Washington Update

American Physiological Society Sexual Harassment Symposium Provides Guidance for Societies

By: Jennifer Zeitzer
Thursday, April 25, 2019

An April 6 symposium on how scientific societies can address the pervasive problem of sexual harassment in science drew a large crowd from among the thousands of scientists gathered for Experimental Biology 2019 in Orlando, Florida.

Hosted by the Science Policy Committee of the American Physiological Society (APS), the session featured powerful speakers who captured participants’ attention with compelling presentations and personal stories. An interactive discussion addressed what professional societies and their members can do to create safer environments for everyone.

Gilda Barabino, PhD, opened with a comprehensive overview of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) 2018 report on sexual harassment. Dr. Barabino, who served as an authoring committee member, noted that the NASEM report defined different types of sexual harassment that have similar damaging effects, not only on their direct targets but on others in the workplace.

The NASEM report also identified characteristics of academic scientific and medical communities that create a higher risk of such harassment. Dr. Barabino summarized major recommendations of the report, focusing on steps scientific societies should consider in addressing these problems.

Billy Williams, another NASEM authoring committee member, described the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) efforts to address sexual harassment. AGU convened a task force to recommend changes to society ethics policies and practices, and established the SafeAGU program that trains volunteers to assist those who experienced harassment or felt unsafe at events.

In 2017, the AGU Board of Directors adopted a new Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics Policy that added harassment, discrimination, and bullying to the AGU’s definition of scientific misconduct; expanded the policy to cover award recipients; and instituted a new self-disclosure requirement for candidates to elected society positions and those receiving honors. AGU also created an online portal of sexual harassment resources that other societies and research institutions can avail themselves of.

A highlight of the symposium was a presentation from BethAnn McLaughlin, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Dr. McLaughlin founded the #MeTooStem movement following her own experience as a witness in a Title IX sexual harassment case. She described the long and challenging process of filing a Title IX complaint and discussed weaknesses in the law, especially in providing protections for those who experience harassment.

Dr. McLaughlin made a passionate plea for more effective ways to punish those who commit harassment and policies to prevent proven harassers from receiving federal funding. She urged professional societies to provide more resources and legal advice for their members, and emphasized better data collection to develop a keener understanding of harassment’s effects on scientists and their careers.

During a question and answer session following the presentations, participants shared personal experiences of dealing with harassment at their institutions and asked panelists about how to find best practices and additional resources. The session also generated a lot of discussion on Twitter: attendees tweeted about how much they appreciated the presentations and thanked APS for addressing this important topic.