Sexual harassment affects career trajectories of women in sciences, engineering and medicine

New RTI policy brief outlines sexual harassment experiences and consequences for women in science

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— A new RTI Press policy brief reports widespread consequences of sexual harassment among women faculty in science, engineering and medicine. The brief summarizes findings from a study conducted by RTI International that included in-depth, qualitative interviews with women faculty in academic sciences, engineering and medicine who had experienced sexual harassment in the last 5 years.  The study found significant personal and professional consequences for women’s careers because of their harassment experiences. The study was commissioned by the Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  It was part of a larger effort by the National Academies to assess the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment in academia as well as to identify solutions for addressing this problem.  

Tasseli McKay and Christine Lindquist of RTI International led this study and found that sexual harassment experiences often diminished women’s scientific productivity, as energy was diverted into efforts to process emotional responses, manage the perpetrator, or report the harassment.  Participants who disclosed sexual harassment experiences to their supervisor or department leader rarely received active or formal support and were discouraged from pursuing further action. Those who did pursue further action often faced long-term, negative impacts on their careers as their relationships with department colleagues were damaged.

“Unfortunately, women faculty in the study had good reason to be worried about the consequences of disclosing their sexual harassment experience,” said Tasseli McKay, Social Science Researcher, Center for Justice, Safety & Resilience at RTI. “Institutions working to encourage reporting would do well to first address the negative career repercussions that many face when they do report.”

In addition to the consequences associated with reporting harassment, many study participants indicated that they adjusted their work habits and became more withdrawn from their departments, colleagues and potential collaborators. Some avoided scientific and professional gatherings.  Many became more involved in gender-equity issues in their fields or institutions.

“It is essential that academic institutions and senior faculty recognize these consequences and discuss the impact of sexual harassment on women faculty’s contributions to the scientific community,” said Christine Lindquist, Senior Research Sociologist at RTI. “It’s important for institutions to create a more positive leadership climate and have stronger and better-enforced sexual harassment policies.  Professional and scientific societies could also play an important role in addressing sexual harassment.”