Preventing Harassment in Science

The Preventing Harassment in Science: Building a Community of Practice for Meaningful Change workshop took place virtually on June 24–25, 2020. This workshop brought leaders of anti-harassment efforts together to share ideas and discuss best-practice methods to reduce harassment in the scientific workplace. There were over 400 total registrants, with more than 150 people dialed into the workshop at any given time. An online discussion platform was used to engage participants, share ideas, network, and solicit questions for the speakers.

The Preventing Harassment in Science (PHIS) workshop originated as an effort to centralize anti-harassment efforts and share best practices, primarily focusing on government and academic spaces. Many people in science are individually combating harassment and creating inclusive spaces. One goal of this workshop was to facilitate conversations between people who have developed strategies to reduce harassment, including social scientists. Participants could share their work and experiences, and best anti-harassment practices would be compiled for widespread use. This workshop focused on harassment but necessarily also addressed inclusion, as a hostile or non-inclusive environment leads to harassment. For this reason, diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility practices were discussed in this anti-harassment workshop.

The PHIS workshop was initially planned as an in-person meeting in late March 2020. When stay-at-home orders were implemented across the U.S. in mid-March due to COVID-19, the in-person workshop was canceled. When the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) was asked to support a large, virtual meeting, they responded enthusiastically and worked tirelessly to facilitate a fantastic virtual experience. Upon switching to a virtual meeting, the focus of the workshop necessarily changed. With the pivot from a small (<50 person), intimate workshop to a virtual meeting, a much broader audience was reached (approximately 400 people). We believe that workshops such as this can be utilized to address major issues and work towards positive change.

The first day of the PHIS focused on actions that people and institutions have taken and can take to reduce harassment. This included a talk on building effective codes of conduct; a presentation from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education; and examples of how to build a harassment prevention program at an institution from the ground up. A panel discussed how institutions respond to harassment, both negatively (“Passing the Harasser”) and positively (i.e., enacting positive change related to anti-harassment policies). A second panel focused on grassroots anti-harassment initiatives started by individuals.

The second day focused on anti-harassment training and inclusion. The first panel brought together experts in anti-harassment training to discuss effective training techniques. The second panel focused on the planetary science community and how to increase inclusivity in this specific field. Next, the documentary “Can We Talk?“ by Kendall Moore was aired, followed by a Q&A session. This documentary focuses on the lack of belonging felt by many people of color in STEM fields and how this pushes many people out of the field. Finally, Dr. Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, facilitated a workshop on how to increase inclusivity in your community.

Several key themes and action items were brought up throughout the workshop.

  • “Legal compliance is necessary, but not sufficient.” — Dr. Alex Helman, NASEM

Demonstrating that harassment will not be tolerated is incredibly important for institutional leadership. Without open support for anti-harassment efforts from institutional leaders, the community’s culture and climate will likely not improve. That said, having anti-harassment policies is not enough to reduce harassment. If a workplace has appropriate policies and culture statements in place, it is still possible for a negative or toxic climate to exist.

  • “If you don’t make a big deal out of the small things when the big things come your voice will be too small.” — Erica White-Dunston, Chief Diversity Officer of Department of Interior

Allowing small inappropriate behaviors, such as racist or sexist jokes, to become normalized then allows the inappropriate behavior to escalate to become more severe forms of harassment.

  • “Bad apples vs. rotten barrel framing.” — Dr. Kathryn Clancy, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

We habitually see high-profile and commonplace incidents of sexual harassment in a “bad apples” framework. This framework focuses on the individual who targets people with their power. The individual person is “bad,” and their removal is the solution to the problem of harassment in the workplace/organization. Rather than this outlook, the ”rotten barrel” framing looks at the people around a harasser as well as the systems and structures in place that enable their bad behavior. Harassers exist in communities of complex systems that are not set up to support targets of harassment. When we start thinking of the rotten barrel, we are moved to use our voices differently and to restructure our workplaces to ensure everyone can work in freedom and safety from harassment.

  • Top-down, bottom-up, and disruptive changes

There are three important aspects when thinking about how to change a community’s culture and who should be responsible for changing the culture. (1) It is critical for the leaders of a community to be actively involved in positive change. Management needs to champion efforts to reduce harassment. (2) Many inclusion and anti-harassment efforts start with one or two motivated individuals in a community that may or may not serve in a leadership role. The culture cannot change without the active involvement of community members who are working for change. (3) Communities have been fighting harassment and working on diversity and inclusion issues for decades in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. There is no magic solution. Nothing that has been tried has been entirely successful. This means that we need to be open to new, potentially disruptive ideas.

Action discussed at the workshop that can reduce harassment in science:

  1. Bravery, boldness, innovation:  Organizations are challenged to be brave and bold and develop innovative ways to address systemic and structural factors that allow harassment to occur in STEM. Harassment is entrenched in our fields, and new approaches must be used.
  2. Training:  Anti-harassment training is an essential tool for supporting positive and inclusive workplace cultures and climates.
  3. Codes of conduct:  Codes of conduct are another method for creating an inclusive and just workplace culture and climate, particularly when they are designed with intentional, appropriate ramifications for violations thereof.
  4. Work with social scientists:  While we know there is a crisis of harassment within STEM, we do not fully understand the impacts or the experiences of those impacted. To understand and amend the crisis of harassment in STEM, speakers at our workshop suggested working with social scientists to capture the nature and extent of harassment.
  5. Culture and climate assessments:  Comprehensive organizational culture and climate assessments with associated implementation plans and measurable rubrics to determine effectiveness and improvement can specifically address the ongoing crisis of harassment.
  6. Value service work:  Service work consists of non-scientific duties that allow science to happen. This work is usually unpaid, but much of it is an expectation of paid scientific employment. Women in science, especially Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, are often asked to do significantly more service work than their peers. Then they are punished for this during evaluation and promotion. The community needs to think creatively about how to start valuing service work.
  7. Continue holding and funding anti-harassment workshops in the future:  The work of this vibrant community of resistance is ongoing. Holding workshops such as this one annually or bi-annually can allow more focused discussion, including smaller topical workshops intended to address specific aspects of harassment and inclusion.

PHIS was held virtually, with funding from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and institutional support from LPI. For more information about the meeting, including links to the program, visit the meeting website at

— Text provided by Kristen Bennett (USGS)