Is This Single Government Agency Poised to End Sexual Harassment in Its Field?

Audrey Roofeh
Jun 17, 2019 · 5 min read

In April I gave a workshop on preventing harassment to a group of scientists working on policy issues in Washington, DC. During the middle of a discussion on workplace behaviors, a man raised his hand to ask, what of the structural reforms? How can we expect to see real change? I’m often guided by that question, and reminded that individuals can change workplace climate, but to see change across an industry we need to leverage existing power structures. We talked in that moment about the National Science Foundation’s decision to require awardee organizations to notify NSF of findings of harassment or sexual assault regarding an NSF-funded principal investigator (PI) or co-PI, with NSF reserving the power to substitute or remove the PI or co-PI, reduce award funding, or suspend or terminate the award. More news in recent weeks though, supports a finding that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is making strides not seen in other industries.(Am I wrong about other industries? I’d love to be wrong. Do tell.)

Last week, NIH director, Dr. Francis Collins announced that he would no longer speak on panels that were not sufficiently diverse. In an attempt to put an end to the ‘manel,’ ‘himposium’ or ‘manfrence,” Dr. Collins stated in a letter dated June 12, “I will expect a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities. If that attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda, I will decline to take part.” Dr. Collins encouraged other leaders to do likewise. Does your organization’s leadership take this stance? If not, why not?

Another recent development within NIH, if successfully implemented, portends structural change. An advisory committee issued a report to Dr. Collins this week on actions NIH should take to prevent and address sexual harassment in the sciences. They made four recommendations:

First: Treat professional misconduct, including sexual harassment, as seriously as research misconduct

According to the advisory committee, this would “[r]equire reporting of investigations and findings of professional misconduct, including sexual harassment, by faculty who are PIs or Co-PIs on active NIH grants.” The group also recommended the creation of “a mechanism for reporting professional misconduct and sexual harassment associated with NIH-funded extramural research.”

Second: Require all PIs to attest, when submitting NIH grant applications and progress reports, that they have not violated and will not violate their institutional code of conduct

At present “NIH does not have any mechanisms to identify whether an investigator is in violation of their institution’s faculty code of conduct,” and that in some cases “NIH-funded investigators have been sanctioned by their institution for sexual harassment and continue to receive grant funding.” In order to remediate this problem, the group recommends that PIs and their institutions attest that the PI hasn’t had a finding of, or been involved in a settlement regarding, sexual harassment or other specified misconduct over the past seven years, and that they will abide by the code of conduct during the grant period.

Third: Establish mechanisms for restorative justice for survivors and to recapture lost talent

The group heard in their listening sessions about the loss of talent as a result of harassment in the sciences. This is well-documented in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine 2018 report on sexual harassment. Because of that loss, and the harmful effect of that loss on scientific discovery, the group recommends the creation of mechanisms to reintegrate survivors into the research workforce. One recommendation is to create re-entry paths for individuals who experienced sexual harassment, through the NIH re-entry supplement program and eventually through all NIH funding opportunity announcements.

Fourth: Develop novel approaches to address investigator independence from their mentors

The group acknowledged in its report that “[h]ierarchical relationships, particularly those with high dependency, between faculty and trainees increase the risk of sexual harassment,” and that this vulnerability is heightened for international students. In order to change this, the group recommends the creation of “new mechanisms in which awards are granted directly to trainees to support their independence and to reduce hierarchical relationships between trainees and mentors.”

Seeking change across the field

The group highlighted a refrain in its research: “[b]y not assessing how institutions may be enabling perpetrators, Federal agencies have been perpetuating the problem.”

The power of these recommendation lies in their ability to make structural, institutional and systemic changes. The power of NIH to drive change across an entire field should not be underestimated; with billions in research funding on the line, grantees and institutions should take notice now, and be part of the drive for change.

How can these recommendations be put to use in other fields?

The first two of the advisory committee’s recommendations relate to the power wielded by a grant making institution, first to be informed when harassment occurs and second to take action if it does occur. As they point out, the suggestion is to take harassment as seriously as research misconduct. Is there any reason why other grant-making institutions can’t take similar action?

Another body with power for change are boards, as addressed by Anne Wallestad, CEO of Boardsource, in her testimony before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018. Wallestad pointed out that boards have the power to demand accountability, oversee the CEO and ensure that policies and procedures are in place to prevent and address harassment.

The advisory committee acknowledged the risks for harassment within the mentor-trainee relationship in scientific research. Knowing where and how individuals become vulnerable to harassment will be unique to each industry, though the power dynamics at issue may be the same, or the attributes of a type of workplace common an industry. To jumpstart this analysis for different industries, the EEOC has compiled risk factors for harassment in workplaces.

Finally, the advisory committee’s recommendations for reentry reflects the power of the institution to prioritize inclusion of disempowered groups, such as those who have experienced harassment. In the case of NIH, such a recommendation is built on existing structures to support re-entry. In other fields, the ability to support marginalized groups in re-entry may be limited to efforts by individual businesses, (indeed, see this article with a title that says it all about the legal industry’s willingness to be flexible on returning to work after a leave). A longer road to change exists on this front.

Structural change is the prize, and industries and individuals must keep their eyes on whether proposed action is mere window dressing, or in the case of the NIH recommendations, ones that can change an industry and the lives of the people who work in it.

Audrey Roofeh is the CEO of Mariana Strategies LLC, a workplace culture consulting firm based in Washington, DC.

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Audrey Roofeh

Written by

Audrey Roofeh is CEO of Mariana Strategies, a workplace culture consulting firm, based in Washington, D.C.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

Audrey Roofeh

Written by

Audrey Roofeh is CEO of Mariana Strategies, a workplace culture consulting firm, based in Washington, D.C.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

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