Panelists from different departments at the University of Michigan came together Monday afternoon to discuss sexual harassment in STEM fields. The panel discussion was the first of a three-part series discussing sexual harassment in engineering, sciences and medicine.
Alec Gallimore, the dean of Engineering at the University, opened the panel with remarks about the way members of the engineering community are affected by sexual assault. While Gallimore said he knows the department has made some progress, he also acknowledged there is more work to be done.
“Our engineering colleagues across the country, including some colleagues of mine here at Michigan engineering, are being demeaned, victimized, hurt,” Gallimore said. “They’re being treated wickedly. I stand before you to say that that is unequivocally unacceptable.”
Psychology Professor Lilia Cortina, associate director of the ADVANCE Program, followed Gallimore’s statement with the highlights of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report on sexual harassment. Cortina, who worked on the report, outlined the three main types of sexual harassment: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. The report argues Title IX legislation has done little to reduce the incidence rate of sexual harassment in academia.
Cortina’s research reports 63 percent of women in academia had experienced some type of sexual harassment. Additionally, she found that one in five sexually harassed women meet criteria for depressive disorders and one in 10 meet criteria for PTSD. Cortina said dozens of studies have shown sexual harassment derails victims professional lives disengage from their work, and sometimes they leave their institutions or the field entirely.
“There is no evidence that current policies, procedures, and approaches — which often focus on symbolic compliance with the law and on avoiding liability — have resulted in a significant reduction in sexual harassment,” the report reads.
Cortina noted sexual coercion is the most widely publicized form of harassment, and the type of misconduct addressed by the most legislation. She maintained, however, gender harassment was by far the most common and pressing form.
“More often than not, sexual harassment is a put down, not a come on,” Cortina said. “So the bulk of the iceberg is gender harassment, and this is conduct that demeans, denigrates, humiliates people based on gender.”
Cortina stressed that even when sexual harassment contains nothing but sexist insults, with no unwanted sexual attention, it takes a toll on victims. For this reason, Cortina says, a lot of the regulations in place targeting sex do not help the issue.
“Gender harassment is less about sex and more about contempt, so rules and regulations policing sex are not a solution here,” Cortina said. “When women are sexually harassed, women leave, their coworkers leave — even the men leave. They don’t stick around to watch their valued colleagues be disparaged, and they certainly don’t want to be the next victims.”
Panelists were later asked what they found most surprising about the findings. Allison Steiner, associate professor in Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering and one of the panelists, responded that her only surprise was the number of women who reported having been sexually harassed.
“I was surprised that the harassment numbers were as low as they are,” Steiner said. “I expected them to be like, 90 percent.”
Panelist Gilda Barabino, dean of the Grove School of Engineering at The City College of New York, said while she was not shocked by the results of the report, she was pleasantly surprised with the response of the community.
Barabino and Cortina discussed how women and members of other underrepresented groups have to brush off instances of gender harassment.
“You may brush it off, say that was just today,” Barabino said. “Well, it was today, it was yesterday, it’s coming tomorrow, and it doesn’t get seen.”
University administrators are currently working to reduce harassment and misconduct among faculty. As of last month, faculty members will be required to undergo sexual misconduct training following reccomendations from a staff and faculty working group. While the University’s student sexual misconuduct policy is subject to regular reviews and revisions, similar guidelines do not exist for the Standard Practice Guide that governs faculty and staff misconduct.
In response to a question asking how it is possible to survey sexual harassment, Cortina said because of this issue, they do not ask respondents point blank whether they have experienced sexual harassment or not.
“When we survey people, we try to avoid all these terms entirely,” Cortina said. “We ask about specifically defined behaviors because people have such different understandings for what sexual harassment means, what it means to be sexually harassed. And oftentimes what you actually find is that people will say yes to a whole list of behaviors, and all these behaviors are examples of sexual harassment conduct. But when you ask if they’ve been sexually harassed, they say ‘oh no, that hasn’t happened to me.’”
LSA senior Abigail Siegal said she found her experiences to be similar to the tendency Cortina mentioned, though she doesn’t think she’s experienced sexual harassment herself.
“You hear the comments and things like that, and you don’t connect it to sexual harassment,” Siegal said. “Yes, I’ve heard inappropriate jokes that are not tasteful, but I don’t think I’ve experienced any direct sexual harassment.”
Overall, the panelists seemed to have hope for the future in terms of programs and initiatives that the academic community was taking to stop this type of harassment from happening. Gallimore said this type of programming can help move toward a safer and more inclusive future.
“It’s up to all of to report sexual misconduct, support those who come forward, participate in education and training programs because after all knowledge is power,” Gallimore said.