Office of the President

June 28, 2018

Sexual harassment in academia is a problem we can address – together

Ana Mari Cauce

For more information:

Watch a video of the panel discussion

Read the full National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, “Sexual Harassment of Women”

This week, I had the opportunity to take part in a  panel hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) about their recent report, Sexual Harassment of Women. The report offers recommendations for the cultural and systemic changes needed to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the academic STEM fields and its release couldn’t be more timely, coinciding with the #metoo movement. But work on the report actually began two years ago in response to the large and persistent problem of sexual harassment in academia.

Sexual harassment – everything from sexual coercion and assault to demeaning gender-based comments that create a hostile environment for women – has a direct impact on the women who experience it. But what the report and yesterday’s panel also emphasized are the costs that sometimes get overlooked – the enormous damage that sexual harassment does to science, academia and all of society in driving out valuable contributors and reducing the productivity of women scientists, engineers and doctors.

I’m very pleased that an influential organization like NASEM has taken on this important subject. Creating a workplace culture that does not tolerate sexual harassment will take commitment, determination and persistence. Culture is complex and multifaceted. Changing it certainly requires deliberate and concerted leadership, but culture change is most effective when it also comes from grassroots movements, something that’s underway here at the UW. I was proud to share with the panel attendees the “It’s On Us” videos that the UW’s Health and Wellness office has produced to spread the message that all of us bear responsibility for intervening when we witness offensive conduct and for supporting survivors when they report.

This broad-based work is important because changing a culture requires that we have enough people willing to speak up as bystanders that the whole population feels the shift, analogous to how a population can gain herd immunity if enough people in it are vaccinated. Similar efforts are underway in our academic spaces, including work by the faculty senate to establish standards of behavior that we insist on as a community. This includes asking tough questions like how much power a star researcher should really have over vulnerable junior colleagues and graduate students and how our hiring and promotion practices do – and do not – promote gender and racial equity.

I’ve been in academia for more than four decades – as a student, a junior faculty member, as tenured faculty and an administrator. In that time, I’ve seen incredible change for the better, even as I recognize the need for a lot more change. But having seen the progress we’ve made, I know we have the capacity to make even more. We can do it if we work together. It’s truly on us.

Watch the panel discussion