National Academies report reveals gender harassment in STEM fields

By David L. Chandler for MIT News

Sheila Widnall, MIT Institute Professor and former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, was co-chair of a report commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to explore the impact of sexual harassment of women in those fields. Along with co-chair Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College, Widnall and dozens of panel members and researchers spent two years collecting and analyzing data for the report, which was released over the summer.

Q: As a woman who has been working in academia for many years, did you find  anything in the results of this report that surprised you, anything that was unexpected?

A: Well, not unexpected, but the National Academy reports have to be based on data, and so our committee was composed of scientists, engineers, and social scientists, who have somewhat different ways of looking at problems. One of the challenges was to bring the committee together to agree on a common result. We couldn’t just make up things; we had to get data. So, we had some fundamental data from various universities that were taken by a recognized survey platform, and that was the foundation of our data.

We had data for thousands and thousands of faculty and students. We did not look at student-on-student behavior, which we felt was not really part of our charge. We were looking at the structure of academic institutions and the environment that’s created in the university. We also looked at the relationship between faculty, who hold considerable authority over the climate, and the futures of students, which can be influenced by faculty through activities such as thesis advising, and letter writing, and helping people find the next rung in their career.

At the end of the report, after we’d accumulated all this data and our conclusions about it, we said, “OK, what’s the solution?” And the solution is leadership. There is no other way to get started in some of these very difficult climate issues than leadership. Presidents, provosts, deans, department heads, faculty — these are the leaders at a university, and they are essential for dealing with these issues. We can’t make little recommendations to do this or do that. It really boils down to leadership.

To learn more, read "3Q: Sheila Widnall on sexual harassment in STEM."