Washington Update

NASEM Event Spotlights Early Intervention to Prevent Sexual Harassment in Higher Ed

By: Grace Steward
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
The Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) hosted its Fourth Annual Public Summit last week. The annual public summits are a follow-up on the release of the 2018 NASEM Consensus Report on Sexual Harassment of Women. This year's summit included presentations relating to research, procedure, and policy development to prevent sexual harassment of women and gender minorities in higher education. 

Highlighted as part of this year's summit was a discussion of how clear sanctions and early intervention techniques at the faculty level will be key to reducing sexual harassment at higher education institutions. The panel presented the recent perspectives paper published by the Response Working Group of the Action Collaborative, which identified several major obstacles to preventing sexual and gender based harassment. Changing Title IX standards, the confidential nature of harassment reports, lack of communication between formal and informal reporting systems, and underdeveloped systems for early intervention when offenses do not rise to the level of a violation of policy or law all undermine the current systems in place to handle instances of sexual harassment.

However, the systems themselves are also rife with inefficiencies that do little to mitigate the environment that subjects 1 in 3 female medical faculty to sexual or gender-based harassment annually. Lack of report documentation, transparency and consistency in response, and focus on punitive instead of corrective measures all set up current offices to fail. 

Instead of focusing only on the major offenses, the publication and much of the summit focused on early intervention strategies to address the most pervasive behaviors, gender putdowns and sexist jokes, that often indicate the current environment is one where a violent offense can occur. As such, the Working Group at the Action Collaborative and its peers suggest the implementation of centralization of documentation and reporting, transparency practices for response, consistent methods and effects of the response, and relying on corrective behavior through formal and information intervention systems instead of punitive, reactive systems.

As an example of these policies, the University of Minnesota shared its framework for clear and consistent responses to offenses. Additionally, the perspectives paper showcased tiered peer intervention "cup of coffee" program used at the Duke Health System and Vanderbilt University. Seventy percent of cases who received peer intervention had no repeat complaints.

As stated at the summit, best practices and sexual harassment prevention policies are rapidly developing since the publication of the NASEM 2018 report. Even so, stakeholders in higher education must continue to prioritize prevention to curate an environment that promotes justice, equality, and inclusive excellence.