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Congressional bill aims to combat sexual harassment in the STEM field

biology department lab

Brianna Chan, a first-year environmental health major, monitors the health of the plants in Coker Hall.

Women and minorities pursuing careers in STEM may soon have more protections against workplace harassment.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-T.X., introduced an act on Oct. 5 that advocates for strategies and incentives to combat sexual harassment in STEM fields for underrepresented populations. 

The Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act of 2018 aims to provide research to better understand the causes of sexual harassment in the STEM fields, as well as to examine policies which could reduce these occurrences.

According to the bill, 58 percent of individuals in the academic workplace experience sexual harassment — the second highest rate when compared to the military, the private sector and federal, state and local governments.

Johnson said in a press release the alarming statistics stated in recent research was one of her motives for drafting the bill, in addition to how sexual harassment is an obstacle for professional development.

“This behavior undermines career advancement for women in critical STEM fields, and many women report leaving promising careers in academic research due to sexual harassment,” Johnson said in the statement.

The Association for Women in Science endorsed the bill. Heather Metcalf, the association's director of research and analysis, said it is one of several organizations working to address sexual harassment in STEM fields.

“There are also efforts that are coming from, for example, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, that are more tightly coupling responsible conduct of research with these kinds of behaviors, and tying that to funding for individual investigators and for institutions where those investigators work,” Metcalf said.

Elizabeth McLaughlin, an associate professor in the UNC mathematics department, said the bill is necessary to ensure gender equality in the STEM workplace.

“Sexual harassment is one thing that prevents people from being able to progress in life in general," McLaughlin said.

Metcalf said more emphasis is being placed on proper workplace behavior because of the #MeToo movement. McLaughlin said the bill and the movement work in unison to boost one another into the public eye.

“They complement each other, so together the two ideas are going to make news," McLaughlin said. "I think one will rebound off the other."

Metcalf said sexual harassment in STEM fields is starting to catch the public's eye and is very important to address. 

"It creates a lot of barriers in scientific careers, especially for people who are members of marginalized groups," she said.

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