WASHINGTON – More help is needed to protect female scientists from unwanted sexual advances and intimidation, experts from various scientific institutions told a congressional committee Tuesday, and urged the lawmakers to pass legislation to combat sexual harassment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.   

Testifying before the House Science Subcommittee on Research and Technology, Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union said many scientific institutions like the AGU have taken steps to implement anti-harassment policies, but more needs to be done going forward.   

“Legislation can be a powerful incentive to ensure that organizations take sexual harassment seriously,” McEntee said. “Training and education are essential to combating this issue, and any legislation that is proposed must include clear, strict consequences for harassers.” 

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., said women in science are particularly vulnerable to harassment and abuse because powerful male scientists have enormous influence and significant control over their education and training. 

“What has happened in Hollywood and the media have opened the floodgates for women and men to come forward about predators in the workplace,“ she said. “As more and more victims come forward, I cannot help but wonder how many brilliant women and their ideas we have lost in the STEM fields due to harassment.”

A recent Pew Research center study found that 50 percent of women in STEM jobs say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, compared with 41 percent of those in non-STEM jobs. Rhonda Davis, head of diversity and inclusion for the National Science Foundation, said the NSF has taken a “proactive approach” in order to decrease sexual harassment at scientific institutions across the U.S. 

Davis said during the hearing that the NSF has developed a new policy that requires all the organization to which grants funding to report findings of sexual harassment to NSF immediately through an online portal and has also instituted a special task force to examine new practices for the creation of unambiguous codes of conduct.

Dr. Kathryn Clancy, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said women in science are often sabotaged by their male colleagues because of their gender in an already competitive field. She stressed that overcoming sexual harassment in science is directly tied to curbing the culture of male domination and the subordination of women that pervades these workplaces.

“The false notion that career success in the sciences is objective and the best scientists have the most success drives out women and others who, despite intelligence and persistence, face substantial barriers to success,” she said.  

Comstock said Congress should pass legislation to require a zero tolerance policy in the STEM field to ensure that all scientists are given the support necessary to succeed in their respective fields of study without fear of harassment or abuse.  

“Sexual harassment, abuse of power and intimidation in the workplace, classroom or research field site is unacceptable in any situation, period,” she said. “Whether it’s in Congress or in the fields of science and technology, every individual has a right to a safe work environment.”