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Sexual harassment rife in Australian science, suggests first workplace survey

One in two female respondents to a national poll has been sexually harassed at work.

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Nearly half the female scientists who responded to an Australian survey on sexual misconduct at work have experienced sexual harassment. In a report released today, 10% of male scientists also said they had been sexually harassed at work.

The poll represents the first investigation into the prevalence of sexual harassment among Australian scientists and technologists working in industry, the public sector or non-profit organizations, as well as academia. Almost 300 science professionals answered the questions in an online poll conducted by Science & Technology Australia (STA), an organization based in Canberra that lobbies for the interests of scientists.

Previous surveys of students in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have found widespread harassment at universities. The latest results show that harassment is rife across all types of scientific workplace.

The survey found that around two-thirds of respondents who had been harassed had not reported the incident to their employer. Nearly one-third of respondents also said their workplace’s policies on preventing sexual harassment were ineffective. And 33% thought procedures for addressing reported incidences of sexual misconduct were inadequate (see ‘Sexual harassment in science’).

Policies on how to prevent sexual harassment and bullying, and how to handle incidents after they occur, have been available for several years, says Wafa El-Adhami, executive director of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative in Canberra. But the results suggests that there is poor awareness of these policies, or they aren’t being implemented effectively, El-Adhami says. She advocates greater accountability for organizations, to ensure that policies work. “You lift the awareness as you make managers and senior leaders accountable,” she says.

Source: Science & Technology Australia

The survey was carried out over two weeks in late January and early February by the STA, which represents about 70,000 scientists. Nearly 60% of respondents worked in academia; the rest worked in the government (25%), the private sector (12%) or non-profit organizations (5%). The results form part of the STA’s submission to a national inquiry into sexual harassment in workplaces, run by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Female respondents from sexual and gender minority groups (LGBT+) were at the highest risk: 13 out of the 20 women in this group reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. One of the seven male respondents in this group also reported being harassed.

LGBT+ people had even less confidence in their workplace’s policies for addressing or preventing sexual harassment than did heterosexual and cisgender respondents. They also felt less safe from reprisals, such as being ridiculed, demoted or forced to resign.

Anna Bull, a sociologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, and co-founder of the 1752 Group — which addresses the issue of sexual misconduct in higher education — says the results echo the UK experience. “The patterns — particularly LGBTQ people feeling less safe in the workplace, feeling the policies are less adequate, and of course women experiencing high levels of sexual harassment and feeling less protected — these are all very, very familiar findings.”

Although the survey numbers were small, and the voluntary nature of the study meant that the sample was self-selecting, Bull says larger studies of sexual-harassment prevalence in higher education have also shown it is a significant problem.

Emma Johnston, president of the STA, described the findings as disturbing, and a “wicked problem”. But she says the survey is a step forward in understanding the problem and the urgent need to act.

Equity recommendations

The survey found that sexual harassment was less common in workplaces with greater gender balance. “That’s a very strong, positive message,” Johnston says, because it shows that increasing diversity has multiple benefits. Nearly all respondents agreed that addressing sexual harassment in the workplace was important in achieving gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In its report, the STA highlighted the need for scientific workplaces to run accredited training in dealing with sexual harassment. It also pointed out the need for greater awareness of reporting procedures: almost one-third of respondents did not know how to report an incident of sexual harassment at their work. And the report included recommendations such as making it mandatory for employers to report incidents of sexual harassment to national research funding bodies, and stripping funding and professional honours from individuals found to have committed harassment.

Bull commended the STA for recommending significant punishments for those found to have committed misconduct. She says there is ongoing debate about how to punish perpetrators of sexual harassment in the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s “great to see Australia coming on board with this”, says Bull.

Nature 567, 14-15 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00736-3
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