Washington, DC - Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA-14) on Thursday held a press conference to introduce the Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act. The bill targets rampant sexual abuse and harassment in academia, particularly federally-funded STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics) research. If passed, it would require colleges and universities to report all substantiated findings of sexual assault and harassment by professors to every federal agency that has awarded the institution competitive research and development grants in the past 10 years.
“Women are being driven from science by sexual assault and harassment, then being blamed for it,” said Rep. Speier. “Federal funding agencies and universities need to stand up for these survivors and stop funding and hiring harassers. No one should be denied their chance to reach for the stars because someone else reached for their body.”
Universities and colleges would also have to report incomplete investigations that have been ongoing for more than six months, though no personal identification would be disclosed in those cases. Along with requiring universities to report sexual abuse to funding agencies, the bill requires agencies to consider this information during future funding decisions.
Supporters of the bill who attended the press conference included Anne Hedgepeth from the American Association of University Women (AAUW); Dr. Kathryn Clancy, an expert on STEM harassment and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois; and Dr. Sarah Ballard and Dr. Meredith Reiches, two scientists who experienced sexual harassment during their studies and who shared their experiences in the hope that they will help other survivors come forward and seek justice.
Dr. Ballard, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, spoke about the harassment she endured as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and her resolve to stay in the field of astronomy despite that experience. “I experienced sexual harassment from a professor of mine in a pattern that started with encouraging words and escalated to sexual conversations and physical contact. To have an established astronomer tell you that you are full of promise, that you’re not only passionate about physics but good at it, I started to nourish a hope--and to wonder then whether to forfeit that hope after understanding that his motives were not what I imagined they were was very painful. I couldn’t protect myself then, but I can be the woman now that I needed so badly 11 years ago. This is why Congresswoman Speier’s bill, The Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act, gives me a new measure of hope.”
Dr. Reiches, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, experienced extreme sexual harassment and abuse during her graduate studies. Dr. Reiches recounted being harassed by a senior researcher who spoke to her and touched her in extremely unwelcome and inappropriate ways. “When I worked up the courage to report the incident to senior leadership at the field site, the senior researchers closed ranks. What I described, they said, had not actually happened; in fact it was my fantasy. They said I was either a lesbian or had already been sleeping with the senior researcher. They called me intimidating and too self-effacing, by turns. They took me to task for telling anyone, and ordered me not to discuss it further. I requested two things … that they acknowledge that something had happened and that some remedial action be taken with the person who had approached me so inappropriately, but instead they told me to apologize to the senior researcher for the distress that I had caused him by my ‘unfounded accusations.’”
Dr. Clancy spoke of her work, along with several colleagues, to develop the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) Study. Dr. Clancy and her colleagues published the study despite dire warnings that their untenured status made them extremely vulnerable to professional attacks. “Many people told us that what we were doing was risky, potentially career-killing,” Dr. Clancy said. “Well, we published our survey of over 600 scientists in 2014. In our sample, 71 percent of women and 41 percent of men reported experiencing sexual harassment. Twenty-six percent of women and 6 percent of men in our sample reported experiencing sexual assault, including rape.”
In discussing AAUW’s endorsement of Rep. Speier’s bill, Anne Hedgepeth said, “Every year, multiple federal agencies spend billions of dollars funding STEM research. This is an area in which research shows women continue to be underrepresented. Federal science agencies are supposed to ensure that academic institutions to which they offer grants comply with Title IX, the federal law that banned sex discrimination in education and research. But unfortunately these agencies have an uneven track recording in monitoring compliance. The Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act would help fix these gaps.”
The bill is also endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO; the Association for Women in Mathematics; and the National Organization for Women (NOW).