Preventing Harassment

Harassment and bullying continue to be pervasive in male dominated STEM environments due to long standing biases and outdated norms. AWIS believes that organization leaders must create and enforce policies to mitigate power dynamics, toxic cultures, and systemic issues so that women can reach their full potential. 

Why is this still an issue?

In the United States, a sexual assault is reported every 68 seconds. Almost 80% of cases go unreported due to fear of retaliation, and less than 1% of cases end in a felony conviction.

Harassment does not have to be sexual to be damaging and disruptive. By definition, harassment is defined as any unwanted behavior whether it is physical or verbal that makes a person feel uncomfortable or distressed. Harassment includes more subtle or even unseen activities such as being excluded from an email or meeting, being passed over for promotions, and/or sabotaging of equipment.

As a result, many victims either continue to work in an unsafe environment or they resign and allow their abuser to remain unchallenged. Harassment has been a long-standing issue deterring women in STEM disciplines from pursing their career goals and has taken a heavy toll on those within the scientific community.

Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash

Impacts on victims

Women who have been sexually harassed are prone to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and lowered-self-esteem. They also experience job dissatisfaction, decreased morale, and career derailment. Even subtle acts of harassment cause similar suffering.

Women of color, women with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ women are more likely to experience harassment and to feel unsafe at work.

Many women experience fear and frustration due to unfair treatment and ultimately choose to leave science after completing their degree. Victims of sexual harassment lose from $125,000 to $1.3 million in legal fees and lost wages after leaving their jobs.

Those that stay have reported the toll that cumulative gender discrimination takes on them. Watch this AWIS webinar replay to learn about the harassment experiences of three women in the scientific community.

Impacts on the organization

Harassment and bullying lower morale and productivity. Victims and witnesses are more likely to leave their jobs. Higher employee turnover increases the hiring and training costs of the organization. 

Organizations can spend thousands settling harassment cases or even millions. One Fortune 500 Company spent 6.7 million dollars per year.

Organizations that receive federal funding are under strict reporting requirements regarding sexual harassment. The organization must report the incident immediately to the funding agency and place the harasser on administrative leave while investigating. If not reported, the organization could lose funding and jeopardize their projects. Kristen Schwendinger, a senior counsel involved in litigation and government investigations, discusses these requirements and ways to implement them in this AWIS webinar replay.

Photo by Jane Palash on Unsplash

Impacts on society

Studies have shown that diverse teams drive better outcomes and yield greater innovation, yet less than 30% of researchers are women. Women have different lived experiences than men and therefore bring unique perspectives and discoveries. For example, bird song research was dominated by men who studied male birds. When women moved into the field, they began looking at female birds and discovered the females had unique songs as well.

A McKinsey report found that promoting gender equality could add $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030. We need to increase women in science and ensure safe, inclusive environments to retain them — and allow them to focus on their work. Nancy Hopkins, PhD, a biology professor at MIT, estimated she spent 20 hours a week (in addition to her job) fighting for equity when all she wanted to do was be a scientist!

Actions for individuals

  • Victims should report inappropriate behavior so that abusers can be held accountable. 
  • Bystanders who witness inappropriate behavior should intervene and prevent harm to the victim.
  • No one should make excuses for the offender. Confront them directly or let your employer know. 
  • Document the incident including date, time, location, and person/persons involved. 
  • If needed, contact your local governing agency (U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) So that they can resolve the issue with your employer regarding the harassment. 

Actions for HR/leaders

  • Bystander training and the documentary Picture a Scientist should be required for everyone in the organization. 
  • Establish effective complaint procedure that employees can use to report incidents of harassment. 
  • Adopt, communicate, and enforce anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. 
  • Encourage employees to come to you for help involving any problems at work, including incidents of harassment/bullying.
  • Quickly investigate any reported cases and document everything while protecting the victim’s identity. 
  • Listen to the victim. Believe them. Protect them from retaliation. 

Decades of (slow) progress


Nancy Hopkins, PhD, was frustrated with discrimination she was experiencing in the biology department. She shared her concerns with other tenured women professors and found they had similar issues. They reviewed the treatment of women faculty in the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and why women faculty numbers were dwindling. They collectively approached the Dean regarding their concerns: less lab space, salary inequities, lack of childcare access.

MIT President Charles Vest endorsed the report and commented, “I have always believed contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception, but I now understand reality is the greater part of the balance.”

Women in other universities spoke up as well. Nine other research universities formed an ongoing collaboration to address issues of gender equality. At MIT, a daycare center was built, and women faculty doubled in numbers!”


In 2018, the National Academies released a report that concluded gender harassment does real harm to individuals and STEMM fields, posing barriers to inclusion of all talent, causing many women (and some others) to leave the fields, and undermining excellence. [Note that harassment includes but is not limited to sexual harassment.]

As a result, the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEM was formed. Currently, the organization is hosting events including the upcoming Chat & Collaboration Session, where members discuss possible solutions to breaking the barriers that many STEM professional’s experience. AWIS is a founding member of the organization. AWIS also endorsed the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act


February 8, 2019 – New NSF rules requires awardees to report title IX findingsJune 3, 2019 –National Academy of Sciences votes to eject sexual harassers


August 9, 2022 – CHIPS and Science Act includes provisions to prevent and mitigate sexual harassment

Read Our Statement on Harassment

Be part of the solution!

Share what your organization does to prevent and address harassment. We will continue to update this page with advice and tools to help create safer, more inclusive organizational systems and cultures.