Sexual Harassment and a “Call to Action”

UPDATE: At the bottom of this post I discuss Secretary DeVos’s proposed changes to Title IX guidelines. Since I published this post, the comment period has opened. You can give feedback until January 28, 2019. This link should bring you directly to the place for comments:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines define sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

There’s been a lot of action in D.C. amongst science organizations on sexual harassment recently. I’m glad.

It is old news (really old news) that we have a problem in mathematics departments across the country. I don’t single out our academic field as being the only one with bad players and an entrenched culture that often protects and even supports them, hardly. As a community, we need to engage in these larger national conversations, educate our colleagues as we can, make it a priority to reduce (and ideally eliminate) harassment in our own field, and hold all mathematical scientists responsible for their actions. In addition to the horrors of sexual harassment, we must also face the problem of workplace sexism. Lenore Blum describes this “quieter but equally destructive problem” in her explanation of her resignation from Carnegie Mellon University earlier this fall. Both sexual harassment and sexism work to keep women excluded from successful academic careers.

Other AMS blogs have addressed this topic, read here and here and here. This column offers info about what is going on in D.C.-based conversations in Congress, at NASEM, AAAS, NSF, and at the Department of Education that we should all know about. [NOTE: I put that phrase in italics simply to emphasize that, of course and thank goodness, there are many conversations going on about this, including on many campuses.] The acronyms just mentioned are spelled out below; keep reading.

In early October, the Ranking Member of the House Science Committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, introduced a bill to address sexual harassment in the sciences. The AMS has endorsed the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act (H.R. 7031), which calls for research into the cause and consequences of sexual harassment in the sciences and the exploration of policies to reduce the prevalence and negative impact of such harassment. If you are so inclined, look to see if your Representative is a co-sponsor and, if so, write and thank them for their support.

A report released in June by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) studied the influence of sexual harassment in academia on the career advancement of women in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce. It found that sexual harassment in STEM fields is a “serious issue for women at all levels in academic science, engineering, and medicine, and that these fields share characteristics that create conditions that make harassment more likely to occur,” and “the consequence of this is a significant and costly loss of talent in science, engineering, and medicine.” It has been repeatedly reported that women are harassed out of careers in these fields; a 2016 Atlantic article describes the many forms this harassment can take. Referring to previous research, the NASEM report notes that 58% of female faculty and staff (across all disciplines) experience sexual harassment.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) adopted a Fellow revocation policy on September 15. The AAAS will consider revoking Fellow status “in cases of proven scientific misconduct, serious breaches of professional ethics, or when the Fellow in the view of AAAS otherwise no longer merits the status of Fellow.” On October 1, AMS Executive Director Catherine Roberts participated at a daylong meeting of scientific and engineering society leadership to discuss our community’s response to the issue of harassment in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medical (STEMM) fields.

The NSF, which provides the majority of federal funding to the mathematical sciences academic research community, has announced new measures to protect the research community from harassment. The new policy  went into effect on October 21 and requires “awardee organizations to notify the agency of:

  1. Any findings or determinations that an NSF-funded principal investigator or co-principal investigator committed harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault.
  2. The placement of the principal investigator (PI) or co-principal investigator (co-PI) on administrative leave, or of the imposition of any administrative action relating to a harassment or sexual assault finding or investigation.”

Upon receiving such a report, the NSF will work with the awardee organization to determine an appropriate course of action. The NSF considers the PI and co-PIs to be in positions of trust and thus one possible course of action will be the removal of PIs and co-PIS from the grant. Other possible actions include reducing award funding, and suspension or termination of awards.

The reporting requirement currently applies to PIs and co-PIs. It is not considered a final step by the NSF, and is part of their ongoing issues to address these issues. This is a remarkable new policy. Over 2,000 U.S. institutions of higher education and other organizations (including the AMS) receive NSF funds.

What are our responsibilities, as a professional society, in regard to how we address sexual harassment in mathematics?

The AMS has taken important steps in this evolving landscape. [Again, a NOTE: This is not to imply that other professional societies are sitting idle; they are not.]

The AMS Policy Statement on Anti-Harassment expands on the society view that “harassment, sexual or otherwise, is a form of misconduct that undermines the integrity of AMS activities and mission.” The AMS Policy on a Welcoming Environment positions the society as supporting “equality of opportunity and treatment for all participants, regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or veteran status.” In order to foster an atmosphere encouraging free expression and exchange of ideas, the AMS includes a statement concerning its expectations towards maintaining a welcoming environment in registration materials for all its meetings, and has put in place a mechanism for confidential and anonymous reporting of violations.

[Final NOTE: I am not trying to give you the idea that the AMS is the only disciplinary society to take such steps; please don’t leave with that impression! Take a look at the policies of whatever society you consider “home” and if they are unsatisfactory, take action!]

What can you do? Act on this “call to action”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released her anticipated and controversial proposal revising the Obama administration Title IX guidelines, including new modifications to how sexual harassment and assault are defined and investigated on campuses. This proposal is of course not specific to mathematics or even science, but will affect all of higher education. For example, the new rules grant an accused student the right to cross-examine their accuser. DeVos’s proposal has come under severe attack and has advocates worried, as your quick Google search will show. There has been much written about this and I will not add anything here. What I want to call your attention to is that the proposal will be open for public comment for 60 days after it is posted. The proposal has been sent to the Office of the Federal Register but has not yet been scheduled for publication. Anticipated publishing date is unknown, so it is best to actively monitor the federal register, looking for posting date. Once the ruling appears there, a link will appear for you to make comments. You can also read these general guidelines about how you will be able find this new proposed policy and how to comment during the 60 day period. This is your opportunity to weigh in on Secretary DeVos’s sexual assault policy.

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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One Response to Sexual Harassment and a “Call to Action”

  1. Natalie Sheils says:

    Thank you for this insightful round-up on this important topic!

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