National Cancer Institute

Nearly one in five NIH employees say they experienced gender harassment in the past year

Nearly one in five employees of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) who responded to a recent survey say they experienced gender harassment while at work during the previous 12 months, according to an interim report the biomedical agency has just posted online. A large number also reported being targets of unwelcome sexual attention. The survey, which elicited responses from about 16,000 NIH employees, was conducted between January and March.

The Interim Executive Report on the NIH Workplace Climate and Harassment Survey will be presented and discussed at tomorrow’s semiannual meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director of NIH, Francis Collins. The final analysis of the survey data, the most ambitious of its kind that the agency has conducted, isn’t expected until late this year at the earliest.

The report is part of a larger NIH effort to address sexual harassment and other forms of harassment both on its Bethesda, Maryland, campus and among its thousands of university-based grantees.

NIH sent the survey to 36,228 valid email addresses, including employees of some NIH contractors, and got 15,794 responses, for a response rate of 44%.

Overall, 21.6% of respondents said they had experienced harassment, with women reporting higher rates of harassment than men—26.9% versus 12%. Fully 44.8% of transgender staff and those with other gender identities reported harassment.

The most commonly reported type of harassment, experienced by 18%, was gender harassment—popularly known as put-downs rather than come-ons. Just over 10% reported experiencing unwanted sexual attention; 0.3% reported being coerced for sex.

Nearly half of respondents who reported experiencing harassment did not tell anyone about the event. If they did, they mostly told a co-worker rather than filing an official complaint.

Among those who didn’t report their harassment, 77.4% said they refrained from doing so because the experience wasn’t serious enough to merit that step. Of those who did report their harassment to anyone, including a co-worker, 7.1% knew with certainty that their complaint was investigated; 2.2% said they knew the perpetrator was punished.

“This report provides further evidence that we have work to do in order to make good on our determination that ‘harassment doesn’t work here,’” Collins wrote to NIH employees today in an email.

The number of NIH employees who reported being harassed is strikingly lower than the up to 50% of female science, technology, engineering, and math students at universities who reported being harassed by faculty or staff in a landmark report last summer by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The 12-month time limit on the NIH’s reporting period may contribute to the lower rate at the biomedical agency, the report suggests.

*Updated, 12 June, 6:35 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that the nearly one in five survey respondents said they had experienced gender harassment within the past year. Overall, more than one in five reported some form of harassment.