Addressing Sexual Harassment
A DISCUSSION OFTreating Sexual Harassment as a Violation of Research Integrity
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The article “Treating Sexual Harassment as a Violation of Research Integrity” (Issues, Winter 2019) is a necessary read for everyone in all academic institutions. The author, Frazier Benya, was the study director for the recent National Academies report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Benya and the committee responsible for the report should be commended for an insightful and long-overdue study on a challenging and important topic. I strongly agree with the overarching argument offered by Benya, and in the interest of furthering conversation about harassment in research, I offer some additional issues for consideration, focusing largely on the recommendations she describes in the article.
Benya makes the case that harassment is a violation of research integrity. Though her assertion seems correct, it raises a range of policy and process questions, including how cases should be investigated and who (on an academic campus) would have jurisdiction over such cases. Regarding jurisdiction, Benya rightly notes that various entities on an academic campus have at least some say over research integrity-related matters (e.g., Institutional Review Boards, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, Conflict of Interest Committees). Yet following the logic of Benya’s argument that harassment in a research setting might be a form of “research misconduct” or “detrimental research practice,” the most likely candidate for who would investigate is the entity on a campus that handles research misconduct cases. In practice, this would raise the question of how the process would complement (replace?) the manner in which cases of harassment (including those outside the research setting) are addressed by the campus through its human resources office, Title IX office, or some similar unit. If multiple offices are involved, which one should a researcher who has been harassed report the matter to? Would a researcher potentially have more than one path of recourse against an accused party?
The topic of harassment awareness and prevention should, according to Benya, be integrated into Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training. As an instructor of a range of RCR courses, I agree in principle with that notion. However, some challenges need to be overcome. As Benya indicates, many (most?) RCR instructors may not currently have the relevant expertise to cover the topic of harassment prevention. Also, RCR training programs are being asked to cover an increasing number of topics and often do not have the time or resources to do so adequately. In fact, many institutions rely solely on online training to introduce researchers to RCR topics (so what follows is that harassment prevention may become another online training module at many places). In addition, faculty and staff are not normally required to complete RCR training, yet they arguably are the ones most in need of the training considering the power and influence that they have over the next generation of researchers. And as mentioned above, harassment does not occur only in research settings; thus, a case could be made that a campus-wide harassment prevention effort should be considered alongside the focus on the research environment.
A closing thought: Benya’s assessment is certainly correct that academic institutions need consistent and effective measures to prevent harassment. It can be hoped that academia will move beyond a time when “research superstars” who are serial harassers are given a free pass because of their prestige and productivity (achieved at the expense of others’ well-being). During the time when academic institutions and other entities are in the process of developing educational initiatives and policies related to harassment, they should use it as an opportunity to address other forms of problematic behavior, including bias, discrimination, and/or harassment against individuals due to sexual orientation, religion, race, national origin, or disability.
Director of Graduate Research Ethics Programs
Associate Director of the Center for Ethics and Technology
Sexual harassment has been damaging science and research since women began to take their places in laboratories and on research teams over 100 years ago. There is no doubt that sexual harassment hurts science. That it hurts science makes it a research integrity problem. Frazier Benya’s call to begin treating sexual harassment as the violation of research integrity that it is provides compelling justification for highlighting this detrimental research practice in responsible conduct of research training. Addressing this issue begins with awareness, articulation, and recognition of its occurrence and harm, which Benya and colleagues thoroughly catalogue in their recent report. Awareness is a start, but minimizing this detrimental research practice requires much more, including moral courage.
Moral courage is defined by the ethicist and author Rushworth Kidder as taking moral action in the face of danger. Doing the right thing even when it has personal or professional costs is difficult for anyone, but is especially challenging when there is a power differential between parties. It is also in situations of power differentials that sexual harassment flourishes. In many fields of research, where men are overrepresented in leadership and supervisory roles, and where men control opportunities for advancement, the moral courage needed to stop sexual harassment is the moral courage of our male colleagues.
Not unlike any form of bullying, sexual bullying could be greatly diminished if bystanders mustered moral courage and said, “Stop. We do not tolerate sexual harassment in our profession.” Female researchers bear the burden of fending off gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention. Many of these very women and their female colleagues also demonstrate extreme moral courage by calling out such behaviors at the cost of their position, tenure, or career. Solving the problem of sexual bullying does not—and should not—lie with the victims of such behavior. The responsibility to end sexual harassment lies squarely with the perpetrators and their male colleagues. Men must demonstrate moral courage, hold their colleagues accountable, and create a respectful climate for all genders.
Adding material on sexual harassment and skill-building for moral action to research integrity curricula is an accessible first step to begin addressing the issue. Doing so requires no change to how we define responsible conduct of research; it requires only will—and moral courage.
We are obligated to address the harm that sexual harassment causes our profession because we are researchers concerned with the integrity of the scientific enterprise. We are obligated to address the harm that sexual harassment causes female scientists because we are human beings concerned with doing what is right. Meeting these obligations requires moral courage.
Lisa M. Lee
Associate Vice President for Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance