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ISU Expert Shapes Report On Sexual Harassment Of Women In Academia

Charlie Schlenker
John Pryor, Illinois State University Distinguished Professor of Psychology.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently released a report on sexual harassment of women in academia.

The report titled "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine" took over two years and was completed by a committee of more than 20 experts. One of those experts is Illinois State University Distinguished Professor of Psychology John Pryor.

“People who have studied sexual harassment as I have, for more than 30 years, know that sexual harassment is something that has been pervasive in the experiences of working women as well as women in academic contexts,” Pryor said.

The academy says the report is coming out at just the right time. Pryor said survivors are finding the strength to come out and tell their stories alongside the #MeToo movement and talk on the historically taboo topic is more supported than ever.

Though the report discusses that same topic, Pryor insists it reaches beyond the typical stories that have come out of the #MeToo movement and puts sexual harassment into a broader context.

Stories coming out of the movement usually surround rape and sexual assault. Pryor said the increased talk is encouraging, but the vast majority of sexual harassment encounters are not often mentioned. Pryor said the most common form of sexual harassment is gender harassment.

“Essentially gender harassment is sexist behavior. It’s a put-down of women,” Pryor said. “It involves sexist hostility, like saying women don’t belong in a particular field or profession, or that they are somehow inferior to men.”

Is Workplace Training Effective?

To combat sexual harassment, universities and workplaces oftentimes require trainings. The typical format of these trainings, as explained by Pryor, involves a classroom or online environment where attendees learn what sexual harassment is, how to spot it, ways to make sure they do not commit any form of sexual harassment, and possibly reporting measures.

"Oddly enough, one of the things that you don't have to prove is that the training did anything or made any difference."

“Something that’s really protective of (an organization/university) in a lawsuit is to say that you’ve had training,” Pryor said. “But, oddly enough, one of the things that you don’t have to prove is that the training did anything or made any difference.”

Pryor went on to explain that in some instances, training can cause increased sexual harassment in a workplace. However, many organizations are reluctant to evaluate the effectiveness of their sexual harassment training programs because if it is found to be ineffective, the organization is once again liable.

In fact, the study points out organizations that rely solely on the legal system to enforce their sexual harassment policies are often not doing enough. Instead, it is recommended that they work to address the culture and climate of the workplace.

One area that the study found a heightened percentage of women reporting sexual harassing behavior was in medical school. The committee used a survey taken across University of Texas schools to determine how frequently women in STEM experienced harassment.

Forty-seven percent of women in medical school reported they had been sexually harassed while a student. Male students in the same medical schools were asked the same questions and only 24 percent had experienced sexual harassing behavior.

A critique of this finding that Pryor points out some people may have is that medical school is a “rough environment” for everybody, and that everybody experiences some sort of harassment. Looking at the numbers comparing males to females, Pryor said this is a moot point.

“It’s something happening here that seems to be gendered. So it’s harassment that has to do with someone’s gender or sex,” Pryor said.

Pryor went on to explain that while female enrollment in medical schools is up, the vast majority of faculty members are male. And one of the leading characteristics of an environment that indicates higher sexual harassment levels is a male-dominated field.

“If you look at in science fields what you see is a very hierarchical kind of structure,” Pryor said. “If that person is a sexual harasser, then there’s very little that you could do about it without hurting your career.”

Pryor gave the hypothetical example of a well-known professor who is known as a sexual harasser. This might dissuade female students from taking his class, therefore stripping them of the opportunity to learn from someone considered one of the field’s best. The study goes on to explain how this does not just impact the individual, but the whole field may have lost someone with immense talent due to one sexually harassing professor.

There is also a trend among victims to not report their sexual harassment. Sexual harassment causes a form of stress for the victim, Pryor said. To handle that stress, victims try different means of coping.

“Usually you try those other things first because reporting is something that has some downside with regard to your fear of retaliation,” Pryor said.

Instead, Pryor said victims often try avoidance to deal with the issue. Back to that same professor example, the victim might drop the class in order to remove themselves from the sexually harassing environment rather than going to report it.

GLT's Full Interview.

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