Sexual harassment knowledge should be a basic competency for STEM leaders

Surprisingly, it’s not.

“The intent to marry.” This is how Lawrence Tabak, NIH Principal Deputy Director, defined “consensual” when asked about relationships in professional settings. He said this while on stage as a panelist at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in November. There we were, gathered to discuss steps forward from NASEM’s groundbreaking report on sexual harassment in STEM, and one of the leaders revealed that he didn’t even know the basics on the issue.

Not only did this feel like a giant step backward in the conversation happening that day (followed by audience gasps, Twitter outrage, and a petition to remove Tabak from his position), it was a harsh reminder of what we’re up against in the fight to end sexual harassment in STEM. How can we enact real change if many leaders lack the most basic knowledge on the issue?

This reminded me of one of my own experiences. It was two years ago, almost a year before #MeToo went viral, and I was working at a scientific association. I had just interviewed Congresswoman Jackie Speier on sexual harassment in science. She took a clear stance on this issue — and scientific institutions’ responsibility in ending it.

Inspired by this conversation, I asked at a staff meeting what I thought were basic questions: What are we doing about sexual harassment as an association? Do we have a code of conduct and a protocol for responding to reported sexual harassment?

I’ll never forget how the mood in the room shifted. After a nervous silence, one of our leaders answered as if responding to a personal attack. He spewed out a winding answer that concluded with the words “we can’t police what happens in the bedroom” at our scientific meetings.

Others around the meeting table chimed in defensively: “We don’t have that problem here.” “We do a good job of promoting women’s equality.”

I was shocked. Our top leader had revealed that he didn’t know what sexual harassment was — it’s not just sexual coercion, and it doesn’t just happen in hotel rooms at conferences — and, following his lead, other leaders in the room were quick to dismiss the issue.

Even today, after the pressure and awareness that the #MeToo movement brought with it, many STEM leaders are still clueless on the issue of sexual harassment… and shamelessly so.

When I put out a call on social media for other stories of STEM leaders who lacked basic sexual harassment knowledge, multiple people pointed me back to the NIH. The institution’s inaction on the issue, despite its position and influence in the industry, indicates that its leaders do not understand the gravity of the problem.

M.D./Ph.D. candidates Kelsey Priest and Caroline King called out NIH leadership in their September 2018 article in STAT News. Referring to the NIH’s current suggestions for dealing with harassment, they wrote: “These suggestions, especially encouraging survivors to report to law enforcement, indicate that NIH leadership has a limited understanding of reporting barriers for survivors.”

It’s not just men in leadership positions who lack basic competency on the issue of sexual harassment in STEM; it’s also senior-level women. Particle physicist Dr. Seyda Ipek tweeted in December that a senior faculty in her department said “she would leave AAS if they oust anyone, even if they’re proven harassers.” Dr. Ipek continued, “It makes me so sad to realize people I thought would be role models aren’t even allies.”

“It makes me so sad to realize people I thought would be role models aren’t even allies.”

Dr. Seyda Ipek

Likewise, neurologist and MeTooSTEM founder Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin told me about how Dr. Linda Griffith, a biological engineer and director of MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research, called talking about sexual harassment in STEM “alarmist.” Dr. Griffith also publicly stated that we should “focus on the positives” during an NIH webinar sexual harassment in STEM in December 2018.

In response, Dr. McLaughlin tweeted, “It is the most selfish of things to assume your experience is the norm in spite of NASEM data. Women in STEM are the most harassed of any profession outside the military.”

I asked Dr. McLaughlin why she thinks leaders like Dr. Griffith are uneducated on this issue. She said: “As you progress up the ladder, you have fewer and fewer opportunities to interact meaningfully with the most vulnerable people. It is painfully easy to live in a sphere of privilege and denial.”

This problem is prevalent at all levels of STEM leadership. A Ph.D. candidate, who requested to remain anonymous, told me about her experience with principal investigators (PI’s) and lab managers not understanding the realities of sexual harassment: “The issues ranged from minor, like a male PI refusing to endorse or attend a grad student planned diversity seminar because he thought talking about it would make the problem worse, to the egregious, like a female lab manager and male PI expressly banning me from reporting a male student who stalked and harassed me in the field because it would ‘ruin his career.’”

She said, “I am constantly surprised by the number of people in science who think sexual harassment only ‘counts’ if the perpetrator is openly malicious, and encourage women grad students to brush it off if the man appears pleasant outwardly.”

A former hydrogeologist reached out to me to highlight sexual harassment in industry fieldwork, which she said is a “severe problem.” She described how the leadership of a company she used to work for tuned out sexual harassment in order to sustain its contract-based business.

In one particular instance, her team took over a large contract to clean up a hazardous waste site. The previous contract team had been fired out of retaliation after they reported sexual harassment by the site manager. She said, “as a new hire who would be working at the site extensively, I was told to just deal with whatever happened out there because my company didn’t want to lose their big new contract.”

Whether they’re sitting at the top of a scientific association, a lab, or a company, many leaders in STEM seem to feel exempt from knowing about — and therefore acting on — the issue of sexual harassment. However, leaders in STEM need to be knowledgeable about sexual harassment, as they would be about any other major issue affecting their employees, field, or industry.

They need to know all the forms that sexual harassment takes: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment.

They need to know its prevalence, and that saying it doesn’t exist at their institution is deliberately ignorant and inexcusable.

They need to know that women of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups in STEM are most vulnerable to sexual harassment.

Most of all, they need to know the real harm that sexual harassment causes. They need to understand that it puts personal safety, wellbeing, and entire careers on the line — and if they know this, they will act decisively on it.

We as a STEM community need to keep putting pressure on our leaders to do the right thing, like Congresswoman Jackie Speier urged me to do two years ago. We need to redefine our standards for leaders in STEM, so it is no longer acceptable for people like Lawrence Tabak to spread misinformation and not even have to apologize, let alone step down.

It should not need to be argued that our leaders should have basic knowledge of sexual harassment, yet time and time again they show they don’t have a clue. The title of the NASEM event was “Together we can do better.” But how can we without leadership that gets it?

Editor’s note: Since the publication of this article, Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin has been found to cause significant harm to sexual harassment survivors, 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.

Jenna Jablonski
Jenna Jablonski

Jenna Jablonski is the founder of Sister. With a background in media, and after working in the science industry, she has become a passionate (and ever-learning) advocate for inclusive STEM.

One thought on “Sexual harassment knowledge should be a basic competency for STEM leaders

  1. Well written and researched! It was a rude awakening for me to realize how prevalent harrassment is, and that many leaders are reluctant to deal with it.

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