"I’ve been the victim of retaliation by my university and a member of the faculty who was "that guy" – the "harmless" one who "loved women”." – anonymous.
"I could only wear baggy sweatshirts and turtlenecks to lab because when I leaned over my bench, the men would try to look down my shirt." – anonymous.
"I have given up on the idea that anyone will listen to what is true and what is right. I now believe the institute is only interested in covering their ass and preventing a lawsuit.” – anonymous.
Challenges in a STEM career
Pursuing a career in any of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines can be a real challenge, what with the daunting years of study typically required and, particularly in academia, the serious dearth of funding.
Across all STEM disciplines there is one common theme: innovation, and without individuals pursuing a career in STEM, this innovation comes to a halt. Sadly, in the wake of the "Me Too" (or #MeToo) movement, a spotlight has been cast on an additional obstacle that deters many individuals, particularly women, from working in STEM – the astonishingly high incidence of sexual harassment.
2018 saw the publication of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, "Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine", the most comprehensive study yet on the extent of sexual harassment across the STEM fields.
The research findings are, at the same time, shocking, saddening and infuriating:
- Women in STEM endure the highest rate of sexual harassment of any profession outside of the military.
- Nearly 50 percent of women in science, and 58 percent of women in academia, report experiencing sexual harassment, including 43 percent of female STEM graduate students.
- 90 percent of women who report sexual misconduct experience retaliation.
- Among men, 16 percent reported sexual harassment in 2018, compared with 12 percent in the previous report.1
#MeTooSTEM is a grassroots organization committed to combatting sexual harassment in STEM, founded by Dr BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Dr BethAnn McLaughlin. Image Credit: Anita Kunz.
According to Johanna Folk, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, and member of the MeTooSTEM leadership team: "We [MeTooSTEM] are committed to filling painful gaps left by our community and leaders for people who have experienced sexual harassment, assault and retaliation in STEM. We strive to eliminate this abusive behavior and provide support for survivors, centering people of color, people with disabilities, those from the LGBTQ community, and white women, who are most at risk for sexual harassment and assault."
McLaughlin is no stranger to fighting for meaningful change for women in STEM. "Previously, she pressured RateMyProfessor to drop their sexist "chilli pepper" faculty ratings, the Herpetologists’ League to strip serial harasser Richard Vogt of a career award, and the AAAS to stop giving honors to individuals found guilty of sexual misconduct," comments Folk. McLaughlin has also worked with Congress to pressure the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) to stop allowing individuals who have violated Title IX protections to serve on study sections, get travel money and funding to train students.
However, it was when McLaughlin served as a witness against a male in a Title IX investigation, and the male in question subsequently appeared outside of her laboratory on campus, that she launched a GoFundMe campaign allowing MeTooSTEM to file for non-profit status.
Since the launch of the GoFundMe campaign, McLaughlin, with her trademark fierce and witty online presence, has become the public face of the MeTooSTEM movement; but she certainly does not stand alone. McLaughlin is joined in solidarity by the members of the MeTooSTEM leadership team, and other notable women in STEM. Sharona Gordon, Professor in physiology & biophysics, is the founder of Below the Waterline, an organization whose mission is to combat sexual harassment in academic science, engineering, and medicine by changing everyday culture.
Together, these women present a united front against the perpetrators of sexual harassment – dubbed "harassholes", and those who wish to silence individuals trying to tell their stories.
In legal terms, the Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964 divides sexual harassment into two categories:
- quid pro quo
Referring to a situation where a colleague asks or hints at sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits.
- hostile work environment
Referring to a situation where a colleague makes repeated sexual advances, gestures, jokes, or other comments that prohibit an employee from working without feeling intimidated or threatened.
In a broader definition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes sexual harassment as:
Any kind of any unwelcome or unwanted sexual advance or conduct that impedes a person's job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment.
Why is sexual harassment a major problem in STEM?
Shockingly, when compared to all other professions (excluding the military), women are most vulnerable to sexual harassment if they pursue a career in STEM. But why? How does a field encompassing some of the world's brightest individuals become accustomed to accommodating such behavior?
STEM is a traditionally male-dominated field, and despite there being an increase in women entering STEM over the past 40 years, certain disciplines are still witnessing a gender gap. A 2018 article noted that "fields remain dominated by white men because the culture of the field is "masculinized" and excludes women.”2
"The statistic didn't surprise me at all," says Folk. "STEM occupations often rely heavily on extensive training and research in academic settings, which are built on hierarchies and power dynamics that are ripe for harassment to go unchecked."
Furthermore, isolation is a common theme in STEM occupations. Gordon points out that even in standard biomedical or chemistry labs, the campuses are typically large, and trainees work so hard that they often aren't connected with the larger community. "People are really isolated, and that has several negative consequences," Gordon states. "One is that they may not recognize what a toxic environment looks like, and the second is that individuals don't have a large community of people to reach out to, so they may feel alone."
"Rosy had to go or be put in her place" – what effect does sexual harassment have on STEM?
