5 ways that STEM is even worse than Hollywood – #MeToo

Long before I became a scientist, I was familiar with the term “casting couch.” We are raised to believe that women in Hollywood inhabit an endless labyrinth of sexual harassment whereas women in STEM enjoy the benefits of working in a rational, meritocratic system. The former appears to be true, but the latter most certainly is not. In fact, there are many ways in which the #MeToo movement in STEM lags behind the #MeToo movement in Hollywood. Here are five ways in which they differ:

1. Everyone was forced to condemn Weinstein.

Kate Winslet has worked with Roman Polanski, of drugging-and-raping-a-child-and-then-fleeing-the-country fame, and with Woody Allen, of marrying-his-step-daughter-after-being-accused-of-molesting-another-step-daughter fame.

Kate Winslet putting her arm around Roman Polanski on the red carpet.
You want a picture of Kate Winslet putting her arm around an admitted child rapist? Here you go.

When the Weinstein story broke, there was no reason to wonder whether Kate Winslet would be offended by a powerful Hollywood man violating women who are not Kate Winslet. Yet Winslet released a statement to Variety about Weinstein. All of Hollywood was pressured into denouncing a sexual predator. And while we may doubt that all of these statements really were genuine, it is nevertheless encouraging that hypocrites felt they had to pretend to care. This really is a new development, a sign that we are in a “new era.”

But in STEM, we don’t see these universal condemnations of known sexual assailants. When it was reported that Miguel Pinto sexually assaulted me, one of his male labmates from the Smithsonian briefly acknowledged these revelations and made it about himself, while another deleted a photo of Pinto that he had tweeted and otherwise remained silent. A self-aggrandizing female scientist — who has used the issue of sexual misconduct as an opportunity to bring additional attention to herself — issued a sweeping-but-vague condemnation of sexual misconduct to the reporter who broke the Pinto story, but refused to say anything about Pinto himself.

Imagine if, three days after the Weinstein story broke, Winslet had issued a statement in which she criticized sexual assault but didn’t name Weinstein (or anyone else). Imagine, further, that the vast majority of Winslet’s colleagues had remained silent about Weinstein. That’s where the scientific community was one year ago, and that’s still where we are today.

2. Weinstein’s enablers and friends were called out.

Imagine we enter a new world, rather than a new era: a world in which all sexual predators lose their jobs and are cast out of their industries as soon as their victims speak to the press. Even if we did live in such a world, victims wouldn’t be able to rest easy: if and when you end the career of a predator, his enablers and friends can still try to destroy you.

While the Weinstein revelations are typically discussed in terms of the sheer number of victims, the severity of his crimes, and their occasional strangeness (e.g., the potted plant thing), what is truly most important here is that Weinstein’s enablers and friends were also called out for their role in this saga. Lisa Bloom insisted that Weinstein felt “chagrined” after getting called out for sexual assault. NBC didn’t move forward with Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein, so Farrow had to go to the New Yorker instead. Both Lisa Bloom and NBC have been called out on their bullshit. Quentin Tarantino was called out on having known about Weinstein’s proclivities for years, while continuing to work with him.

How many scientists have been called out for knowing exactly who [Geoff Marcy/Christian Ott/Brian Richmond/Miguel Pinto] was, and for continuing to work with him anyway? Every single one of these men has countless Tarantinos of their own, and many seem to have had at least one enabler. Yet these enablers are barely mentioned when news stories initially break and are subsequently ignored.

In my own case, Miguel Pinto’s advisor, Kris Helgen, brought Pinto into his lab in 2015; in 2011, Pinto confessed to Helgen that he had sexually assaulted me. That’s right, the Smithsonian’s (disgraced, former) Curator of Mammals brought a known sexual assailant into his lab in the National Museum of Natural History. Helgen fought tooth-and-nail against any protections that would have kept Pinto away from me, and went on to make some pretty outrageous statements in writing:

  • Helgen acted like the assault was no big deal because “Miguel thought he was flirting with” me.
  • Four years after Pinto confessed to Helgen that he is a sexual assailant, Helgen wrote, “I have a very high opinion of Miguel, both in terms of academic background and conduct.”
  • Helgen wrote that my advisor’s demonstrably accurate statements “could be unfairly damaging to Miguel and even grounds for claims of defamation.”

Don’t believe me? Read Helgen’s whole e-mail here.

Man gesturing with hands on left, man in suit speaking on right.
Left: Hands that grab without consent. Right: Mouth that spews b.s. accusations of “defamation.”

And yet, it would be an understatement to say that Helgen has not been held accountable for this obvious enabling. Just a few months before the Pinto story broke, the self-proclaimed intersectional feminists of science Twitter were competing with each other to see who could most thoroughly kiss Helgen’s ass. When the Pinto story came out, all of a sudden nobody had anything to say about Helgen. It’s reminiscent of how certain comedians care very, very much about women’s issues — until one of their colleagues is named as a sexual predator.

