Between Monday’s inspiring #ScienceRising Twitter chat and Tuesday’s energetic discussion on the new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report on sexual harassment, it’s already been an above-average two days for STEM. Could this week get even better with the notorious chili pepper disappearing from RateMyProfessors.com?
Yesterday, amidst the flurry of #ScienceToo and #MeTooSTEM hashtags, appeared a proposal from Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin (@McLNeuro): in the name of confronting sexual harassment, remove the hotness rating from RateMyProfessors.com. (Yes, we are all wondering why we didn’t think of this sooner.)
“Life is hard enough for female professors,” she wrote. “Your ‘chili pepper’ rating of our ‘hotness’ is obnoxious and utterly irrelevant to our teaching. Please remove it because #TimesUP and you need to do better.”
Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin isn’t afraid to take on giants in today’s fight against sexual harassment in STEM. The assistant professor of neurology and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University entered the media spotlight after starting a petition just last month urging the National Academies to revoke the membership of “individuals who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation and assault.” Since then, she launched a first-of-its-kind blog called #MeTooSTEM to document the stories of victims of sexual harassment in STEM.
A mere 21 minutes passed before RateMyProfessors.com responded to Dr. McLaughlin’s tweet. But it was a disappointing stock message redirecting her to the company’s contact page.
Dr. McLaughlin turned up the heat. She tweeted more and more unarguable reasons why the hotness rating would no longer be tolerated. Providing a link to the NASEM report, she tweeted “females in academia face the highest rates of sexual harassment in the country outside the military, so um, yeah….take down the chili peppers and let us do our jobs.”
Over a dozen professors and others jumped in to confirm that the hotness rating was ludicrous at best and dangerous at worst. The Twitterverse seemed to agree that the chili pepper had to go.
Others reminded us that academic evaluation systems are already hindered by gender bias, without the added insult of a hotness rating.
Of course, there were people who showed up to defend the chili pepper rating. But I think they only made Dr. McLaughlin’s case stronger.
Without an answer from RateMyProfessors.com, we will have to wait to find out the fate of the chili pepper. If the company chooses to step up and be a leader, it has the potential to effect change in other settings across academia. If it fails to act — well, that would burn.
Time will tell where RateMyProfessors.com stands. At least calls like this from Dr. McLaughlin open our eyes to the sexist norms that have existed unquestioned around us — and that we may have even participated in ourselves. Hopefully more individuals will be empowered to challenge companies and institutions to do the right thing, and more will respond when they see it as an opportunity, not a threat.
UPDATE: RateMyProfessors.com dropped the chili pepper from its site on June 28, 2018, just one day after this article was published, and two days after Dr. McLaughlin’s initial tweet.
Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article, Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin has been found to cause significant harm to various communities, silencing and harassing women of color formerly involved in the nonprofit MeTooSTEM, and even creating a fake Twitter account impersonating a queer Indigenous woman in science.