Rates of sexual abuse and harassment in academic science are second only to the military. It's estimated that at least half of women faculty and staff face harassment and abuse and that 20 to 50 percent of women students in science, engineering, and medicine are abused by faculty. Those numbers are generally based on surveys, which are an important way of getting a handle on the problem and how it changes women’s career trajectories.
But when it comes to holding institutions accountable and making meaningful changes, naming perpetrators may be even more powerful.
Julie Libarkin has taken on the challenge of creating a database of harassers. She’s a professor at Michigan State University and she heads the Geocognition Research Laboratory. She’s compiled a list of some 700 cases of sexual misconduct in academia.
Libarkin has made the database publicly available and it's sparking specific calls for funding agencies and professional organizations to stop supporting and promoting sexual abusers.
“I think one of the biggest problems with sexual misconduct is that there's no way to know if anyone experienced that before you,” Libarkin told Living Lab Radio. “There's there's really no way to find out this information. I want people to be able to look at these names.”
The database only includes cases in which there is “an institutional finding of some sort of sexual misconduct,” Libarkin said. She finds the cases in news reports and by combing through Freedom of Information Act results from media outlets, among other sources.
The most surprising case? The man who hired a hitman to kill the woman who accused him of sexual misconduct. Luckily, the man was caught before the murder was carried out, Libarkin said.
Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.
“I'm also surprised at how institutions... were unable to act to protect students or junior faculty,” she said. “There are multiple cases of people who murdered the people that they were harassing.”
Another startling finding was that about 30 percent of the harassers have been investigated on more than one occasion. The fact of being investigated did not deter them from harassing again. One of the goals of the online database is to reduce the cases in which a known harasser is passed from one university to another.
Libarkin said there are signs that scientific communities are taking notice of the calls to stop hiring and promoting abusers.
“I'll shout out to one of mine—the American Geophysical Union,” Libarkin said, saying that the group has responded eloquently and rapidly to the issue of sexual misconduct at professional meetings.
“They have what many people consider one of the best policies out there, and they're always willing to discuss it and change. So that's fabulous.”