Scientific immunity from harassment?

Scientific immunity from harassment?

by Joe Colihan


| hə-ˈras-mənt |  The creation of an unpleasant or hostile situation especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.  []


It’s been about sixteen months since Harvey Weinstein was dismissed from Miramax and the Academy over multiple complaints of sexual harassment.  Late last year the EEOC (2018) released a report of harassment claims in the workplace.  Complaints based on based on sex, race, color, disability, age, national origin, or religion are investigated.  A fraction of those complaints (66 in fiscal 2018) reach the lawsuit stage.  Among the reported findings:

Claims spanned all industries, with examples including United Airlines, G2, Del Taco, Happy Valley Nursing, Blackwater, Mediacom, and Piggly Wiggly.

 Over 60% of those claims included allegations of sexual harassment.  This represents a 50% increase in the number of suits file in FY 2017.  Interestingly, the number of related complaints increased on 12% in that period.    Awards for sexual harassment claims rose 32% year over year to $70M.

Victoria A. Lipnic summarized the efforts:  "I am so proud of the EEOC staff who stepped up to the heightened demand of the #MeToo movement to make clear that workplace harassment is not only unlawful, it is simply not acceptable."

Yesterday, PBS Newshour aired an interview with Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health.  He reported troubling findings about students and faculty in science, engineering and medicine. 

50% of faculty reported experiencing harassment at work

20-50% of students reported being harassed by faculty and staff

Dr. Collins wrote:  "We are sorry that it has taken so long to acknowledge and address the climate and culture that has caused such harm. Sexual harassment in the sciences is morally indefensible, it's unacceptable, and it presents a major obstacle that is keeping women from achieving their rightful place in science."

In the interview, Dr. Collins acknowledged that most people in power in these fields have been historically male, and that a culture of hiding or looking the other way often created barriers for victims in their search for justice.  Said Collins:  “This shouldn't just fall on the shoulders of the women to fix the problem that the men have largely been responsible for.”

In our 2018 and 2019 research of a broad cross-section of over 2,800 working-age adults in the United States, 25% report experiencing harassment at work (Colihan, 2019).  Interestingly, differences by gender were not statistically significant.  However, a larger measure of Fairness (e.g., treatment, respect) shows significantly worse ratings from women than men (Cohen’s d = .11).  Fairness as a factor is a more powerful predictor of Well-Being at Work than any other, including Engagement. 

Given all of the allegations of workplace harassment that have come to light, it should not be surprising that 25% report experiencing harassment.  Employers need to pay attention to issues of Fairness, Inclusion, and Engagement to help work toward employee Well-Being at Work. 


Colihan, Joe (2019).  Minnesota Workplace Wellness Assessment benchmarking research.

EEOC (2018).  EEOC Releases Preliminary FY 2018 Sexual Harassment Data.

PBS (2019).  How NIH plans to fight the sexual harassment that could drive women away from science.