Women’s Committee: How to address sexual harassment

By Caroline Coly, Bocconi University

The economics profession is rife with sexism and sexual harassment, especially against women. In the American Economic Association (AEA) survey run in 2019, 10% of women reported being victims of attempted sexual assaults in the last ten years. 43% of women reported having been victims of inappropriate sexual comments or behaviour. 8% of female respondents replied that they were made to feel threatened by another economist, with some sort of retaliation for not being romantically or sexually cooperative, or an implication they would be treated better if sexually cooperative. The figures show that such behaviour disproportionately affects women, and is usually committed by people they know.

These issues need to be addressed to improve the climate and diversity in the profession. Victims of such behaviour report taking time away from work, and considering leaving work projects, their positions, or even academia entirely (AEA survey 2019). This is consistent with research showing that women are more likely to leave workplaces that expose them to sexual harassment (Adams-Prassl et al., 2022; Batut et al.,2021; Folke and Rickne, 2022).

The RES has previously released a formal statement on sexual harassment; see the January 2023 Newsletter for details. Here, we describe steps departments should follow to tackle this issue, based on our experience and research.


Collect data

Departments should conduct an anonymous survey every year, where faculty, research assistants, postdocs, PhDs, and administrative staff can report problems in the working environment. It is important to include everyone, as sexual harassment can be between people of different hierarchical levels, but also by people at the same level – for example, between PhD students. It is also important not to ask survey respondents directly if they have been a victim of sexual harassment, but rather ask about specific instances, to decrease the considerable risk of under-reporting. For the type of questions to ask, refer to the AEA survey and Fitzgerald et al. (1995).


Increase awareness

Implement mandatory awareness training on sexual harassment and sexism, both for women and men. This provides victims of sexual harassment with better tools to defend themselves with, and bystanders with knowledge of how to react. This can also allow men to better understand what is defined as sexual harassment. Following the #MeToo social movement, for example, some men were afraid that some of their behaviour could be misinterpreted. Men may withdraw from some forms of behaviour with women because they do not know what might be interpreted as sexual harassment. After #MeToo, there has been a decline in research collaborations involving junior female academics (Gertsberg, 2022).Implement a code of conduct that clearly defines inappropriate behaviour, and to which staff can refer when in doubt. Departments can look at the AEA, EEA, and RES codes of conduct for examples. Reporting and transparency and make them known to your staff. Among the female respondents to the AEA survey who chose not to report cases of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, 34% were deterred by not knowing who to approach. It is important to guarantee the anonymity of victims. Among the female victims of (attempted)sexual assault who chose not to report it, 40% said they were afraid of retribution from the perpetrator or others (AEA survey2019). Research shows that under-reporting of sexual harassment increases when the outside options of victims are worse, suggesting that victims are coerced into silence due to the fear of retaliatory firing (Dahl and Knepper,2021). Putting in place an Ombudsperson, as done by some universities or economics associations, who cannot guarantee the anonymity of victims or witnesses, is insufficient to push victims to come forward. Lastly, to better protect the identity of the victims and to guarantee a fair process, reporting should be made to a third party, independent of the profession and the university. In some universities, such as the Paris School of Economics, a private firm specialized in handling cases of sexual violence takes charge of collecting testimonies and providing help and guidance for victims. In the US, universities such as Cornell, Stanford, and Yale, use Callisto Vault, a tool where users can report sexual assault and be matched in case several people report on the same perpetrator. However, the effectiveness of this tool has not been evaluated yet. When a sanction is taken (or not taken) against an accused person, be transparent about the process. Lack of transparency about sanctions can lower trust in the reporting process.


Hiring decisions

Subject to the legal framework in each country, consider asking the university of a prospective hire if there have been any complaints or investigations against that person in order to avoid displacements of offenders to new universities.


References and further reading

Adams-Prassl, A., Huttunen, K.,Nix, E., and Zhang, N. (2022).Violence against women at work. Manuscript, University of Oxford.

Batut, C., Coly, C., and Schneider-Strawczynski, S.(2021). It’s a man’s world: culture of abuse, #MeTooand worker flows. Università Bocconi, The Dondena Centre.

Dahl, G. B., and Knepper, M. M.(2021). Why is workplace sexual harassment underreported? The value of outside options amid the threat of retaliation. BER working paper no. 29248.

Fitzgerald, L. F., Gelfand, M.J., and Drasgow, F. (1995).Measuring sexual harassment: Theoretical and psychometric advances. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17(4),425-445.

Folke, O., and Rickne, J. (2022).Sexual harassment and gender inequality in the labor market. Quarterly Journal of Economics,137(4), 2163-2212.

Gertsberg, M. (2022). The unintended consequences of #MeToo – evidence from research collaborations. Available at SSRN 4105976.

Lowrey, A. (2022). Harassment in economics doesn’t stay in economics. The Atlantic, November 26.

Sevilla, A. and Della Giusta, M.(2023). Introducing a formal statement. RES Newsletter, January.