failure to do so can give rise to legal liability.

If you or someone you know is being subjected to institutional sexual harassment, seek legal help without delay. Firms such as The Cifarelli Law Firm have a team of professionals who can help you throughout the journey and can fight to protect you and your loved ones.

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