Title IX of the Education Amendments was signed into law in 1972, but only recently has begun to achieve its intended purpose: to ensure justice for sexual harassment and assault victims in academia. For decades, institutions have been able to protect their reputation through twisting the use of Title IX to play their own detective, judge, and jury. Victims of sexual misconduct are consistently aggrieved by their institution’s lack of action. In most cases, only after years of official complaints do university administrators remove big-name, academic stars, like those in UC Berkeley, CalTech, and Boston University.
Since then, the #metoo movement was born. This phrase has become more than a hashtag — it is a lens through which the world has started to view and scrutinize itself.
#Metoo was first tweeted on October 15th, 2017 by Alyssa Milano in an effort to shed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Within 24 hours, #metoo had been tweeted half a million times across 85 different countries. Alone, a victim’s voice is regularly discounted; but together, their voices were deafening. The prevalence of sexual harassment is now hard to ignore. The #metoo movement is no longer an out-of-reach crusade for celebrities; it has trickled down to touch the lives of white- and blue-collar workers. These two words signify something larger – a cultural shift in attitude towards sexual misconduct. Through this, the #metoo movement has achieved what sexual harassment policies alone have not.
These two words signify something larger – a cultural shift in attitude towards sexual misconduct.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) was not deaf to the echoes of #metoo in research labs across the nation. The NSF director France Córdova led the charge on passing a new, zero tolerance sexual harassment policy. Leading up to this change, Córdova lamented that the foundation sometimes learns about sexual harassment charges involving NSF-funded researchers through the media, acknowledging “that’s a pretty poor way to find out”. NSF is one of the largest grant-funding agencies in the United States and consequently has leverage over many universities. The agency used this leverage to pass a new policy in February that now eliminates this communication issue by:
- Requiring the institution to tell the agency if it has determined that the principal investigator (PI) or co-PI of an NSF grant has committed sexual harassment.
- Requiring the institution to tell the agency if it puts a PI or co-PI on administrative leave in response to an allegation of harassment, even if an investigation is not complete.
Universities that fail to do so risk having some or all grant funds pulled, as well as earning marks on their record for future grant applications. The NSF did not stop there — they now enforce all institutions receiving NSF funding to certify that they are complying with Title IX annual “compliance reviews” of randomly-selected institutions. This is only the beginning of NSF’s call to action; the agency is currently accepting public comments on this new policy and plans to expand sexual harassment policies further.
The #metoo campaign has become the catalyst for a wave of action that has spread across the scientific community. Since the announcement of the new NSF policies:
- The American Geophysical Union (AGU) amended their “Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics” policy to include sexual harassment in their definition of scientific misconduct.
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently outlined new initiatives to make it easier for employees to report sexual harassment followed by the release of a video that emphasizes sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
- The National Institutes of Health reminded the research community that government rules prohibiting sexual harassment apply to and must be upheld in all NIH-funded activities.
- The American Chemical Society (ACS) updated their policies with stricter punishments for violators of sexual harassment.
The impetus behind #metoo has not waned with these successes.
- More research is being done to document the extent of the problem, such as a prominent two-year study by the national Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to examine the impact of sexual harassment on career advancement for women in academia.
- AGU is heading a new, collaborative research project funded by a $1.1 million, four-year grant from NSF to update teaching of research ethics by addressing sexual harassment as scientific misconduct.
The scientific community is no longer targeting only the most egregious Harvey Weinsteins among them. They are using this momentum to define problem behaviors more clearly and shape a culture of equality. To sustain the #metoo momentum, science and all other disciplines must continue to set greater goals for themselves. Let’s shape a culture where it is unacceptable to discriminate not solely against gender, but also racial and sexual minorities. It is only in a culture that makes room for all people that insightful and life-changing science gets done.
Madelaine Wendzik is a Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Georgia studying neuroinflammation and immune response in pediatric traumatic brain injury. She enjoys board games, downloading one too many podcasts, and anything to do with white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. You can email her at MWendzik@uga.edu or follow her on twitter @SciPolicyGirl. More from Madelaine Wendzik.