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Northwestern recently committed to participate in an action collaborative designed to prevent sexual harassment in higher education based on findings from a 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report titled Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequence in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. While the report focuses on findings regarding sexual harassment in STEM-related fields, the collaborative is university-wide and will address the issue in all areas.    

Four female Northwestern faculty members — Vice Provost for academics Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Associate Vice President for Equity Sarah Wake, chair of the department of molecular biosciences Carole LaBonne and chair of the department of chemistry Teri Odom — played a crucial role in transforming the collaborative into a reality. Northwestern was among 28 colleges, universities and research institutions that proposed the program.

“I believe that this report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has sent a powerful message, and that many universities, colleges, and individuals are committed to changing the culture and climate in higher education.” Chase-Lansdale said.

The report states that between 20 and 50% of female students experience some form of gender harassment during their time at an institute of higher education, with a number upward of 50% for female faculty members. These numbers, along with other aspects of the research, were so compelling that the National Academy supported the creation of action collaborative — something that according to Chase-Lansdale, doesn’t happen for every report.

“The National Academies works on hundreds of reports over the years by eminent scientists on different topics and their role is to be the top scientific critic and synthesizer of what we know about different topics,” Chase-Lansdale said. “Only rarely do they do an action collaborative.”

According to Chase-Landsdale, another reason that this report is so important is that it emphasizes that sexual harassment doesn’t have to be defined narrowly— but rather, as an underlying culture.

“It’s not just talking about sexual behavior, it’s talking about climate,” Chase-Lansdale said about the report. “It can be about small insults and undermining comments that make the environment unwelcoming.”

The action collaborative is characterized as having four main goals: to raise awareness about sexual harassment and how it can occur, to share and evaluate evidence-based institutional policies, to contribute to setting the research agenda and to develop a way in which progress can be measured toward reducing sexual harassment in higher education.

Utilizing evidence-based techniques also sets this collaborative apart from other attempts to reduce sexual harassment in higher education. Essentially, by using evidence-based techniques, the collaborative responds directly to the scientific data collected by the institutions.

“It is too easy to put in place mechanisms that constitute ‘symbolic compliance’ with Title IX, and then declare victory even though nothing substantive has changed,” LaBonne told NBN in an email.

While this issue has always been important for LaBonne, it recently became something even more personal. Her daughter, who will be a first-year in college next year, plans to major in biology with the goal of eventually becoming a scientist and professor. LaBonne said she wants to change the culture into which her daughter and many other young women are entering.

McCormick first-year Lily McClain said she often experiences the negative repercussions of living in this culture at Northwestern, particularly in the engineering field. McClain discussed an experience in her Engineering Analysis class in which she attempted to express uncertainties about a question to a male professor, who then proceeded to completely disregard her point. Instead, he asked a male student to clarify, something McClain described as unproductive and belittling.

“I was just entirely ignored,” McClain said. “It was very much because he thought, ‘Oh, you hysterical woman, you can’t even talk about things without getting upset.’”

McClain and female Northwestern faculty members are not the only ones who understand the inherent issues with the culture of sexual harassment that is found both in the field of STEM and in all areas of higher education. The action collaborative is already being implemented by 40 universities nationwide, and LaBonne is hopeful that this number will continue to grow.

“There is strength and power in numbers,” LaBonne said in her statement. “As mechanisms for changing the culture, or evaluating progress, are proven successful they can be rapidly adopted and shared throughout the collaborative in a clearinghouse of best practices.”