Initial Publication Date: May 4, 2018

What is Harassment, Bullying and Discrimination?

Everybody deserves the right to a learning and work environment free of discrimination, harassment and bullying.


The American Geophysical Union adopted in 2016 a Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics policy that includes a new code of conduct that broadens the definition of professional misconduct to include discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying and includes the following statement:

AGU members work to maintain an environment that allows science and scientific careers to flourish through respectful, inclusive, and equitable treatment of others. As a statement of principle, AGU rejects discrimination and harassment by any means, based on factors such as ethnic or national origin, race, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, age, or economic class. In addition, AGU opposes all forms of bullying including threatening, humiliating, coercive, or intimidating conduct that causes harm to, interferes with, or sabotages scientific activity and careers. Discrimination, harassment (in any form), and bullying create a hostile environment that reduces the quality, integrity, and pace of the advancement of science by marginalizing individuals and communities. It also damages productivity and career advancement, and prevents the healthy exchange of ideas. We affirm that discrimination, harassment (including sexual harassment), or bullying in any scientific or learning environment is unacceptable, and constitutes scientific misconduct under the AGU Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics Policy.


The AGU defines discrimination as: unequal or unfair treatment in professional opportunities, education, benefits, evaluation, and employment (such as hiring, termination, promotion, compensation) as well as retaliation and various types of harassment. Discriminatory practices can be explicit or implicit, intentional, or unconscious.


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines:

"Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws."

"Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."

"Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person's sex. Discrimination against an individual because of gender identity, including transgender status, or because of sexual orientation is discrimination in violation of Title VII."

The AGU further defines harassment as a single intense and severe act, or of multiple persistent or pervasive acts, which are unwanted, unwelcome, demeaning, abusive, or offensive. These acts may include epithets, slurs, or negative stereotyping based on gender, race, sexual identity, or other categories, as protected by U.S. federal law. Also included are threatening, intimidating, or hostile acts; denigrating jokes and displays; or circulation of written or graphic material that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or a group.


Bullying has traditionally addressed interactions among school-aged children but recent research shows adults also face bullying behavior in the workplace. Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm. Bullying can be direct or indirect, verbal, social (relational) or physical. There is no federal anti-bullying law but some states do have anti-bullying legislation. When bullying is also harassment, it does break federal law.

The AGU defines bullying as the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others in the professional environment that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. These actions can include abusive criticism, humiliation, the spreading of rumors, physical and verbal attacks, isolation, undermining, and professional exclusion of individuals through any means.

The behaviors described above contribute to creating hostile climates and interfere with people's ability to learn and work when they occur in educational and professional settings.

Research on the effects of harassment and hostile climates:

  • Cortina, L. M., S. Swan, L. F. Fitzgerald and C. Waldo. 1998. Sexual harassment and assault: Chilling the climate for women in academia. Psychology of Women Quarterly 22: 419:441.
  • Fitzgerald, L.F., F. Drasgow, C.L. Hulin, M. Gelfand and V.J. Magley. 1997. Antecedents and consequences of sexual harassment in organizations: A test of an integrated model. Journal of Applied Psychology 82: 578-589.
  • Carr, J.Z., Schmidt, A.M., Ford, J.K., DeShon, R.P., 2003. Climate perceptions matter: A meta-analytic path analysis relating molar climate, cognitive and affective states, and individual level work outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology 88: 605-619.
  • Davis, M.E., Vakalahi, H.F.O., Scales, R., 2015. Women of color in the academy, In: De Welde, K., Stepnick, A. (Eds.), Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education. Stylus Publishing, Sterling, Virginia, pp. 265-277.
  • Willness, C.R., Steel, P., Lee, K., 2007. A Meta-Analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment. Personnel Psychology 60, 127-162.
  • Clancy, K.B.H., Lee, K.M.N., Rodgers, E.M. and Riche, C. 2017. Double jeopardy in astronomy and planetary science: Women of color face greater risks of gendered and racial harassment. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 122: 1610-1623.
  • Gibney, E. 2017 Excluded, intimidated and harassed: LGBT physicists face discrimination. Nature 10.1038/nature.2016.19614
  • New survey highlights gender, racial harassment in astronomy and planetary science July 10, 2017

More reading on the effects of harassment and hostile climates: