One Year after Report on Sexual Harassment in Academia, President Paula Johnson Testifies Before Congress on Findings and Bipartisan Legislation

President Johnson speaks into a microphone while testifying on Capitol Hill.
Photo provided by Dave Scavone
June 24, 2019

Wellesley President Paula Johnson appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on June 12 to discuss sexual harassment in academic institutions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Joining a small group of educators, she spoke in her capacity as co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee that published a report on the topic last year, which laid the foundation for the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019 (H.R. 36).

The June 2018 report, Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which laid the foundation for H.R. 36, examines how sexual and gender harassment harms the careers of women in science, engineering, and medicine and provides evidence-based recommendations for its prevention. More than 50 percent of women faculty and staff and 20 percent to 50 percent of women students experience sexual harassment in STEM fields, and women of color and people in sexual and gender minority groups experience more sexual harassment than their peers. In her testimony, President Johnson summarized the committee’s findings, and explained the report’s conclusions and recommendations.

“After a thorough review of our research, our committee concluded that the cumulative effect of sexual harassment includes a negative impact to the integrity of research and a costly loss of talent in science, engineering, and medicine, which has consequences for advancing the nation’s economic and social well-being, and its overall public health,” President Johnson said. “We also noted the more rapid and sustained progress in closing the gender gap in science, engineering, and mathematics is jeopardized by persistence of sexual harassment in these fields.”

The resulting legislation, crafted to address the report’s findings, addresses sexual harassment in STEM fields by supporting sexual harassment research and other efforts to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. It also directs the National Science Foundation to award grants to institutions of higher education or nonprofit organizations to expand research into sexual harassment in the STEM workforce, including students and trainees, and to study interventions for reducing the incidence and negative consequences of such harassment.

H.R. 36 recommends that the NSF enter into agreements with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, to update a responsible conduct guide issued by the National Academies, and to continue to study the influence of sexual harassment in institutions of higher education on the career advancement of individuals in the STEM workforce. In addition, the National Science and Technology Council would create an interagency working group to coordinate federal science agencies’ efforts to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment involving grant personnel. It is also recommended that the Office of Science and Technology Policy develop a uniform set of policy guidelines for those agencies to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment.

“Institutions can take concrete steps to reduce and prevent sexual harassment,” President Johnson said near the end of her testimony. Such changes include emphasizing diverse, inclusive, respectful environments; improving transparency and accountability; diffusing the hierarchal and dependent relationship between trainees and faculty; and providing enhanced support to those who’ve experienced sexual harassment.

“As a medical professional,” President Johnson said, “I want to note that our report very clearly shows that sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine is a public health problem, and we need to treat it as such.”