• Carolina Gonzalez-Berrios

Women in Academia: How Do We Change Culture from Within?

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Many of us know someone or have experienced a form/type of sexual harassment in academia. What does NASEM & research have to say about it?

In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) published their annual report titled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine”. The Equal Employement Opportunity Comission guidelines defines sexual harassment as verbal or physical sexual advancements, requests or conducts that explicitly or implicitly affects an individuals employments (ie. work performance, hostile work environment). belowthewaterline.org

The NASEM 2018 report disclosed that academia is second to the military on the workforce list for sexual harassment. 

In fact, two-thirds of women who are part of academia have experienced some type of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is divided into two types: sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention. These are manifested as come-ons, assault and or quid pro-quo. The NASEM report puts universities at fault for only addressing what they call “the tip of the iceberg of sexual harassment” (Figure 1).


NASEM argues that there is a third type of sexual harassment found below the waterline that is part of a bigger problem in academia called gender harassment. This particular category is considered the most common form of sexual harassment. Since 1995, Fitzgerald et al. had defined it as a range of nonverbal and verbal behaviors that projects hostility, insults, objectification, or degrading attitudes that are against members of a particular gender. However, women who experience gender harassment are seven times more likely to not classify it as a type of sexual harassment (Holland et al. 2013).

Another study found that 54 to 60% of women working at either a factory or a university as faculty/staff experienced more commonly gender harassment to any other form of sexual harassment (Schneider et al. 1997).

A specific example of gender harassment are microaggressions. These are often experienced as a brief message or behavior which whether intentional or not take place on a daily basis promoting a hostile, derogatory or negative communication and environment that are directed to a distinct group of people (Sue et al. 2007). This can be seen as an individual referring to people by using offensive names, inappropriate humor, misuse of pronouns, etc.


Prevalence of all types of sexual harassment in academia, according to the 2018 NASEM report, is driven by organizational power or authority that is distributed between people within groups. This statement is aligned with arguments presented by Bondestam et al. (2020) by having reviewed over 800 publications on our current scientific knowledge on sexual harassment in higher education. Their results found that one out of four female students only report sexual harassment and is due to men are often in higher positions of power than women (NASEM, 2018). Bondestam et al. (2020) also found that the impacts on research and education affected by sexual harassment and the effect on using measures to mitigate sexual harassment have not been assessed. At the moment, this study concluded that research on sexual harassment in higher education has a substantial gap of knowledge on perspectives, approaches and theory. This continues to foster faculty and trainees on being rarely trained in interpersonal skills. Consequently, by lacking these abilities to engage in conflict management, negotiation and resolution there are higher chances for a neglect of healthy team dynamics (Clancy et al. 2014).

Instead, we end up prioritizing environments that are driven for only data generation and cultivating alienation and harassment which reduce job satisfaction and increase employee turnover.

Although women trainees (students and postdocs) have outnumbered male trainees in field-based positions, women are still under-represented in positions of professors in academia (National Science Foundation 2013). As a result, women are frequently excluded from symposia, faculty conversations and offered less mentoring in a male dominant environment (Holleran et al., 2011). This is despite universities having some form of mechanisms in place to report sexual harassment. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that 81% of women were dissatisfied with the outcome of reporting (Clancy et al. 2014). NASEM also stated that universities carry out too often a symbolic compliance of their student and faculty code of conduct rather than helping people who are experiencing conflicts under the iceberg. Dr. Sharona Gordon, an advocate for changing academic environment, uses NASEM’s metaphor of the iceberg as the problem of sexual harassment and elaborates on how the water around the iceberg is the academic community. During her seminars, she states:

"By chipping away at the top of the iceberg, we are unable to change the iceberg, the ice will grow back since the water (academic environment and culture) is cold. The only way to melt the iceberg is by warming the waters."

Given these points of argument, the NASEM committee provided a set of recommendations in their 2018 report.

