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Sexual Harassment: How Do We Decrease It in the Biomedical Field?

October 03, 2022
by Amy Anderson

At many companies and organizations, there are policies and disciplinary actions against sexual harassment, but preventative measures are less common.

Oftentimes women, and in particular women of color, are the target, and it can affect them beyond the incidents themselves. Many victims report leaving their jobs and careers because of unwanted sexual harrassment or advances.

A new study is being funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) to train principal investigators about sexual harassment in biomedical research. The study is titled, “Sexual harassment Training Of Principal Investigators (STOP)” and its goal is to not only decrease sexual harassment, but improve the retention of women in science.

“Our plan is to create a unique, effective training intervention that will target and impact a number of outcomes including PI and mentors’ sense of confidence to intervene, as well as improve their sense of well-being, belonging, and increase their knowledge and research productivity,” stated Lynn E. Fiellin, MD, professor of medicine (general medicine) in Yale’s Department of Internal Medicine.

Fiellin is working with a team of collaborators, including Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine of gastroenterology and hepatology at the Stanford School of Medicine, and the principal investigator (PI) of the study.

“We know sexual harassment is rampant in science, and young researchers may quit training programs or change their research focus as a result of sexual harassment. This attrition is costly for the individuals involved and also for society at large because these researchers' ideas may never be realized,” explained Salles. “The drivers of sexual harassment, including factors and conditions that allow it to thrive, have been described with a conceptual model incorporating an iceberg as a metaphor. The vast majority of sexual harassment, this model contends, is the portion of the iceberg that is invisible under water. Because of this, many do not fully perceive the prevalence of sexual harassment; however, the behaviors described in this model are damaging whether they are visible or not.”

“The overall goal is to improve the mentees’ work environment by decreasing their experiences of sexual harassment and increasing their sense of social belonging,” said Fiellin, founding director of the play2PREVENT Lab.

The play2PREVENT Lab was established in 2009, and has over a decade of experience with developing videogame interventions. The lab builds on evidence-informed educational and behavior change interventions to impact the well-being of youth. For the STOP project, Fiellin and her lab will contribute gaming components to the STOP intervention to increase user involvement and impact.

“We typically work with the youth, but incorporating gaming elements into this intervention will allow for role-playing in a low-stakes environment and increase engagement and efficacy,” noted Fiellin.

Other key collaborators include: Danielle Hairston, MD, of Howard University College of Medicine; Jennifer Freyd, PhD, of the University of Oregon; Holly Tabor, PhD, of Stanford School of Medicine; Doug Owens, MD, MS, of Stanford School of Medicine; Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, of the University of Michigan; and Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP, of the University of Chicago.

The team will implement the training in T32 post-doctoral programs in biomedical research. The interactive training sessions will be a virtual multi-modal approach and be distributed over a period of nine months. There will be sessions on civility, microaggressions, implicit bias, sexual harassment, and upstanding.

“Data suggest that interventions that go beyond sexual harassment and address other related issues, such civility and upstander interventions, may be more effective than sexual harassment training alone,” explained Salles. “Since persistent sexual harassment impedes the careers of those who are targeted–particularly women of color and sexual and gender minorities–the support from NIH to decrease sexual harassment is critical because it signals a commitment in changing the culture. It also signals a recognition that sexual harassment should not be tolerated and that we need to do something about it. This gives me hope that we will be able to change the status quo and create a more equitable world, at least in science.”

“As a biomedical researcher and as a woman, this work is crucial. It is also particularly important to me as a mentor of many women. My lab’s core team is entirely women and I feel a strong responsibility to make sure that the work environment for these 14 individuals, who range from students to junior faculty, is one that is safe and healthy. This extends to all the women I provide mentorship to and to all that work in biomedical research institutions,” added Fiellin.

The two want people to know that change is desperately needed. Salles emphasized, “I want people to know that we are trying to make a difference.”

As a biomedical researcher and as a woman, this work is crucial. It is also particularly important to me as a mentor of many women

Lynn E. Fiellin, MD

Yale School of Medicine (YSM) and Yale University strive to be a community free of sexual misconduct by promoting the essential values of respect and responsibility, providing education, and working with students, faculty, and staff. Our goal is a community that is safe and supportive for all. Please find sexual misconduct resources here, including where to get help.

Yale University also has an anonymous hotline for confidential reporting to identify and address compliance concerns. Yale University Hotline is run by ComplianceLine, an independent, third-party reporting service provider that is available to community members 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.

General Internal Medicine is committed to the core missions of patient care, research, education, and community health from the “generalist” perspective and is one of the 11 sections within the Department of Internal Medicine. To learn more about their mission and work, visit
General Internal Medicine.

Submitted by Amy Anderson on October 03, 2022