How Universities Deal With Sexual Harassment Needs Sweeping Change, Panel Says

“We really have to move beyond a mind-set of legal compliance and liability and think about the ways we can change the climate,” Dr. Paula A. Johnson, the president of Wellesley College and a co-chairwoman of the committee that produced the report, said in an interview.

Dr. Paula A. Johnson, the president of Wellesley College, co-chaired the committee that produced the report.CreditDina Rudick/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

The committee identified three types of sexual harassment: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. It said gender harassment, “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion or second-class status,” was by far the most common type women in these fields experienced.

“As opposed to the come-ons, you can kind of think of them as the put-downs,” said Dr. Johnson, who is also a cardiologist and former chief of the division of women’s health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “And when there’s more pervasive gender harassment, there’s proclivity toward unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion.”

Harassment is more pervasive in medicine than in academic science and engineering, the committee found. “There is still the idea of medical training as being akin to hazing,” Elizabeth L. Hillman, president of Mills College and another committee member, said in an interview.

Medical students often work long, grueling hours where they can be alone with a potential harasser, she said, and “harassment comes too from patients and patients’ families.”

In any form, the costs for women — and for science’s ability to retain the full range of talented people — can be great, even if the consequences can seem subtle at first, the panel said.

“Sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health,” the report said. Women who are harassed may quit but also may distance themselves from work without actually quitting. They may feel disillusioned, angry or stressed, and their productivity may decline. Harassed students’ academic performance may suffer; they may change advisers or majors, drop classes or drop out.


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