Opinion staff column

Do postdocs at MIT face sexual harassment?

Lack of data and transparency prevent a clear answer

Postdocs are one of the more exploitable groups at MIT. Hoping for a faculty offer, postdocs often need letters of recommendation from their postdoc supervisors, more formally known as their principal investigators. Similar to graduate students, postdocs may fear retribution if they speak out about abuses of power by faculty. They do not have as many legal protections as students, nor do their experiences elicit as much interest from the public. Unlike many other staff, changing supervisors may not be feasible as their research interests are often narrow and they have large pressure to publish. They also often have temporary appointments, which can limit their knowledge about the MIT policies that protect them.

Since arriving at MIT in 2014, I have seen new initiatives that have potential to improve postdocs’ ability to advocate for themselves, though they were not necessarily designed as such. Starting January 2018, MIT rolled out a mandatory Title IX training for all faculty and staff. While the goal of this training was to inform staff on how to help students and not postdocs, it does provide postdocs with information to advocate for themselves. In the same month, MIT also added a consensual relationship policy to its policies and procedures, prohibiting consensual sexual relations between postdocs and their supervisors for the first time. This provides postdocs with language and power to more effectively call out inappropriate behavior.

It is not possible to know if these new initiatives actually address the underlying problems of gender-based violence on postdocs. Really, we don’t collect much data on it. Postdocs participate in the various surveys which can give some information, but they lack the depth for effective interventions. For example, the 2016 Staff Quality of Life survey, which doesn’t explicitly mention harassment, asks staff for their level of agreement with the statement “I feel that the climate and opportunities for female staff in my [organizational unit] are at least as good as those for male staff.” Thirty-three percent of postdocs did not agree — higher than the MIT average of 26 percent — which highlights that postdocs might experience a relatively higher rate of gender-based discrimination than other staff. While this survey provides some clues, it does not give us enough information to develop and enhance programs in order to reduce gender-based violence.

In contrast with the postdoc surveys that only hint at gender-based violence, the AAU survey, which is currently being administered to students, focuses entirely on gender-based violence. This survey will also allow MIT to compare the prevalence of gender-based violence with itself in 2014 and to different universities, and hopefully extend evidence-based programs to reduce the amount of gender-based violence. Unfortunately, postdocs are not included in the survey, and there are no concrete plans to acquire such data.

In addition to lack of survey data about the prevalence of gender-based violence and its impact on postdocs, MIT provides more transparency about student cases reported to the Title IX and Bias Response Office than postdoc cases in their annual Title IX report. The choice to exclude information about postdocs' experiences decreases awareness and can prevent effective actions that improve postdoc experiences.

I come from the perspective that meeting the unique needs of the postdoc community around gender-based violence requires obtaining data about its extent and experimenting with programs that address the vulnerable position of postdocs at the institute. To ensure MIT's efforts are effective at preventing gender-based violence on postdocs, we need to both regularly assess the experiences of postdocs through surveys and publicly disclose the prevalence of reported incidents and the outcomes of investigations, both of which MIT already does for students.

Update 5/14/19: The article was updated to remove a statement claiming that Title IX does not apply to postdocs. In fact, it does, since Title IX contains requirements for staff hiring and treatment.​​​