Get talking – Dealing with sexual harassment in materials science

Materials World magazine
29 Aug 2019

Professor Rachel Oliver FIMMM, Dr Tanvir Hussain FIMMM, Dr Ben Britton FIMMM and Dr Clara Barker ask the Institute about taking action against harrassment.

Unless you have spent the last two years with your head literally buried in the sand, you must be aware that women across the globe have been fighting back more and more vocally against sexual harassment. The viral #MeToo hashtag has developed momentum beyond social media, and has empowered women to speak up about harassment and abuse.

The #MeToo movement started due to widespread issues in show business. Perhaps we might imagine that these problems do not extend to the sanitised, well-regulated and rational world of engineering. This view is far from the truth. A recent report from the American National Academy of Science (NAS) suggests that more than 50% of female staff in STEMM – science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine – and 20-50% of female STEMM students have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The report stresses that women are especially vulnerable in the male-dominated environments common to engineering disciplines. Furthermore, harassment rates are even more severe for LGBTQ+ women, non-binary people and women of colour.

It would be convenient to dismiss these numbers as exaggerated, but NAS concluded these rates may even represent under-reporting of harassment. Many victims of harassment fear that reporting their experience will further endanger them, personally or professionally. A culture that sustains this hostile and destructive environment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment, as well as damaging their mental and physical health. The resulting exodus of women from STEMM disciplines is a costly and pointless waste of talent.

Cultural change is desperately needed and requires leadership from professional engineering institutions like IOM3. Failure to take action to prevent harassment is tantamount to negligence. Sadly, current IOM3 policies are woefully silent on this issue, with an expectation that a catch-all phrase in the code of conduct, ‘consideration and respect to colleagues’, will act to discourage harassing behaviours. However, decades of near-ubiquitous persecution of women in the workplace suggests that leaving professionals to figure this out for themselves is ineffective.

We suggest that the IOM3 code of conduct should make it absolutely explicit that sexual harassment and bullying are unacceptable, in order to tackle this challenge head on. The Institute should clearly document serious consequences that will befall members who fall short of the expected standard of behaviour, mandating swift and decisive action. Members, and their guests, need to be reminded of these policies, for instance when signing up to events and when they join or change membership status.

The Institute also has the power to ensure that all meetings held in its name have a short code of conduct. These are especially critical for events where alcohol may flow freely, that may result in the relaxing of professional barriers which, while beneficial for forming networks and connections, can increase the risk of harassment of women and other minorities. Such codes should make clear that harassment is simply unacceptable, and offer equal protection to everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, age, sexual orientation, disability or race. They must make clear the procedures by which harassment can be swiftly reported on and investigated and the sanctions that are available to event organisers to prevent further incidents. These incidents may be explicitly hostile or they may include ‘microaggressions’ which demean and exclude minorities. The Institute should not support any events that do not have appropriate procedures in place.

Lastly, we suggest that the Institute should use its influence over materials science and engineering education via the degree accreditation process, to enforce culture change in the academic environment. The aim of accreditation is to maintain educational standards, and we cannot expect students to meet the standards the Institute requires if they are studying in a hostile environment. As part of the accreditation process, academic departments should be required to meet certain minimum standards in terms of the prevention of harassment. These should include the provision of clear and easily accessed routes by which victims of harassment and bullying can report their experiences, and receive assistance both in terms of filing a formal report and accessing relevant support services. Departments should demonstrate transparency in reporting levels of harassment and bullying and the measures that have been taken to combat these.

The calls we make here are timely, since with the recent appointment of a new IOM3 CEO comes an opportunity to reinvigorate and update the culture of the Institute. These critical steps are fundamentally important to protect the Institute membership, as well as safeguard the future of our profession and to enable us to move forward with a culture that is inclusive and supportive. We call upon the leadership of IOM3 to put in place a concrete plan to eliminate sexual harassment in materials science. Our goal should be to encourage engineers to think beyond symbolic legal compliance and avoiding liability, to the creation of real cultural change and the active prevention of harm to women and other vulnerable minorities.


IOM3 response

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining takes the matter of professional conduct very seriously, be it by members, volunteers, visitors or paid employees. This includes direct or indirect harassment in any form, and has always had a zero-tolerance to any proven allegation.

It has put in place several safety nets to mitigate such behaviour on its premises or at its events, including the training of volunteers and IOM3 members, and the removal of alcoholic beverages from routine meetings. Most importantly, it has a system in place to ensure any allegations of this nature can be reported with confidence and acted upon by the Director of Membership and Professional Standards.

When it comes to the activities of our members, we have a Code of Professional Conduct (the Code) and associated Disciplinary and Appeals Procedure. However, unless you have been involved with these procedures, they are frequently misunderstood. This includes the language used and how the process works in practice. It is therefore appropriate to explain further. The Code of Professional Conduct is a set of rules based upon professional responsibilities and behaviours that we require all members, regardless of their grade, to adhere to.

The Code is based on a professional body standard that has been drafted by a QC and is within the UK legal framework, and is fair to all parties concerned. Much of the language used is broad in its definition, which was a deliberate decision to be inclusive of the range of issues that could be encountered.

However, where an issue is regarded as fundamental to professional conduct or becomes a source of concern, it can be added as a specific term. The Institute ensured this with the last iteration of the Code, which included both members’ responsibilities to the 2010 Equality Act and extended its outreach to professional conduct on social media.

Harassment in any form could be considered as an addition to the Code under this category, subject to the necessary due diligence and decision by the Institute Council. Having a suitable Code of Professional Conduct in place is, of course, only half the story. The Disciplinary and Appeals Procedure is the instrument used to take forward alleged breaches of the Code. This is another instrument that is widely misunderstood. It is not a judicial process, although it follows the principles of natural justice and the maximum sanction that can be applied when a case is proved is expulsion from membership and loss of registration, where relevant. Many complainants feel the system has failed them when a case they have brought against a member has been proved and the sanction is anything less.

Should a member who has a case proved against them on the basis of harassment face a mandatory sanction of loss of membership and where relevant loss of registration as well? Sanctions are levied on members by our Institute Council, with guidance from a Disciplinary Panel.

When it comes to the wider materials cycle community, the Institute is aware of its role to educate and influence those who do not fall within its membership or activities. Taking the process of accreditation, this is a quality assurance exercise whereby academic courses and industrial professional development schemes are assessed against a standard involving various parameters and outputs through a methodology defined by the regulator who owns the standard.

Those Institute volunteers involved in this process will know that a confidential and non-attributable discussion is held with students or graduate engineers without academics or managers being present and where issues such as pastoral care and harassment can be explored. Accreditation exercises do not involve faculty members in such discussions, although there is no reason why this cannot be done in the future. However, extending the accreditation process to include additional measures that could impact upon the decision to accredit or not would need to be approved by the individual regulators concerned and require the support of other professional bodies – this could be championed by the Institute.

In conclusion, this thought piece has highlighted a major issue of social concern which will be taken forward and acted upon by the Institute. Our policies are dynamic and not set in stone – the Institute is cognisant of the need to develop its policies as both technology and societal values change.

When it comes to harassment, individuals need to bring their concerns to the attention of the Institute so that they may be addressed. Where in the past people have been reluctant to report such behaviour, the change in attitudes led by campaigns such as #MeToo has paved the way to breaking this barrier of silence so we can address this issue head on.