1) Create diverse, inclusive, and respectful environments.

Universities should first take explicit steps to achieve greater gender and racial equity and also, foster environments that are respectful and promote cooperation. This could be taught through training programs and then evaluate its effectiveness on faculty and staff. The main idea through these actions would be not to change beliefs but sexual harassment behaviors of individuals.

2) Address the most common form of sexual harassment: gender harassment.

All universities need to pay more attention, create and enforce policies that address gender harassment and not only sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention.

3) Move beyond legal compliance to address culture and climate.

Leadership needs to be involved of not only addressing sexual harassment as part of the university culture and climate but also engaging with students and community members on their needs.

4) Improve transparency and accountability.

Universities need to be able to share accessible information on what sexual harassment policies are through reports that include what behaviors constitute as sexual harassment and disciplinary actions will be in place due to the severity and frequency of it.  

5) Diffuse the organizational power/authority dependency relationship between trainees and faculty.

Use of power diffusion can lower sexual harassment. This can be done by departments or committees sharing funding of a student rather than just one principal investigator.

6) Provide support for the target.

Use of less formal means of reporting sexual harassment incidents and develop approaches to prevent target from fearing retaliation from perpetrators.

7) Strive for strong and diverse leadership.

All college and university presidents, deans and department chairs should make prevention and reducing of sexual harassment part of their tenure track plan.  

8) Measure progress.

Evaluate through research with valid social science methodologies (ie. surveys) and assess efforts to create a respectful, diverse and inclusive environment. Results from research should be publicly shared and should urge the creation of tools that can track climate surveys for faculty, staff, pos-docs and students.

9) Incentivize change.

Apply for STEM Equity Achievement awards that demonstrate the university’s actions to promote environments that have inclusiveness and respect. 

10) Initiate legislative action.

Better protection for targets from retaliation and prohibiting confidentiality in sentence and requiring institutions that receive federal funds to publicly disclose results of climate surveys and reports on sexual harassment.

11) Address the failures to meaningfully enforce Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination.

Use of scientific evidence on the behavior of targets and perpetrators of sexual harassment. Universities need to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of anti-sexual harassment through training and policies and not just in their existence.

12) Increase federal agency action and collaboration.

Research on sexual harassment should address experiences from underrepresented minorities, women of color, sexual and gender orientation, disabled, etc. Also, training and policies that prevent and stop sexual harassment, mechanisms for targets led resolutions, incentive to have leaders address sexual harassment, etc.

13) Entire academic community should be responsible for reducing and preventing sexual harassment. 

All members of higher education should assume the responsibility of civil, respectful and diverse work environments and confront those that have behaviors and create environments filled with sexual harassment.

Ultimately, the most impactful people to foster this type of environment are principal investigators because they are these role models that can create larger and quicker changes (Clancy et al. 2014).

We must speak about all types of sexual harassment and educate on what it is, what behaviors constitute it and what  can we do to prevent it from even happening.

This article was written by WAGS collaborator, Carolina L. Gonzalez-Berrios.

The Spanish version of the article can be read here.


1) Bondestam, F., and Lundqvist, M. (2020). Sexual harassment in higher education-a systemic review. doi:10.1080/21568235.2020.1729833

2) Clancy, K.B.H., Nelson, R.G., Rutherford, J.N., and Hande, K. (2014). Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLOS ONE, 9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172

3) Gordon,S. [sharonagordon]. (2019, June 20). If I’m Not Safe, No Body Is Sharona Gordon 2019 Horace Mann Medalist [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=--iTK7B_fQA&feature=youtu.be

4) Gordon, S. (2019, May 29). Warming our academic culture through grassroots programs. Retrieved from: https://www.belowthewaterline.org/

5) National Science Foundation. (2013). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. [Press release] Retrieved from: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/ 

6) The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. (2018, September 1). Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. [Press release]. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24994/sexual-harassment-of-women-climate-culture-and-consequences-in-academic

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