Reports of sexual harassment involving high profile scientists and the #MeToo movement have cast a spotlight on the serious problem of sexual harassment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, said Susan Fortney, an ethics expert at Texas A&M University School of Law.
To help address the problem, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has turned to Texas A&M University, with its considerable statewide system of colleges and extension offices, to conduct a pan-disciplinary study on sexual harassment issues. The project will examine formal systems and informal influences, as well as the culture and climate related to sexual harassment in STEM fields.
Fortney is principal investigator for the $371,000, two-year NSF project, and her team includes top faculty from the colleges of liberal arts and engineering at Texas A&M. They are Debjyoti Banerjee, professor of both mechanical and petroleum engineering; Kathi Miner, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology; and Martin Peterson, professor of philosophy and holder of the Bovay professorship in the history and ethics of professional engineering.
While a great deal of attention has been devoted to fashioning a pipeline for underrepresented groups to enter the STEM fields, Fortney describes sexual harassment and discrimination as "leaks in the pipeline" that reduce the gains that have been made.
The Texas A&M research team is taking a comprehensive, multifaceted ethics and social science approach that not only studies improper conduct but also forges tools that organizations can use systematically to communicate standards and detect and handle problems.
Drawing on best practices to prevent and address sexual harassment, the goal of the project is to design a self-assessment tool that universities and colleges across the country can use to evaluate and improve their handling of sexual harassment concerns. The project also will develop an "Ethics of Diversity" module for engineering ethics and other STEM courses. The Texas A&M study will put theory into practice, starting with STEM education, to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.
In 2018, a report issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine examined the influence of sexual harassment on the advancement of women in scientific, technical and medical work. The report found that the most potent predictor of sexual harassment is organizational climate.
Through the framework of ethical infrastructure, both formal and informal systems, and the climates that support these systems, the Texas A&M researchers are examining not only the policies and procedures related to handling sexual harassment but also the organizational climates and cultures.
While sexual harassment is a problem that affects both women and men, an earlier study focusing on women trainees found that 70 percent of them, including graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, reported being sexually harassed. Until STEM organizations and educational centers address sexually hostile environments, they are not providing the safe settings necessary for their employees and students to thrive, Fortney said.
The solutions are not found in punitive actions alone, Fortney said. They include laying a strong ethical foundation that sets workable boundaries, promotes acceptance and balances workplace dynamics. The goal is to establish STEM careers as attractive and rewarding for all.
"Universities and other employers need to treat sexual harassment as an ethics issue that goes beyond legal compliance," Fortney said.