Scientists’ Panel Urges More, and More Vigorous Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Bias in Labs

Large panel, including UMass Amherst diversity researcher, urges tougher action
Nilanjana Dasgupta
Nilanjana Dasgupta

AMHERST, Mass. – Today a diverse group of scientists including Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the campus’s director of faculty equity and inclusion, report their findings and recommendations on how institutions and funding agencies can address and prevent sexual harassment and gender bias in the STEM workforce. Details of their suggested “specific, potentially high-impact policy changes” appear in the current issue of Science.

The 23 authors, who met last December in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., issued their recommendations in response to a 2018 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). It highlighted how sexual harassment of women intersects with gender harassment and unconscious bias in academic sciences, engineering and medicine.

One of their first suggestions is to treat sexual harassment “in a manner parallel to scientific misconduct,” as did the NAS. They also urge that investigators be required to disclose harassment findings and settlements to funding agencies and potential employers, and that mechanisms be put in place to protect victims’ careers.

Dasgupta sees today’s Science paper as a call to action that follows up on the NAS report.She points out, “I think the solutions to sexual harassment and gender bias problems cannot solely rest with individual actors and their good intentions. There have to be structural solutions, policies, procedures, incentives to be fair and checks in the system to ensure that the solutions are working as intended.”

First author and Nobel laureate Carol Greider, director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, says, “The report really lays out the continuum of behaviors that drive people out of science.”

Gender diversity in STEM has been a persistent issue in academia, adds Jason Sheltzer, a Cold Spring Harbor laboratory fellow and co-organizer of the summit. His research has shown that women were underrepresented in research labs where the principal investigator had won a Nobel Prize or been elected to the NAS, and for independent fellowships. “We’re at this junction point where there is overwhelming evidence describing the barriers that women can face in STEM careers, and there is much less data about what the best way to address it is.”

Other recommendations by the panel include requiring transparency in start-up packages, salaries and internal grant funding and fostering work/life balance through family-friendly policies, with special efforts to advance women’s careers using mentorship and other approaches to avoid unconscious bias in grants, promotions, awards and tenure.

This last point is supported by Dasgupta’s own research, which has shown that having same-gender peer mentors who are successful in science and engineering preserve first-year undergraduate women’s confidence, persistence and retention in STEM significantly more than when they had no mentors. “Remarkably, these benefits endure at graduation, several years after the mentoring relationships have ended,” she notes.

Greider adds, “I've been a department chair at Johns Hopkins for 17 years and I saw that mentoring and mentoring style aren’t really the things that are rewarded in terms of promotion and advancement. Those behaviors are really an impediment to women in science.” She also says it’s important to promote a variety of points of view. “If you always have people that have the same view testing out hypotheses, you’ll be stuck in your own bubble and won’t be able to advance the science.”

Shelzer notes that every member of the Cold Spring group is worried about budding scientists who don’t get a chance to become professional scientists. To have the most impact, he adds, policies need to be strictly implemented from top-down and from large funding agencies to institutions. “If the NIH says if you sexually harassed someone, you lose a grant. That has a huge impact.”

Dasgupta adds, “In order to create inclusive professional environments for women in science and prevent their disillusioned departure, we need funding agencies like the NIH, NSF and HHMI, universities, and professional societies to hold people accountable for unethical harassment in a transparent way, no matter who they are.”