Sexual Harassment in STEM Research:

Agencies Have Taken Actions, but Need Complaint Procedures, Overall Plans, and Better Collaboration

GAO-20-187: Published: Mar 19, 2020. Publicly Released: Mar 19, 2020.

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neumannj@gao.gov

 

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Federal agencies must enforce Title IX—which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment—at universities receiving federal financial assistance. We looked at 5 agencies funding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research and found:

4 of 5 agencies received 3 or fewer complaints over the last 5 years

2 of 5 agencies lack or have outdated complaint procedures

None of the 5 agencies have goals and an overall plan to evaluate all prevention efforts

Our recommendations include establishing or updating agency complaint procedures and establishing goals and an overall plan for sexual harassment prevention.

A person wearing laboratory gear pours liquid into vials

A person wearing laboratory gear pours liquid into vials

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John Neumann
(202) 512-6888
neumannj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The five agencies GAO reviewed provided approximately 80 percent of federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research grants since fiscal year 2015. From fiscal year 2015 through 2019, four of the five agencies received few complaints—including sexual harassment—under Title IX from individuals at universities. Inconsistent with federal regulations implementing Title IX, two of the agencies—the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA)—lack finalized procedures for complaints and thus cannot ensure they are consistently handling complaints. Sex-discrimination concerns—including sexual harassment—can also be raised by individuals outside of the Title IX complaint process (see table). However, only two agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—publicly communicate the option to notify them of concerns. The other three—DOE, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and USDA—received no concerns in fiscal year 2019 and may be missing opportunities to obtain information for Title IX oversight.

Number of Title IX Complaints and Sex Discrimination Concerns Received by Agencies

Agency DOE HHS NASA NSF USDA Total

Title IX Complaints,
FY 2015-2019

2

1

3

33

1

40

Sex Discrimination Concerns,
FY 2019a

0

93b

0c

47

0

140

Source: GAO analysis of information for fiscal years (FY) 2015 through 2019 from Department of Energy (DOE); Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); NASA; National Science Foundation (NSF); and Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as interviews with agency officials. I GAO-20-187

Note: In fiscal years 2018 and 2019, three agencies received the same complaint. GAO counted it as a complaint for all three agencies.

aAgencies receive sex-discrimination concerns—including sexual harassment—outside of the Title IX complaint process.

bHHS's National Institutes of Health receives sex discrimination concerns—information not processed or investigated under Title IX—including sexual harassment concerns.

cOfficials stated that NASA received one concern in FY 2019; however, it did not involve a university.

All five agencies have established grantee sexual harassment prevention efforts beyond those required by Title IX. However, none of the agencies have goals and plans for all of their efforts, and thus they lack clear ways to evaluate how well these efforts are working and to identify any needed improvements. They may also be missing opportunities to coordinate and integrate prevention activities.

Additionally, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reconstituted an interagency discussion group on Title IX in 2016, where all five agencies share information about their activities. However, DOJ has not fully adopted two leading practices for collaboration: agreeing on agency roles and responsibilities and developing mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report collaborative efforts. Officials at one agency said clarifying agencies' roles and responsibilities would improve the group. Adopting leading practices would help enhance and sustain collaboration.

Why GAO Did This Study

Sexual harassment is degrading and illegal. Studies show it has a negative effect on the ability of women to engage in research at the same level as men. Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding, and federal agencies are required to enforce the law at universities they fund. In fiscal year 2018, the most recent year for which data were available during GAO's review, U.S. universities were awarded about $27 billion in federal grants for STEM research. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to help prevent sexual harassment at universities that receive such grants.

