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CHAMPAIGN — Blatant examples of sexual misconduct may get the headlines, but most harassment isn’t sexual at all — it’s “more of a put-down than a come-on,” as one expert puts it.

As the University of Illinois grapples with sweeping proposals to combat sexual misconduct, speakers at a sexual-harassment summit Wednesday said it will take more than improved reporting procedures or training programs for universities to build a healthier climate.

“This legal landscape is changing, and so is the moral landscape. Changing culture and cultivating bravery are the things we need to move forward,” said UI anthropology Professor Kate Clancy, who co-authored a landmark study on sexual harassment of women in STEM fields for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Clancy and two psychology professors who also worked on that study — Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Vicki Magley of the University of Connecticut, both UI alumni — refuted common “myths and misperceptions” about sexual harassment Wednesday.

Most people tend to think of sexual harassment as sexual “coercion” — making a job or educational opportunity contingent on sexual cooperation, i.e, “sleep with me, or you’re fired,” Cortina said.

That’s actually relatively rare — reported by about 1 percent of women in university studies, she said.

More common is unwanted sexual attention — touching, hugging, groping and the like, but those numbers are typically under 5 percent, she said.

Most complaints fall under “gender harassment,” sexual or sexist remarks that convey hostility or second-class status to women.

It’s not about misplaced sexual desire, flirting or “romance gone awry,” she said. “It’s about contempt.”

The National Academies report refers to it as an “iceberg,” with sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention at the top, and everything else below the water — from obscene gestures to relentless pressure for dates to sexist comments such as “women don’t belong in science.”

The tip of the iceberg tends to be the focus of policies, reporting procedures and training programs, Cortina said.

“But the research record is clear: More often than not, sexual harassment is a put-down, not a come-on,” she said.

Another myth: that the slights or indignities that denigrate women aren’t as damaging as physical harassment. Studies show that’s not true, she said.

The National Academies report analyzed 88 studies involving 70,000 women for the impact of different types of harassment and found that gender harassment had “at least as great an impact,” if not greater, on personal and professional health as sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, she said.

Why? The latter two are traumatic for the individuals involved, but they tend not to be as frequent, she said. Less-intense forms of harassment are more common and often go unchallenged.

Even harassment that consists of sexist insults “takes a toll on victims,” Cortina said.

Too often, Clancy said, women are told to “brush off” those behaviors.

But in a study on sexual harassment in astronomy and planetary science, a significant number of women said they had skipped professional events such as colloquia, field experiments or networking events that could further their careers because they felt unsafe, Clancy said.

The study also found that women of color reported much higher rates of harassment than white women. About 40 percent of women of color said they had been made to feel unsafe at work in the last five years, compared with 27 percent of white women.

“That’s an astounding number,” she said.

Clancy also put some perspective on fears about false accusations smearing a faculty member.

False reports do happen, as with any crime, she said. But they’re rare — anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of all sexual-harassment reports, she said.

“The issue is that we hold overwhelming skepticism over credible claims of sexual harassment and assaults,” she said. “If you’re worrying about a shining-star professor, you’re worrying about the wrong person.”

Excessive concern about false allegations can also shape faculty members’ behavior in a way that hurts their effectiveness as mentors — professors who stop having one-on-one meetings with students or decide not to engage in difficult conversations to push a student academically, for example.

“That’s gender discrimination,” she said. “The solution is not to disengage from people.”

Magley said improvements to harassment reporting and training programs are helpful but not a “silver bullet.”

Sexual-harassment reporting is considered a last resort by victims and is fairly rare. A 2016 study showed only 6 percent of those who had experienced sexual harassment filed formal reports.

More commonly, she said, victims will avoid the situation, seek support from friends, “relabel” the behavior as something else, blame themselves, put up with it or try to appease the perpetrator, she said.

One big reason is a “massive fear” of retaliation, professionally or socially, she said. People worry about being demoted, denied training opportunities, shunned or excluded for complaining about a colleague, Magley said.

“Until we can figure out a way to make people feel safe in their environments ... and not fear retaliation, perfecting the system of reporting won’t solve anything,” Magley said.

Universities need to set appropriate sanctions for misconduct “and actually enforce them,” she said.

And training programs need to be more than “one and done,” she said. One study showed little difference in knowledge about sexual harassment between those who had gone through training programs and those who hadn’t — except on questions of law, which is what most training focuses on, she said.

To “move the needle on sexual harassment,” Cortina said, universities need to transform their culture to be more respectful and treat all people with dignity.

UI law Professor Rob Kar, who chaired the committee that released the UI report this week, said its approach was to “go way beyond the law into a culture of bravery ... a culture of common sense,” and set up a broad range of sanctions to be more responsive to the problem.

“We want to be modeling good behavior policies so people can go out into the world and bring that” with them, he said.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).