The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Bill Passed Out of House Science Committee Aims to Prevent Sexual Harassment in Higher Ed STEM Field

On June 20, the House Science Committee passed Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson’s (D-TX) bill, H.R. 36, the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2019, out of committee.

This comes after a June 12 hearing which evaluated higher ed’s response to sexual harassment in STEM jobs on and off campuses, offered feedback on the bill, and gave an early look at an upcoming Government Accountability Office (GAO) study commissioned by the committee on this topic.

Chairwoman Johnson began the hearing by sharing her concerns about the historical tolerance of sexual harassment that she says is “deeply rooted in higher education, especially when the loss of research money has been an incentive to ignore bad behavior.” She said that we must ensure that all researchers have a safe work environment and cited data from a 2018 National Academy of Science report on this topic that found that only 6 percent of graduate students and faculty who are sexually harassed formally report it to their institution.

Rep. Johnson lauded the National Science Foundation (NSF) on its new reporting requirements and asked the panel of college leaders testifying before the committee to share any improvements that could be made to her bill, H.R. 36, before she moves it through her committee for a vote.

H.R. 36 would direct grantee institutions to alert federal scientific agencies when anyone who has received funding has been found to have harassed someone. The bill also directs the NSF to fund research into harassment in STEM fields and how to curb it. The bill has some bipartisan support, including House Science Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK).

In his opening statement, Rep. Lucas discussed his concern about institutions being more interested in checking the box of compliance than doing the right thing and commended the NSF for already making changes to increase accountability. He expressed frustration with inconsistency in how agencies deal with complaints and shared his support for H.R. 36. Lucas said that women make up half of the workforce but less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce and that to address this imbalance, we must make sure women feel safe in their jobs.

The panel of witnesses included John Neumann, managing director of science, technology assessment and analytics with the GAO; Paula A. Johnson, president of Wellesley College; Dr. Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer of Boston University; and Dr. Philip H. Kass, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of analytic epidemiology of the University of California, Davis.

Neumann summarized some preliminary observations from GAO’s ongoing review of selected agency efforts to prevent sexual harassment by federally funded research grantees. The full study requested by committee leaders isn’t expected until later this year, but GAO released an early analysis for the hearing.  He noted that NASA is soon expected to issue its own changes, similar to NSF.

Johnson testified in her role as co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that issued a report last year titled Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. She discussed several kinds of harassment addressed in the study, with a focus on the most common, gender harassment, being often the most damaging. She offered her support for H.R. 36 and the many provisions in the bill that were also included in the report. She also raised concerns with confidentially agreements and the role they play in silencing those that have been harassed.

Morrison discussed the ways Boston University is working to combat sexual harassment, beginning with how the university is prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion and the importance of DEI in its hiring and promotions. Morrison said these steps are essential to creating a community that rejects harassment. She suggested a government-wide approach to handling sexual misconduct by federal grantees, stating that it is better for everyone to have one clear set of rules at the federal level rather than differing approaches within each scientific agency. She also urged the committee to authorize the NSF to fund research on gender-based harassment and urged that H.R. 36 address the inconsistencies across federal laws in this area.

Kass shared the efforts UC Davis is undertaking to prevent sexual harassment in science and its commitment to create a place where all can work and learn together in a safe and secure environment free of harassment and discrimination with a culture of respect and accountability. In 2016, Forbes listed UC Davis as the number one college for women in STEM. He shared the strong opposition UC Davis voiced to portions of the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX rule that it believes would narrow the definition of sexual harassment and lower the standards to which schools are held.

CUPA-HR has weighed in on both the referenced new NSF reporting requirements and the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX rule. It is unclear when the full House might take up H.R. 36, but we will continue to monitor the bill and provide updates as necessary.


The CUPA-HR national office will be closed July 4 in observance of Independence Day.