Bill to prevent sexual harassment in STEM fields could actually help in every area

It’s easy to say we need more females enrolling in STEM fields, but a big reason women don’t enroll in math and science programs isn’t because they can’t handle complex concepts. It’s because they can’t handle the sexual harassment and assault that comes with immersing themselves in a world dominated by men, which is why California congresswoman Jackie Speier is introducing a bill to stop sexual harassment on university campuses. Speier is energizing support for the bill by highlighting that it would serve to curb harassment in STEM programs and retain talent in the field, but it would be useful to women in other fields, too. It’s not just in a lab that women (and some men) are harassed by professors.

The Federal Funding Accountability for Sexual Harassers Act will be introduced on Thursday and should be an easy sell. The bill will require all colleges and universities to report any “substantiated” findings of sexual harassment or abuse by professors to every federal agency that’s given a school a grant in the past decade.

So, it’s not just for STEM fields, but it might help curb sexual harassment by skeevy old professors (every college-educated woman’s had one, right?) all over campus. Speier said in a statement on her website, “There have been far too many cases of professors sexually assaulting or harassing their students and employees, but continuing to receive millions in taxpayer-funded grants.” She added that the proposal is about not letting schools cover up the “appalling actions of some of their faculty.”

Honestly, I’m a little nervous about this “substantiated” claim — if schools are prone to cover for legacy professors or fancy researchers, what constitutes a “substantiated” finding could vary. What if schools have reports of harassment but don’t include them in their grant packages? When it comes to universities and their greed for money, I don’t put it past any school to sugarcoat harassment or assault claims. Schools don’t have a great track record for that kind of shit.

It might be something like the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which was introduced by Senator Claire McCaskill in 2014 but never passed. That bill suggests that universities should have to report crime stats and sexual assault claims to get federal funding. It’s doesn’t look good for Speier’s bill that McCaskill’s bill is still sitting on the table, waiting for a vote. But even if it did pass, at what point do universities get cut off? Research shows that 41 percent of universities haven’t conducted a single investigation into reports of sexual violence in the past five years. That’s for rape. Getting investigations into an inappropriate comment or touch from a professor is even trickier.

Harassment by professors is so common it sometimes seems futile to report, much like for women in the military. But it happens all the time, especially at higher levels when students and professors work closely with each other on a thesis or research. Take these emails to a young female researcher from an older, male colleague published in The New York Times. He writes that she’s “incredibly attractive and adorably dorky,” while reminding her that he was “compelled” to help her career. He adds, “That’s just the way things are and you’re gonna have to deal with me until one of us leaves.”

It’s creepy as hell that some men are so capable of mixing what they think is a compliment with a threat. That’s just the way things are. A bill like the one Speier is proposing might make some professors, in all academic fields on campus, think twice about saying or doing something completely inappropriate. (Because, uh, sending a colleague an email like the one above is inappropriate.)

And it might make women more likely to report and pressure the school to do something when it does happen. But since it seems like some perpetrators can’t recognize what’s sexual harassment and what’s not — I would bet the guy calling a woman “adorably dorky” thinks it was just a nice thing to say — who knows what kind of results the bill will yield. It might not be easy to get the bill voted on during the busy election season and there are certainly some kinks to be worked out about how reporting would be enforced, but it’s definitely a big step in the right direction toward putting an end to harassment at colleges and universities.