U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Testimony: Federal Me Too

May 21, 2019


United States Commission on Civil Rights Public Briefing: Federal Me Too Examining Sexual Harassment in Government Workplaces

Panel Two: State Department, NASA and STEM organizations

Thursday, May 9, 2019


The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights routinely seeks public comments on the substance of its briefings. The public comment period is 30 days following the date of the hearing or briefing, unless provided otherwise. Items currently open for public comment and the process for submitting comments are listed below. Submissions must be received by Monday, June 25, 2019

On May 9, 2019, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a public briefing: “Federal Me Too: Examining Sexual Harassment in Government Workplaces.”

The Commission will accept written materials for consideration as we prepare our report on the subject. Please submit no later than June 10, 2019, to sexualharassment@usccr.gov or by mail to

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U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 1150
Washington, DC 20425

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Dr. Heather Metcalf’s Testimony

Chairwoman Llahmon, Commissioners, Commission Staff, and fellow speakers, I come to you today as Chief Research Officer for the Association for Women in Science, a national non-profit based here in DC that supports equitable and inclusive STEM workplaces through research, policy, and practice.

I also speak from personal experience as an interdisciplinary scientist who has been the direct target of harassment throughout her career.

As a first-generation, low-income college graduate, in some ways I was fortunate I didn’t first experience much harassment and exclusionary behavior in my field until I entered graduate school in computer science in 2003.

Walking the halls of my department, six percent of which was comprised of women, students and faculty assumed I was an administrative assistant and regularly asked me where the kitchen was.

My classmates and professors gave me quizzical looks in class and asked if I was in the right room.

Students told me I was only admitted to the program because of Affirmative Action, as if it was impossible to qualify for admission on my own merit, not knowing I graduated top of my undergraduate class in both mathematics and computer science while working two jobs to pay for college.

Teaching assistants offered gendered responses to mistakes I made in assignments. The men in my working groups who made the same mistakes didn’t receive such commentary and were often not docked the points I was.

I witnessed racialized comments targeted at students of color and international students. I overheard homophobic remarks about LGBTQ+ students. I noticed students with visible disabilities were avoided and mocked. I observed how uncomfortable these interactions made not only the targets, but also bystanders regardless of social group.

I shared office space with an undergraduate who insisted on revealing graphic details about his sex life despite my repeated protests. As he began to encroach on my physical space and I felt increasingly unsafe, I turned to the department for help. Rather than addressing his behavior, they moved me.

I attended graduate conferences for women in computing. At one session, a student asked how to handle situations where a respected member of the field engaged in inappropriate behavior. The panel advised wearing wedding bands to discourage the behavior. To pretend to be something we weren’t in hope that those who cross established professional boundaries would somehow respect feigned personal ones.

These experiences are a small snapshot from my own career. Through fifteen years of as a researcher in this space, I have also gathered thousands of stories from STEM professionals around the country and across sectors about the bias, barriers, harassment, and other forms of discrimination they’ve faced.

While we often focus solely on what is commonly understood to be sexual harassment, that is, unwanted sexual attention, sexual assault, or sexual coercion, behavior that is sexual in nature comprises just a small proportion of harassing behaviors.

Gender harassment is the most frequent form of sexual harassment and consists of “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status” based on a person’s gender.

With these definitions in mind, consider the recent National Academies report found 58% of women among faculty and staff at universities experienced sexual harassment. In federal workplaces this is between 21% and 69% of women.

Harassment is not just based on gender or sex, and for workers who are part of more than one marginalized social group, it often has a multiplicative effect.

For example, in a survey of astronomers and planetary scientists, women of color experienced the highest rates of race- and gender- based harassment and assault in their STEM workplaces at 28% and 40% respectively.

The American Physical Society found that LGB women, gender-nonconforming, and transgender physicists experienced harassment and exclusionary behavior at three, four, and five times the rate of LGB men, respectively.

Our AWIS survey research found that 37% of white women with disabilities experienced disability-related stigma, discrimination, and harassment at work. For women of color with disabilities, this was 73%. For LGBTQ women of color with disabilities, it was 100%.

Employees who experience or witness harassment face negative health consequences, lowered job and field satisfaction, avoidance behaviors, and, if they report, they also often encounter retaliation and incur financial expenses.

Organizations suffer too, encountering reduced productivity, increased use of sick and annual leave, and unnecessarily lose talented employees and public trust when the culture of harassment goes unaddressed.

For example, using NSF data, my colleagues and I found that black, Hispanic, and indigenous women were most likely to leave their STEM fields altogether because of exclusionary workplace cultures, bias and discrimination in hiring, and pay and promotion inequities.

These costs are even greater in environments where harassment is normalized and downplayed, threats of retaliation are high, and a lack of trust in the reporting and investigative process produce barriers to reporting and support.

While the Commission’s work to review policies and programs to address, report, and resolve federal sexual harassment claims is important, equally important are educational and cultural efforts to prevent all forms of harassment, bias, and discrimination. To do this, federal workplaces should:

  • One, address the perceived tolerance and acceptability of harassment by making it clear that harassment of any kind is unacceptable.

  • Two, move beyond minimal legal compliance to change the existing culture to one that is inclusive and respectful. This requires leaders who align stated values with action; listen to and learn from a diversity of employees; and provide holistic support to those who have experienced harassment.

  • Three, improve transparency, efficacy, and accountability, not just in the reporting process and written policies, but in everyday decision-making where bias is likely to creep in, including recruitment, hiring, promotion, and more.

  • Four, gather data to inform policies, procedures, and cultural changes. These should incorporate social demographics known to influence exclusion and should be analyzed so the experiences of members of multiple-marginalized groups (like women of color) don’t get lost.

I applaud the Commission for taking these steps toward inclusive, respectful, and trustworthy workplaces for all federal employees. Thank you.