Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

Sexual Misconduct in the Academy

With the emergence of the #MeToo movement, women have felt increasingly empowered to report instances of sexual misconduct. This movement has brought to light a number of sexual harassment cases in academia, where women (particularly at the graduate student and early career levels) have been taken advantage of by their male colleagues and superiors.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently released a lengthy report on the issue of sexual harassment in higher education. This report outlines the definition of sexual harassment as:

“…sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, which fall under the category of “come-on” behavior. It also includes the more common but usually dismissed behavior of gender harassment or “put down” behavior, defined by the report as ‘‘a broad range of verbal and nonverbal behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but that convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes.”[1]

The report goes on to synthesize evidence from academic research that illustrates the damaging effects of sexual harassment, both psychologically and physically. Notably, only 25% of women report instances of sexual harassment in their organization [2]. Tying back to our conversations on intersectionality, it is also worth noting that these statistics do not apply equally to all women– women of color are less likely to report sexual harassment compared to white women [2].

Examples from Psychological Science

Some of the most high-profile cases of sexual misconduct in academia have occurred within psychology and cognitive science departments, making this a particularly salient issue for female trainees in these areas.

Recently, Dartmouth College has been under fire for its handling of sexual harassment allegations brought forward by female graduate students in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department. Nine women came forward to report the rape, groping, coercion, and sexual degradation that was perpetuated by three male faculty in the department. The women sued Dartmouth for Title IX violations and recently were awarded a settlement of $14 million from the university [3].

A similar case is ongoing at the University of Rochester in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, where a number of faculty came forward with reports of sexual harassment by fellow faculty member T. Florian Jaeger. The University has been widely criticized for its mishandling of the case, and even resulted in the resignation of the president of the university. The university has actively fought to have the case dismissed, but it continues more than a year after the initial reports were filed. [4]

Moving Forward

How can we better protect female trainees from sexual misconduct by their colleagues and superiors? I don’t have an easy answer, but I hope that these recent examples where harassers are being held accountable for their actions will bring more awareness to the issue and the ways in which the environment of academia might be contributing to these problems.

[1] https://500womenscientists.org/nas-summary#what-is-sexual-harassment

[2] Cortina, L. M., & Berdahl, J. L. (2008). Sexual Harassment in Organizations: A Decade of Research in Review. In The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Behavior: Volume I – Micro Approaches (pp. 469–497). London: SAGE Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781849200448

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/06/us/dartmouth-settles-harassment-lawsuit/index.html

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2019/08/30/case-against-rochester-survives-legal-challenge

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