National Academies Report Says Sexual Harassment Threatens Engineering

Illustration of woman walking through stormy skies
Illustration: Nicole Xu

By: C.D. Mote Jr., Sheila E. Widnall and Ed Lazowska

The engineering community has been working for decades to increase the representation of women in universities and in the profession, but progress has been slow. In the United States, just 21 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees go to women, and only 11 percent of practicing engineersare women. While the problem is complex, we must recognize that one significant factor is sexual harassment, which creates hostile education and work environments and pushes women out of the field.

Authoritative studies have documented that from 20 to 50 percent of women students experience sexual harassment in higher education. Sexual harassment encompasses more than the shocking physical assaults that have made headlines in recent years; it also includes a wide range of offensive, crude, and sexist behaviors that demean women. Through these behaviors, harassers communicate that women do not belong and do not merit respect. This “gender harassment” is by far the most common type of sexual harassment.

Some people may think that words never hurt, as the old “sticks and stones” children’s rhyme suggests, but research demonstrates that frequent or severe gender harassment can have the same level of negative outcomes as an instance of sexual coercion. What’s more, gender harassment telegraphs an organizational climate that tolerates other forms of sexual harassment.

recent report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for which two of us served as authors, found that sexual harassment has broad impacts. It affects not only the women who are targeted but also bystanders and the entire research enterprise.

More than 30 years of research—summarized in the U.S. National Academies report—demonstrates that sexual harassment undermines women’s educational and professional success, while also harming their mental and physical health.

When students experience sexual harassment, they often become less motivated to attend class, pay less attention in class, receive lower grades, drop classes, change advisors, change majors, transfer to other educational institutions, or drop out entirely. In the workplace, sexual harassment causes women to be less satisfied with their jobs, become disillusioned or angry with their organizations, experience increased job stress, and exhibit decreases in productivity and performance. Some women withdraw from their workplaces physically or mentally, some consider leaving their jobs, and some actually do so. Obviously, these outcomes can significantly impede a woman’s success in engineering and can result in her leaving the field.

Harassment has consequences that ripple outward. Research shows that ambient sexual harassment in the workplace can negatively influence other employees’ job satisfaction and psychological well-being, result in higher levels of absenteeism and intentions to quit, and make employees more likely to leave work early, take long breaks, and miss meetings.

Sexual harassment also damages research integrity, and an earlier National Academies publication defined it as a violation of professional standards in this domain. Our report therefore calls for institutions to consider sexual harassment to be equally important as research misconduct, which includes unacceptable behaviors such as falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. Ensuring the integrity of research requires serious attention to sexual harassment as well as research misconduct. And serious attention to sexual harassment means addressing the ways in which environments tolerate it and holding accountable those responsible.

Addressing sexual harassment in all its forms is a crucial step toward solving the gender imbalance in engineering. We call on the engineering community to implement the systemwide changes recommended in the recent National Academies report. We must do this not only for the benefit of women but also for the good of our entire profession.

This article appears in the November 2018 print issue as “Sexual Harassment Is a Threat to Engineering.”

About the Authors

C.D. Mote Jr. is president of the National Academy of Engineering. Sheila E. Widnall, Institute Professor and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, are two of the authors of the National Academies report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.