STEM academia no different: Women face harassment

June 29, 2018
How should employed, employing doctors of optometry handle workplace harassment?
Workplace harassment

Not even professionals in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) escape the tribulations uncovered by #MeToo as evidenced by a new report that details how academia—a mainstay of diversity and progress—bungles harassment against women.

Published in June 2018, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) report, titled "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine," illustrates how, despite growing diversity in STEM fields, harassment against women pervades lecture halls, laboratories and clinics, taking not only an emotional toll but an economic one, as well.

In fact, academic institutions, reportedly, have the second highest rate of sexual harassment (58%) when compared to the military (69%), private sector and government. Those data bore out in surveys of more than 10,000 students and faculty at the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University systems, where more than 40% and 50% of medical students (respectively) experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.

"What is especially discouraging about this situation is that at the same time that so much energy and money is being invested in efforts to attract and retain women in science, engineering and medical fields, it appears women are often bullied or harassed out of career pathways in these fields," the NASEM report notes.

The study itself draws on years of investigations, studies and qualitative interviews regarding harassment of women in academia. Half of those testimonials detail physical abuse but, more commonly, were disparaging remarks or inappropriate comments, noted the Washington Post. Academia's "star culture" among faculty often fans these flames, making "institutions less likely to hold perpetrators accountable."

To counter this culture, study authors made 14 recommendations that include transparency and accountability of system policies, reformed harassment reporting processes and educational training courses, strong and effective leaders diffused more broadly among faculty and staff, an emphasis on diversity, and lastly, further research assessing these suggestions.

"However, to succeed in making these changes, all members of our nation's college campuses—students, faculty, staff and administrators—will need to assume responsibility for promoting a civil and respectful environment," the NASEM report concludes. "It is everyone's responsibility to stop sexual harassment."

AOA resource addresses workplace harassment, offers tips

Although the NASEM report looked exclusively at harassment in higher learning, that responsibility extends into the clinics and offices where doctors of optometry practice. A safe working environment for all employees reflects the standards and behaviors set by the doctor of optometry, notes the newest AOA Ethics Forum case study on workplace harassment.

The Ethics Forum, an online resource for AOA members to review hypothetical case studies containing potential ethical challenges and offering suggestions based on AOA's Standards of Professional Conduct and Code of Ethics, offers recommendations and considerations to doctors for avoiding and addressing workplace harassment, including references to laws and policies.

Per the Ethics Forum, it is the responsibility of the doctor of optometry to:

  • Assure victims of harassment that they are safe from retaliation, irrespective of the outcome of events.
  • Document the reported incident in detail.
  • Ask open-ended questions and remain unbiased and respectful.
  • Agree to keep information confidential as the law allows. (In some instances, the doctor of optometry is required by law to pursue the issue further.)
  • Interview all witnesses who may be able to provide insight for the investigation.
  • Give the other party an opportunity to weigh in on the circumstances.

It is essential to have effective communications with employees and an office policy handbook explaining standards of professional conduct and workplace expectations, and corrective actions. These actions should be reviewed by legal counsel or a human resources expert.

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