Why Sexual Harassment Is Common in Academic Institutions

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

Sexual harassment is a widespread phenomenon, observed in a great variety of educational and work settings. Previous posts in this series have examined the evidence that such harassment has a significant negative health impact (Voth, Schrag, & Krehbiel, 2019). A second post explored the evidence that science, medicine, and related fields are themselves being held back by the negative consequences of harassment on productivity of women now entering or aspiring to enter these fields (Krehbiel, 2019). This post examines the factors that may promote sexual harassment in academic institutions, again drawing primarily on a recent report of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM, 2018).

Though we might expect the lofty aspirations of academic institutions to make harassment less frequent, there is little evidence to support that expectation. Comparisons of the percentages of women who experience harassment in different workplaces have found higher levels (58% of women) of harassment in academic settings than in government (43%) or private (46%) settings but somewhat lower than in the military (69%). Identifying the factors that may be responsible for this relatively high rate is the focus of much of this post, along with consideration of how students, faculty, and staff may be affected.

A core factor in these high harassment rates is that academic environments have commonly been tolerant of harassment, i.e., perpetrators have tended not to experience negative consequences for their harassing behaviors. Although victims of harassment may often be encouraged to report their experiences and provide evidence against perpetrators, there is widespread belief that the benefits of reporting are often minimal while the costs are considerable. Reputations of institutions are sometimes tied closely to the achievements and recognition of prestigious men. The inclination to minimize or ignore complaints against such men results in extremely high odds against a victim who reports. Even once such complaints are known, they may not result in any action against a perpetrator, being addressed instead by informal warnings among potential victims, usually women, to avoid the perpetrator or to ignore his actions. The tendency to minimize harassment incidents commonly extends to others within the institution, particularly to older men.

Male-dominated environments are well known to produce higher frequency of sexually harassing behaviors, and the history of academic institutions is, of course, characterized by such domination. In spite of that fact, the proportion of women in higher education has been growing steadily for many decades. In fact, across all disciplines women have out-numbered men in earning bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. since the 1981-82 school year, constituting 57% of bachelor’s-level graduates in 2017 (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). For the first time this year the labor force in the U.S. will have more female than male college graduates (Fry, 2019). At the doctoral level there has also been substantial growth in the proportion who are women, going from 35% in 1988 to 46% in 2018 (National Science Foundation, 2019). The proportion of students graduating from allopathic medical schools (i.e., not including D.O. degrees) who are women has varied from 46% to 49% since 2004, growing from 25% in 1980 (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2019a). This year for the first time over 50% of all allopathic medical school students in the U.S. are women (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2019b). Thus, there is a great deal of evidence that women are actually becoming dominant in higher education in terms of overall numbers. Clearly male dominance in overall numbers is not the explanation for the high frequency of sexual harassment in colleges and universities.

Individual disciplines or specialties may be radically different from this global pattern. For example, in 2017 more than 75% of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. for engineering and for computer science were earned by men, while more than 60% of degrees in biology and English and 78% of degrees in psychology were earned by women (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). Doctoral degrees show similar discrepancies for these disciplines (National Science Foundation, 2019). Women and men make very different choices of specialty in medical school resulting in some residencies with mostly men (e.g., orthopedic surgery, 84.6% male), others with mostly women (e.g., obstetrics and gynecology, 83.4% female), and still others with approximate gender balance (e.g., preventive medicine; Murphy, 2019).

Beyond the numerical dominance of men in some fields is the persistence of men in leadership positions and high academic ranks, even in fields with high proportions of women such as psychology, biology, or medicine. For example, the strong numerical dominance of women in psychology at the bachelor’s degree level (78%, see above) is reduced to 62% of assistant professors in 2018 and to 45% of full professors (Bichsel, McChesney, and Schmidt, 2019). Comparable data in medicine but for 2015 are 45% for the assistant professor level and 22% for full professors (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2016). Thus, male dominance persists, even in fields with many women, at higher academic ranks.

Beyond dominance in numbers is the degree to which academic roles have evolved to be more consistent with the needs and interests of men than of women. Job demands may not adequately accommodate caregiving responsibilities (e.g., for children or elderly parents) or demands of pregnancy and childbirth, as though these are the tasks of a spouse. Academic environments may also be highly hierarchical with dependencies at each level from undergraduate student to graduate student, to postdoctoral scholar, to professors at their various ranks. The resulting power imbalances may make abuses and harassment more likely. Because of such imbalances, academic research or training environments that may involve relative isolation, such as field, laboratory, or hospital, may entail particular risks for students, interns, or low-ranking staff.

Numerous studies have documented the prevalence of sexual harassment in higher education and provided evidence for some of the factors just discussed and for the victimization of faculty and staff as well as of students. The most common form of harassment reported by female faculty and staff is gender harassment (e.g., hostile or objectifying comments), and such harassment has been found to be more frequent in environments where women were less well represented. Recall that gender harassment, presumably because of its high frequency, may have health consequences at least as serious as those of more severe forms of harassment (Voth et al., 2019). While being dependent on higher ranking males may exacerbate harassment, female faculty and staff also report significant harassment from men who are lower in the organizational hierarchy, including students, as though gender is a more powerful variable than academic or professional achievement. This “contrapower sexual harassment” may be partially enabled by reliance on student evaluations for faculty tenure or promotion decisions. A similar reversal of the expected direction of harassment has been observed in academic medical centers, where patients and their families may be major sources of sexual harassment.

