Why Science, Engineering, and Medicine Care about Sexual Harassment

by Dwight Krehbiel, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Bethel College

A remarkable event in the growing recognition of the widespread problem of sexual harassment was the publication of a major report on this topic by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM, 2018).* Aspects of this report were summarized in a recent post by student colleagues and me (Voth, Schrag, & Krehbiel, 2019). This post explores another aspect of the report, asking simply why the problem of sexual harassment may have attracted particular attention among those interested in research and education in scientific and medical fields, sometimes now collectively called “STEMM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine). Many of the issues raised in this regard are likely similar across all scholarly disciplines and in higher education generally.

Though certainly there are many in STEMM who are concerned about harassment because of empathy with harassment victims, there is another major motivator for the concern. It is that both the quality and quantity of scholarly and professional work in STEMM is greatly diminished by the ongoing sexual harassment experienced at all levels of education and training as well as in the practice of these disciplines and professions. The potentially large impact of sexual harassment can be readily appreciated in those fields for which girls and women constitute an especially large proportion of the  aspirants — e.g., psychology, biology, medicine, other health-related fields (50% or more for these fields at the bachelor’s degree level). An important clue to the influence of sexual harassment is that the proportion of girls and women varies greatly across levels of advancement in these fields. The most common pattern is that girls and women are proportionately much more numerous among students than in the professional ranks. In addition, the disparity in numbers between women and men almost always increases very significantly as one moves up the career-advancement ladder.

One account of this pattern is that it is inevitable because all these fields (along with many non-STEMM fields) are in a transitional phase set in motion by the gradual acceptance of women in higher education over the past century. Thus, as women demonstrate their ability and competence, they are increasingly earning a secure place at all levels in STEMM and will experience less harassment. While there may be a grain of truth in this view, it is less an explanation for the disparities than a description of them. The slowness of the transition and the persistence of these patterns of disparity, even among women with clearly demonstrated ability and competence, are not explained by saying simply “It takes time.” Actively identifying the biases and forms of resistance against change that are at the root of these disparities and learning how to address them will be necessary, even to achieve any acceleration of these gradual changes. To do no more than passively comment on the need for time essentially places the burden for change on the victims of harassment. Furthermore, the pace of change may be so slow that individuals will never experience the benefits of their own efforts to address harassment although, of course, they will almost certainly experience the risks.

Whether they are empathic with victims or not, leaders in science and medicine are motivated for change by evidence that these entire fields are being held back by sexual harassment. These leaders recognize that many highly educated, competent scholars and practitioners are having their educational plans and career trajectories thwarted by sexual harassment that interferes with their learning and professional work and prevents appropriate recognition for their achievements. The evidence summarized in our earlier post about the frequency with which education and careers are disrupted by sexual harassment was placed in the context of the mental health impact of sexual harassment. The additional point here is that the cumulative effect of these many disruptions is a broad negative impact on these fields as a whole. Sexual harassment in the workplace results in disengagement from one’s job, feelings of disillusionment and anger toward the employer or organization, thoughts about resigning or retiring, and reduced productivity and performance. Sexual harassment in high school, college, or graduate school has been shown to produce reduced motivation to attend class, avoidance of classes or environments where harassment is experienced, lower academic performance, dropping classes, and even dropping out of school. With the high frequency of sexual harassment in mind, one can readily see that the combined impact of these many effects on individuals will be major constraints on scholarly and professional contributions in these fields.

The same arguments may seem less compelling for other flavors of STEMM with proportionately fewer women — e.g., engineering, computer science (less than 20% at the bachelor’s level for these two fields), mathematics (40-42%), and economics (about 38% at the bachelor’s level in 2016 — Lundberg, 2017). Since fewer participants in these fields are affected by sexual harassment, one might be inclined to think that the overall impact on these fields is smaller. An obvious prior question for such fields to consider is what factors may be responsible for low participation by women. Indeed one such factor may be sexual harassment. A repeated finding is that sexual harassment is more likely in environments that are male-dominated. Thus, harassment in these fields is likely to be worse, and women in these fields may face more obstacles to their education and professional productivity (van Veelen, Derks, & Endedijk, 2019). Sexual harassment is not only more likely to occur in male-dominated environments but also less likely to be taken seriously when it does occur. It is easy to see how the low attractiveness of these fields for women may be self-perpetuating.

Thus, it seems likely that sexual harassment plays a significant role in holding down the number of women who enter some STEMM fields. Are those small numbers also disadvantageous to research and education? Do these fields as a whole incur a significant cost through their gender imbalance? The title of a recent multi-authored statement of opinion in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Nielsen et al., 2017) is unequivocal on this matter: “Gender diversity leads to better science.” Not simply stating their opinions, these authors review evidence from sociological studies of science showing that groups consisting of both women and men perform better in problem solving than those composed of only men or only women.** These studies have found that women and men demonstrate different strengths, pose different questions, and thus make somewhat different contributions to their research groups. Hence, the best approaches to discovery and innovation take advantage of these complementary strengths by encouraging the formation of collaborations involving both women and men. In other words, it seems likely that these fields do incur significant costs through their inability to attract many women. The idea that diversity (with respect to gender, race, ethnicity, economic background, etc.) can benefit the quality of work produced in the sciences, engineering, and medicine is now receiving wide attention, including promotion of research to investigate both the effects of diversity and interventions to promote it (Valantine & Collins, 2015).

There are many reasons for scientists, physicians, and engineers to care about the occurrence of sexual harassment in their educational environments and workplaces. The countless people who are individually harmed by sexual harassment are an obvious reason though not unique to STEMM. The effect of sexual harassment to diminish the overall quantity and quality of work in these fields is another major set of reasons. This effect has several components — driving girls and women away from these fields, rendering less productive those who are in these fields, and robbing the fields of the diversity that promotes innovation and creative problem solving. The larger point is perhaps obvious — these reasons are very likely applicable to all areas of human endeavor. Perhaps at long last, we are at a point in human history when these reasons can be widely recognized and embraced.

* The findings discussed in this post summarize contents of the NASEM report except where additional sources are cited.

**While the NASEM report focuses specifically on the impact of sexual harassment of women and articulates its findings with a primarily binary gender model, it should be noted that nonbinary people also experience high rates of sexual harassment (as do LGBTQ people more generally). It is reasonable to assume that the dominance of cisgender men in STEMM fields impacts the participation of all genders.


Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia, Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Policy and Global Affairs, & National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Sexual harassment of women: Climate, culture, and consequences in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine (P. A. Johnson, S. E. Widnall, & F. F. Benya, Eds.). https://doi.org/10.17226/24994

Lundberg, S. (2017). Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP). American Economic Review, 107(5), 759–776. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.107.5.759

Nielsen, M. W., Alegria, S., Börjeson, L., Etzkowitz, H., Falk-Krzesinski, H. J., Joshi, A., … Schiebinger, L. (2017). Opinion: Gender diversity leads to better science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(8), 1740–1742. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1700616114

Valantine, H. A., & Collins, F. S. (2015). National Institutes of Health addresses the science of diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(40), 12240–12242. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1515612112

van Veelen, R., Derks, B., & Endedijk, M. D. (2019). Double trouble: How being outnumbered and negatively stereotyped threatens career outcomes of women in STEM. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00150   

Voth, C., Schrag, M., & Krehbiel, D. (2019). Everyone’s responsibility: the health impact of sexual harassment. Into Account blog. Retrieved from: https://intoaccount.org/2019/08/13/everyones-responsibility-the-health-impact-of-sexual-harassment/