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In order to take effective measures to promote harassment-free conditions, it is essential to start with a common understanding of what is meant by "harassment." Here we present and discuss definitions of harassment in the federal context, as a reference point for organizations to bolster their policies and procedures.

Federal Definitions


Harassment is words, conduct, or action (usually repeated or persistent) that, being directed at a specific person, annoys, alarms, or causes substantial emotional distress in that person and serves no legitimate purpose.1

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment. Sexual violence, as the Office of Civil Rights uses the term, refers to physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person's will or where a person is incapable of giving consent (e.g., due to the victim's age or use of drugs or alcohol or because an intellectual or other disability prevents the victim from having the capacity to give consent). A number of different acts fall into the category of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse, and sexual coercion.

Gender-Based Harassment

Gender-based harassment is unwelcome conduct based on an individual's actual or perceived sex. It includes slurs, taunts, stereotypes, or name-calling as well as gender-motivated physical threats, attacks, or other hateful conduct.

1 As defined in Black's Law Dictionary [10th ed, 2014], this is the general legal definition of harassment and has been adopted by National Science Foundation in our internal policies.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

Sec. 1681. Sex (a) Prohibition against discrimination

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Title IX applies to any and all programs receiving Federal financial assistance and protects students, parents and guardians, visitors, and employees from sexual harassment by anyone who works for, under, or in collaboration with a program or institution that receives Federal financial assistance.

Under Title IX, NSF is provided with the authority to conduct reviews of an NSF grant recipient's or grant applicant's programs, services, or activities to determine whether the awardee or potential awardee complies with Title IX. The Office of Equity and Civil Rights conducts at least two Title IX Compliance Reviews annually. For more information on Title IX Compliance Reviews or to review past reports, please visit

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as Amended

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex (including pregnancy discrimination), age (40 or older), disability, color, religion, genetic information, or national origin.

Although NSF does not have jurisdiction to monitor external organizations' compliance with Title VII, NSF encourages non-Federal employees, contractors, and applicants for employment to be aware of their rights under Title VII. Non-Federal employees may file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if they believe their rights have been violated.

Research Misconduct

Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing or performing research funded by NSF, reviewing research proposals submitted to NSF, or in reporting research results funded by NSF.

Note that NSF policy conforms with the federal government distinctions between sexual harassment and research misconduct, as they are subject to different laws and regulations and require different expertise to evaluate.


NSF welcomes feedback on this portal as well as suggestions for other promising practices. Our goal is to facilitate sharing of information so that all may benefit. To submit feedback and suggestions regarding promising practices, please visit NSF's Harassment Portal Feedback Form. Submissions will be considered and adopted where appropriate.