Ending the pushout of women in scientific research

September 14. 2019
Jess Eagle

Image says Women in science: ending the pushout. In the background, the gloved hands of a scientist handling a pink specimen in a petri dish

We’re partnering with women scientists at the Scripps Research Institute to create innovative new policies for curbing sexual harassment in academic sciences and research.

The academic sciences have a real problem with gender discrimination and sexual harassment — nearly the worst of any industry in the country. So we at Equal Rights Advocates are partnering with women at the world’s most influential biomedical research center to do something about it.

We’re working with the Network for Women in Science at the Scripps Research Institute to revamp the Institute’s Title IX sexual misconduct and gender discrimination policies. Our goal? To set the gold standard for other scientific academic programs and research labs across the country.

Academic programs have the second highest rate of sexual harassment of any private industry in the U.S., with 58% of students and faculty reporting experiences of sexual harassment. (The only industry with a higher rate is the military, with a shocking 69%.)

Biomedical programs and research labs in particular have long been cited as breeding grounds for toxic gender discrimination and harassment.

“Research labs are often isolated, with students and faculty working alone late or on weekends,” said Brenda Adams, Senior Attorney who is leading ERA’s work on this project. “When a lab supervisor has all the power — power to grant time off, to choose which projects get funding, which papers get submitted for publication — they can single-handedly make or break a young scientist’s career.  That power dynamic coupled with an isolated work environment creates a pathway for potential abuse and retaliation to go unchecked. We need to dismantle the power structure and shift the culture of this field.”

July 2018 study concluded that the cumulative result of sexual harassment in academic sciences is “significant damage to research integrity and a costly loss of talent in these academic fields.”

In other words, U.S. women are continuously being pushed out of the sciences. (Imagine all the cures and inventions women may have produced if they’d not been forced to choose between their careers and their safety or dignity.)

It’s time for a change, and Scripps Research is leaning into it. Scripps has been called the most influential research institution in the world, with 250 laboratories, 2,400 faculty members, and more than 1,000 patents. By implementing groundbreaking practices at this world-renowned lab, we hope to influence other labs and scientific programs across the country.

When a lab supervisor has all the power... they can single-handedly make or break a young scientist’s career. We need to dismantle the power structure and shift the culture of this field. — Brenda Adams, Senior Attorney

At the request of the Network for Women in Sciences and in collaboration with ERA, Scripps will implement new, innovative policies, including:

  1. Revise their Title IX policies to make them easier to understand, and make it easier for survivors to report. Provide the revised policy to all employees and students, including all new hires and students moving forward.
  2. Conduct prompt, fair, and thorough investigations into reports of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination, with trauma-informed, survivor-centered recommendations from ERA.
  3. Train all students and employees on how to identify and report sexual harassment and gender discrimination (for oneself or as a witness) using real-world examples likely to occur in lab environments. The training will also help complainants identify retaliation, and how to report it.
  4. Prohibit confidentiality in settlement agreements, which is meant to keep survivors from speaking out about what they experienced, and often allows harassers to move on to other institutions by concealing their past misconduct.
  5. Establish a clear range of consequences for misconduct, and require that sexual harassment be treated at least as severely as research misconduct.
  6. Give students more of a voice by requiring at least 20-25% of the Institute’s Title IX Committee to be comprised of students.
  7. Take steps to diffuse and decentralize power (which often rests in the hands of one male lab lead, allowing misconduct to go unreported), such as being creative about funding streams and incentivizing collaborative, egalitarian leadership styles.
  8. Implement reward structures and incentives that ensure harassment-related misconduct is taken into account when considering new hires, promotions, and awarding supervisory privileges.
  9. Conduct annual climate surveys of students and employees about the prevalence of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, with input from ERA and NWIS on effective questions and methods.
  10. In order to continue effectively addressing these issues, compile two reports per year on the number of sexual harassment and gender discrimination complaints, how many were investigated, and the results of each investigation (i.e. discipline of the perpetrator, remedial measures offered to the victim).
  11. Foster an open dialog about the prevalence of sexual harassment, how it typically manifests in the academic sciences, how it affects the community, and how to best address it.

You can see a concrete example of innovative changes already being made at Scripps. Check out the new Title IX section of their website, which is informative, easy to understand, and linked on the footer of every page of their website.

We hope other labs and scientific programs will be inspired to adopt similar policies and practices. Doing so could transform an industry currently entrenched in toxic masculine culture, and help end the pushout of women scientists.

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