This report examines, among other things, (1) how selected federal agencies receive, investigate, and resolve Title IX complaints; (2) the extent to which selected agencies have established an overall plan for their sexual harassment prevention efforts for university grantees, including for communicating and evaluating these efforts and (3) the extent to which selected agencies collaborate on efforts to prevent sexual harassment at universities they fund for STEM research. GAO reviewed agencies' relevant regulations and documentation and interviewed agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 17 recommendations to the five agencies funding STEM research and DOJ, including to finalize and publish complaint procedures, establish goals and an overall plan for prevention efforts, and fully adopt two collaboration leading practices. The agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified actions they plan to take to address them.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-6888 or neumannj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA agreed with the recommendation. In its March 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that it will ensure promising practices information is posted to websites for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Additionally, a notice will be sent to universities to ensure they are aware the information is available, along with specifics regarding access to the same.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to publicize promising practices for Title IX compliance on its websites for their university grantees. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) has identified promising practices on an ongoing basis in its Title IX compliance review reports. OCRD will develop and publicize a promising practices guide on its website for reference by university grantees. The estimated completion date is June 1, 2020. GAO will review this action once it receives documentation from DOE.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to publicize promising practices for Title IX compliance on its websites for their university grantees. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Office of the Secretary

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated the Office for Civil Rights will incorporate effective practices from materials posted on its website and external sources in a stand-alone list of effective practices to help universities comply with Title IX. The Office for Civil Rights will also draw from its Title IX enforcement work to update the effective practices list on an ongoing basis.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should direct the Director for the Office for Civil Rights to publicize a stand-alone list of promising practices for Title IX compliance on its websites for their university grantees. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Office of the Secretary

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) has developed a draft outline of complaint procedures. OCRD is benchmarking these procedures against NASA and NSF external civil rights complaint procedures. OCRD will finalize and publish Title IX complaint procedures, consistent with the Department of Justice's regulations. The estimated completion date is October 31, 2020.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to finalize and publish Title IX complaint procedures, consistent with DOJ's regulations. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Office of the Secretary

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA agreed with the recommendation to finalize and publish Title IX complaint procedures. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA's Departmental Regulation (DR) 4330-002, Nondiscrimination in Program and Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance from USDA, addresses processing Title IX administrative complaints filed with the Department in any program or activity receiving financial assistance from USDA. The Departmental Regulation (DR) 4330-002 was revised in 2019 and is currently in the clearance process for publication.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to finalize and publish revised Title IX complaint procedures. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA agreed with this recommendation. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) will add language on its website to make clear recipients of USDA-funded grants are included in the definition of a customer and, as such, may file Title IX complaints through OASCR. Additionally, the requested information will be added to the Frequently Asked Questions section on OASCR' s website.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to clarify on its website that individuals on USDA-funded grants can file Title IX complaints through the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights—including clarifying who is considered "customers." (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that outside of the Title IX enforcement process, the Office for Civil Rights updated its sex discrimination web pages to inform persons on how to file complaints of discrimination directly to the Office for Civil Rights, including complaints of sexual harassment. The Office for Civil Rights has also incorporated information about Title IX rights and obligations in outreach material used on university campuses, including information addressing sexual harassment.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should direct the Director for the Office for Civil Rights to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Office of the Secretary

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) will evaluate the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of discrimination, including sexual harassment, outside of the Title IX complaint process described in DOE's Title IX regulations, as well as communicating this option to individuals on DOE funded grants. The estimated completion date is December 31, 2020.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Office of the Secretary

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: NASA agreed with the recommendation. According to the agency's February 2020 formal comment letter, NASA plans to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination and harassment and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns. In conducting the feasibility assessment, NASA will benchmark with agencies that currently have the capability to receive and review concerns of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. NASA will also examine internal resources to ensure successful implementation. NASA estimates completion by September 20, 2020.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 9)

