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Sexual harassment rampant in US academia: Report

Attorney Gloria Allred listens as her client, Danielle Mohazab, speaks about an alleged incident during a 2016 exam with University of Southern California (USC) gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall at the schools Health Center during a news conference in Los Angeles, California, May 22, 2018. (Reuters photo)

Sexual harassment is rampant in academic science in the United States, driving talented researchers out of the field and harming others’ careers, according to a national academic group in the US.

Universities and colleges that train new scientists need a system-wide culture change and must treat sexual harassment as seriously as research misconduct, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Washington, DC, said Tuesday.

"If we are losing talent in science, engineering and medicine, then that is something that is detrimental to our country and quite frankly to the world," Wellesley College President Dr. Paula Johnson, who co-chaired the report, said in an interview.

Most common in science is what the National Academies termed gender harassment, a hostile environment rife with sexist commentary and crude behavior that can negatively impact a woman's education and career, as well as her mental and physical health.

Assault or unwanted sexual advances that are making headlines following the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment don't tell the whole story, the report found.  

The report cited a survey by the University of Texas system that found more than 40 percent of female medical students, more than a quarter of female engineering students and about 20 percent of female science students, said they had experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

In a similar survey in the Pennsylvania State University system, half of female medical students reported such harassment.

Despite attempts to address sexual abuse in recent years, most academic policies and training consist of "symbolic compliance" with anti-discrimination laws that doesn't have much impact, the report found.

The study found that the hierarchical nature of science can make it difficult to report and root out such behavior, with scientists-in-training often dependent on a single high-profile mentor for research funding, job recommendations and fieldwork in remote locations.

Separately, a new survey of physicians on sexual harassment found that sexual comments about body parts or anatomy, leering and unwanted groping, hugging and patting are among the most common types of on-the-job harassment.

The Medscape survey shows that those behaviors adversely affected the wellbeing of half of the 12 percent of female and 4 percent of male physicians who reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.

Other harassing behaviors included repeatedly being asked for a date or given continual unwanted romantic attention; infringement on body space by standing too close; receiving unwanted sexual text messages or emails from someone at work; and explicit or implicit propositions to engage in sexual activity.

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