Gordon eloquently discusses the impact of sexual harassment on the integrity of the STEM fields with an infamously controversial case study: the discovery of the DNA double helix.
It's no secret that Rosalind Franklin was mistreated by her colleagues. "In his book "The Double Helix" Watson writes "Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place". Then, in a public address in 2011, Nancy Hopkins said, "When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I was sitting at my lab desk one day writing up notes when the door of the lab flew open, there stood a scientist I didn't know but recognized instantly before I could rise and shake hands, he had zoomed across the room stood behind me, put his hands on my breasts and said, "What are you working on?" - it was Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.""
Gordon continues: "None of us would argue that the double helix discovery is incorrect, but if Watson and Crick hadn't made it, it would have arguably come out in subsequent years. It didn't rely on any unique property of theirs. In fact, they stole the data from Rosalind Franklin. So, how do we compare the short-term value of a discovery that they made before others would inevitably have made it, compared to the long-term harm that's done to science. Sexually harassing behavior harms science, in the long-run, in a way that just isn't worth it."
Swanson points out that women aren't leaving STEM careers because they don't enjoy the subjects or "find it too difficult" as one narrative might suggest. Quite the contrary – they are leaving STEM because it isn't worth being constantly sexualized, harassed and dismissed. The consequence of this? "STEM fields lose the creativity, ingenuity and perseverance of the women that leave, and those women lose their careers and dreams, at the very least."
"Absolutely not. Institutions do not publicly release information about sexual misconduct investigations, prioritizing the reputation of the guilty person and the institution over the safety of others," notes Folk. Where the institutions are failing, individuals are taking it upon themselves to endeavor to make a difference.
Julie Libarkin, a Professor at Michigan State University, is on a one-woman mission to contest the "hide it under the rug" approach to handling sexual harassment cases. In a publicly available database, Libarkin names and shames offenders of academic sexual misconduct and violations of relationship policies. Including only cases that have already been publicly documented, the database details the institutions at which the perpetrators reside(d), the current status of the investigation and details of outcomes in cases that have been closed.
In what she brands a "passing the trash" pattern, Folk notes that "harassholes are allowed to leave one university quietly and go to a new one where students and colleagues are unaware of their past misconduct." Ultimately, this presents history the opportunity to repeat itself, and is extremely dangerous.
Of further concern is that individuals found guilty of sexual misconduct are still receiving grants and awards from funding bodies and scientific societies. In February of this year, NIH gave a formal public apology for their failings in addressing sexual harassment: "NIH needs to do better in tackling the underlying culture that enables sexual harassment to take place, admit our contributions to perpetuating this culture, and elevate the seriousness with which the agency takes this issue through our actions."
The statement was followed by the first meet-up of the Working Group of the Advisory Council to the Director (ACD) on Changing the Culture to End Sexual Harassment, featuring McLaughlin, where four key themes for action points were highlighted:
- Demonstrating accountability and transparency
- Clarifying expectations for institutions and investigators to ensure a safe workplace and inform the agency
- Providing clear channels of communication to NIH
- Listening to victims and survivors of sexual harassment and incorporating their perspectives into future actions
Thanks to McLaughlin's persistent efforts, the NIH revoked funding from approximately 12 researchers in 2018 for sexual misconduct. They have also promised increased action going forward, stating "We can do better. We must do better".
Speaking out about the experience of sexual harassment is a deeply personal choice, and one that an individual cannot be influenced in making. Common fears surrounding the sharing of stories typically include not being believed, being judged and the adverse impact it could have on your career. It's an unfortunately sad reality that the process of reporting harassment is difficult. "Your fear is real and valid. It is understandable that you are scared, as this world does not treat survivors kindly. Are you safe? Find safety first. Do you have support? Find your people. Take care of yourself first,", Swanson advises.
However, Folk comments on the fact that speaking out can be a liberating experience that promotes healing, "Most of us are socialized to smile and act like nothing is wrong, not to speak out about how we have been violated. In many cases we are explicitly told by systems we cannot speak about what happens. I believe this silence can be toxic."
Organizations such as MeTooSTEM and Below the Waterline endeavor to break this silence: "People are now pushing for meaningful change, and so I am optimistic that we could be at a tipping point in which this starts to happen," concludes Gordon.
If you wish to talk to someone about your experience, or if you require general support around this subject, a number of resources are listed here.
August 9, 2019: Since the original publication of this article, McLaughlin has left her position as a faculty member at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Of her departure, Gordon said: “When the most visible face of the #MeTooSTEM movement is silenced, it sends a chilling message to targets of sexual harassment everywhere that the system is stacked against them."
1. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine | The National Academies Press. URL: https://www.nap.edu/download/24994 (accessed 5.17.19).
2. Baird, C. L. “Male-Dominated Stem Disciplines: How Do We Make Them More Attractive to Women?” IEEE Instrumentation Measurement Magazine 21, no. 3 (June 2018): 4–14. https://doi.org/10.1109/MIM.2018.8360911.