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA agreed with this recommendation. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA is to direct the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination (including sexual harassment) and including language in agency-funded grants on the option to notify the agency of harassment issues outside of the Title IX complaint process. The Office of the Mission Area Liaison within OASCR will assess the feasibility of creating a tracking system to capture inquiries and concerns outside of the Title IX complaint process. If feasible, the system will serve as a risk assessment tool to identify issues, potential violations, trends, risks, and areas prime for focused compliance review, according to USDA's formal comment letter.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should direct the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights to assess the feasibility of receiving and reviewing concerns of sex discrimination—including sexual harassment—and communicating to individuals on agency-funded grants the option to notify the agency of these concerns, outside of the Title IX complaint process. (Recommendation 10)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office for Civil Rights and NIH will review the current procedure for sharing information, and development and implement (as necessary) formal procedures for sharing relevant information about Title IX and sexual harassment concerns. Furthermore, an action plan to address the recommendation will be provided in the department's 180-day letter response to Congress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should direct the Director for the Office for Civil Rights and the Director of NIH to develop and implement formal procedures for sharing relevant information about Title IX (compliance reviews, violations, and complaints) and sex discrimination concerns, including sexual harassment. For example, HHS components should internally share information regarding findings of Title IX violations, concerns of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, and Title IX compliance review reports. (Recommendation 11)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Office of the Secretary

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity will conduct research into best practices for harassment prevention efforts for university grantees and benchmark with other federal agencies. The estimated completion date for establishment of goals is January 31, 2021 and the estimated completion date for establishment of an overall plan is August 31, 2021.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 12)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: Office of the Secretary

  13. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with the recommendation. In its February 2020 formal comment letter, the department stated that NIH has created goals for all NIH grantee sexual harassment prevention efforts, as noted in GAO's report. NIH will develop a plan to assess progress towards achieving those goals, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate policies and communication methods. To the extent Title IX enforcement and outreach efforts may prevent sexual harassment, the Office for Civil Rights will develop a plan for leveraging enforcement efforts and outreach communications to help HHS grantees implement prevention efforts. HHS will submit an action plan that fully address department efforts regarding this recommendation in its 180-day letter response to Congress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 13)

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Office of the Secretary

  14. Status: Open

    Comments: NASA agreed with the recommendation. According to the agency's February 2020 formal comment letter, NASA accepts its responsibility to establish policies and communication mechanisms to help university grantees to prevent sexual harassment, and the agency is committed to ongoing monitoring and evaluation of these efforts. At the same time, NASA judges that the most effective way to discharge these responsibilities is to adopt the approach now being developed by the National Science and Technology Council. NASA will establish goals, plans, and methods pursuant to this recommendation by adopting the policies and approaches developed through the interagency process. The estimated completion is to be determined based on timelines and milestones established by the Office of Science and Technology Policy's Safe and Inclusive Research Environments Subcommittee Subcommittee.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NASA should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 14)

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  15. Status: Open

    Comments: NSF agreed with the recommendation. According to the agency's February 2020 formal comment letter, NSF is embarking on an assessment process to improve its policies and practices continually in order to achieve the goal of safe and inclusive research environments.

    Recommendation: The Director of NSF should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 15)

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

  16. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA agreed with this recommendation. According to the department's March 2020 formal comment letter, USDA will consider developing language to include in university grantees' terms and conditions regarding allegations of sexual harassment. Additionally, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) will reach out to other agencies within the Title IX Quarterly Working Group to assess best practices for monitoring and evaluating sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms. Finally, USDA will increase its communication with university grantees and increase oversight through compliance reviews.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should establish goals and an overall plan to assess all of the agency's sexual harassment prevention efforts for their university grantees, including methods to regularly monitor and evaluate its sexual harassment prevention policies and communication mechanisms (e.g. Title IX or sex discrimination websites). (Recommendation 16)

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  17. Status: Open

    Comments: DOJ generally agreed with the recommendation. According to the department's February 2020 formal comment letter, the Civil Rights Division (CRT) is prepared to delineate agencies' roles and responsibilities within the Quarterly Title IX STEM Discussion Group and is willing to develop an enhanced process for evaluating, monitoring, and reporting on the group's collaborations in enforcing Title IX that is achievable within DOJ's current resource allocation, or if more resources become available.

    Recommendation: In consultation with DOE, HHS, NASA, NSF, and USDA, the Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice should direct the responsible Civil Rights Division sections to fully adopt two federal interagency leading practices—agree on agency's roles and responsibilities and develop mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report results of collaborative efforts, for its Quarterly Title IX STEM discussion group. (Recommendation 17)

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of the Assistant Attorney General for Administration

 

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