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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John Neumann
(202) 512-6888
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2 of 5 agencies lack or have outdated complaint procedures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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    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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