Imagine if, since the Weinstein story broke, Tarantino had remained completely silent about knowingly collaborating with a sexual assailant. Imagine, further, that any Weinstein victim who said that Tarantino should apologize was attacked by self-proclaimed “feminists” in her industry. That’s where the scientific community was one year ago, and that’s still where we are today.

3. Connecting the dots is done for movies but not for science.

The New York Times published interviews with five women who said that Louis CK had engaged in similar sexual misconduct toward them. A mere two days later, the New Yorker published this epic takedown of CK’s latest movie, connecting the dots between CK’s professional output, his public image, and his depravity.

One day after Louis CK admitted to being a sexual predator, he was fired from working on a children’s movie. This isn’t hard to understand —young children shouldn’t be encouraged to idolize sexual predators.

But compare this to the Smithsonian’s actions. Barely a month after it became public knowledge that Miguel Pinto is a sexual assailant and that Kris Helgen isn’t exactly Wonder Woman, the Smithsonian held a special event to promote a children’s book about the “olinguito,” a well-known subspecies that was elevated to species status after Helgen, Pinto, and friends discovered a tag that a dead man had left on a museum specimen. This children’s book prominently features Miguel Pinto (like CK, except he grabs your ass instead of grabbing his own dick) and Kris Helgen (Pinto’s #1 fan), and the event was held in the building where Pinto sexually assaulted me.

To my knowledge, I am the only person who made any public statements criticizing the Smithsonian for promoting a children’s book about a sexual assailant, in a building where he committed sexual assault. To understand a more typical response, check out this tweet from another Smithsonian curator:

A tweet with a picture of a man and a child holding a children's book.
Thank you @khelgen for promoting a children’s book that prominently features a known sexual assailant!

Imagine if, when the Weinstein story broke, he simply moved to a different production company and kept working in Hollywood. And imagine that a special event was held, in a hotel where Weinstein had previously committed sexual assault, in which his top enabler promoted a children’s book about him. That’s where the scientific community was one year ago, and that’s still where we are today.

4. Hollywood doesn’t have a reporting system.

The Smithsonian’s policies allow the Institution to give postdoctoral fellowships to known sexual assailants, in the building where they committed sexual assault. My understanding is that the Smithsonian’s policies also prohibit administrators from firing curators after “only one” offense, such that a curator can commit sexual assault, the victim can follow all of the procedures to a t, and the curator will face little or no consequences and will only leave the Smithsonian if they choose to do so.

So there’s not much point in reporting sexual misconduct, because little or nothing is done about it and administrators treat you terribly the whole time. (I am far from the only person who has had a terrible experience reporting sexual misconduct.) Press coverage is a typical prerequisite for any meaningful change: Geoff Marcy “retired” not after his university found that he had engaged in sexual misconduct, but after this became public knowledge; Miguel Pinto was banned from the Smithsonian not after he admitted to sexually assaulting me, and not after I had raised hell time and again, but after this became public knowledge. So for many victims, going public is their only shot at any sort of justice. But if you don’t file a report, media lawyers will make it damn near impossible for any reporter to publish a story on your experiences.

In academia and in STEM, victims are therefore put into a soul-crushing bind in which we must spend our time and our emotional energy on a useless process (reporting with our institutions) if we want any shot at getting a sexual predator out of our workplace. We must endure months, if not years, of bullshit and mistreatment before any reporter can publish an investigation into our experiences.

However, because Hollywood doesn’t have this sort of worse-than-useless reporting system, reporters can publish on credible allegations very shortly after they are made.

The institutional reporting system is a leaky pipeline through which victims become disheartened and give up before they can go to the press, causing victims in STEM to speak to journalists far less often than is the case for Hollywood.

5. Entertainment reporters are more critical than science reporters.

There is no “Rotten Tomatoes” in which journalists take a critical look at scientific papers, books, and conference proceedings; the vast majority of science that gets journalistic attention is praised. Science journalists write breathlessly glowing stories about researchers who are not yet publicly known to be assailants or enablers, and when the truth comes out about scientists who are assailants or enablers, these same journalists have little or nothing to say.

I had hoped that, in the years since the Geoff Marcy story broke, science journalists would fawn noticeably less over prominent scientists. That hasn’t really happened; a few science journalists have specialized in covering sexual misconduct, and the rest have continued worshipping at the altar of This Man From A Fancy Institution Who Says His Latest Discovery Is Very Important And Who Is Willing To Let Me Interview Him.

So… now what? Where does this leave us? Stay tuned for a follow-up piece on what scientists, science journalists, and the public can do to get sexual misconduct in STEM taken seriously.

The original version of this article was published on Angie NMNH’s Medium account.

Angie NMNH
Angie NMNH

I was sexually assaulted at the Smithsonian, I was falsely accused of defamation, and I'm still fighting to force my institution to do the right thing.

Leave a Reply