Harassment of students has been assessed with campus climate surveys, since formal reporting to comply with federal regulations is not regarded as a reliable measure. Perhaps the most extensive recent survey (Cantor et al., 2019) studied responses of over 180,000 students, both graduate and undergraduate from 33 universities. Fifty-nine percent of undergraduate women reported having experienced harassing behavior, while 14% of those with partners reported intimate partner violence, and 10% reported stalking. Rates for LGBTQ students were even higher, while those for men were far lower. Overall rates of non-consensual sexual contact were at 26% for undergraduate women, 23% for LGBTQ undergraduates, and 7% for undergraduate men. Rate differences vary with the particular measure, but it is fair to say that undergraduate women experience much higher rates of harassment than men do. Reported non-consensual sexual contact for undergraduate women was found to be highest in the fall of the first year with slight declines in each year thereafter. In this study harassment was much more prevalent among undergraduates than among graduate students. For undergraduate students the harassment is primarily from other students. The perpetrators of harassment of graduate students are frequently faculty or staff, and other studies reviewed in the NASEM report actually found higher rates of such harassment in graduate students, especially of gender harassment. Medicine and, to a lesser degree, engineering were found to have particularly high rates of gender harassment. Exposing perpetration of sexual harassment and assault by prominent faculty, mostly men, has perhaps done the most to capture public interest in these issues at colleges and universities. Indeed a database of these major cases in the U.S. (Libarkin, 2019) has been established with links to many of the publicized details; the list stands at 889 resolved cases with more than 100 others ongoing as of this writing.

The data just described come primarily from large universities, raising the question of whether the picture might be substantially different for smaller institutions. However, campus climate survey results released by several liberal arts institutions (Doane University, 2019; St. Olaf College, 2017; Occidental College, 2015) indicate high frequencies of the various forms of sexual harassment, not strikingly different from those cited above.

This post provides a very brief overview of scientific findings on sexual harassment in institutions of higher education. The emerging awareness of the severity of this problem is remarkable when one considers the growing overall numerical dominance of women in these institutions. The continued domination by males in some fields may partially explain this paradox. However, the phenomenon of contrapower sexual harassment suggests the continuing power of gender, in spite of academic advancement of women. That movements to expose and combat sexual harassment have begun to gain influence at a time when women are so numerous in academia may simply indicate how many voices are needed to overcome the power of traditional structures and attitudes enabling male perpetrators of sexual harassment. My hope is that these voices will succeed, and that we will also learn how to lay a legitimate foundation for success of males in academic life, one that is not based upon the domination of women.


Association of American Medical Colleges. (2016). The state of women in academic medicine: The pipeline and pathways to leadership, 2015-2016. Table 3. Retrieved on 12/20/2019, from AAMC website: https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/faculty-institutions/data/state-women-academic-medicine-pipeline-and-pathways-leadership-2015-2016

Association of American Medical Colleges (2019a). Diversity in medicine: facts and figures 2019. Figure 12. Retrieved on 12/17/2019 from https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/interactive-data/figure-12-percentage-us-medical-school-graduates-sex-academic-years-1980-1981-through-2018-2019.

Association of American Medical Colleges (2019b). Diversity in medicine: more women than men are enrolled in medical school. Retrieved on 12/17/2019 from https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/more-women-men-are-enrolled-medical-schoo.

Bichsel, J., McChesney, j.,  & Schmidt, A. (2019). Focus on Psychology Faculty: Salaries, Pay Equity, Minority Representation, and the Growth of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty. (Research Report). CUPA-HR. Retrieved on 12/20/2019 from https://www. cupahr.org/surveys/research-briefs/.

Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Harps, S., Townsend, R., Thomas, G., … Madden, K. (2019). Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct (p. 433). Association of American Universities. Retrieved on 12/20/2019 from https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/campus-climate-and-safety/aau-campus-climate-survey-2019

Doane University (2019). Campus climate surveys. Retrieved from https://www.doane.edu/campus-climate-surveys on 12/22/2019.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), Committee on the Impacts of Sexual Harassment in Academia, & Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Policy and Global Affairs (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

Fry, R. (2019). U.S. women near milestone in the college-educated labor force. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. Retrieved on 12/20/2019 from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/20/u-s-women-near-milestone-in-the-college-educated-labor-force/

Krehbiel, D. (2019). Why science, engineering, and medicine care about sexual harassment. Into Account blog. Retrieved from: https://intoaccount.org/2019/12/10/why-science-engineering-and-medicine-care-about-sexual-harassment/

Libarkin, J. (2019). Academic Sexual Misconduct Database. Retrieved 12/19/2019, from https://academic-sexual-misconduct-database.org

Murphy, B. (2019). These medical specialties have the biggest gender imbalances. Retrieved on 12/15/2019 from American Medical Association website: https://www.ama-assn.org/residents-students/specialty-profiles/these-medical-specialties-have-biggest-gender-imbalances.

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), Survey of Earned Doctorates (2019). Table 14. Retrieved from https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf20301/data-tables/ on 12/17/2019.

Occidental College (2015). Campus climate survey released. Retrieved from https://www.oxy.edu/news/campus-climate-survey-released on 12/22/2019.

St. Olaf College (2017). HEDS sexual assault campus climate survey. Retrieved from https://wp.stolaf.edu/title-ix/st-olaf-statistics/campus-climate-survey/sexual-assault-survey-key-findings/ on 12/22/2019.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions Survey (2017). Retrieved from https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/ids/ipeds_c on 12/17/2019.

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/