Vanderbilt University Medical Center has an opportunity to lead. Will they take it?

I ran a workshop at Oberlin College last fall on the topic of Bystander Intervention. Afterwards a black woman graduate student thanked me and went on to express how stunned and pleased she was that an actualreal scientist was speaking out about the institutional inequities experienced by women and minorities in the STEM community.

She’s right. The fact is that the vast majority of actual, real scientists do not speak out, even when something really bad happens to them personally.

The pool of targets who could potentially speak out is not small. The National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine reported that over 58% of women in STEM have personally experienced something bad. And when this happens to you, or a female colleague, or your sister, or your wife, or your daughter, or your trainee, it is incumbent upon you to recognize that these women have been put between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

There is currently no good way out.

Women who don’t file formal reports, which is most of them,  pay high costs as documented by links between experiences of harassment and declines in personal and professional well-being. These women have less job satisfaction; and they detach, disengage, and eventually leave. Hence the leaking STEM pipeline.

Still, most targets do not report harassment because of even higher perceived and real risks to their careers. Even though my younger self was totally confused about the rules of the game, I implicitly understood as an assistant professor that making any kind of formal complaint would be a career killer.

This is not hypothetical drama. I am not being sensitive. We are, in fact, now witness to this actually transpiring in a public forum.

Last week, Science magazine published an article about BethAnn McLaughlin – aka @McLNeuro –  and the very real possibility that she will lose her tenure-track job at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). From Meredith Wadman’s Science article:

“In the past 9 months, McLaughlin has exploded into view as the public face of the #MeToo movement in science, wielding her irreverent, sometimes wickedly funny Twitter presence, @McLNeuro, as part cudgel, part cheerleader’s megaphone. In June 2018, she created a website,, where scores of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have posted mostly anonymous, often harrowing tales of their own harassment. In just 2 days that month, she convinced the widely used website to remove its “red hot chili pepper” rating for “hotness.” And after launching an online petition, she succeeded last fall in spurring AAAS, which publishes Science, to adopt a policy allowing proven sexual harassers to be stripped of AAAS honors.“

The 2018 NASEM report makes it clear that women are bullied or harassed out of career pathways in STEM. And it appears from the Science article, that some serious institutional bullying has been going on at VUMC. After voting to tenure her, they reversed the decision in a second meeting called by the dean and put her tenure on hold for 17 months after hearing reports that she posted anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues.

Being under consideration for tenure is one of the most stressful times of an academic career. What did the leadership at VUMC expect she was going to do in response to freezing her tenure? What were they secretly hoping she would do? Was this a tactic to just wait out her contract after they set her up for failure?

In full disclosure, I do not know @McLNeuro personally. I have never even met her. I only know what is in last week’s Science article and what she posts on Twitter.  For this, I greatly admire her unwavering courage in speaking out, and I fully support her initiatives to remove harassers from science. As with any complicated situation, I appreciate that there may be more to the story than is published in the Science article. Is @McLNeuro perfect? None of us are.

Yet, plenty of men are grabbing and touching and mansplaining and retaliating against and interrupting and marginalizing and diminishing women on a regular basis with no negative consequences whatsoever. Why? Because women are afraid of the consequences of speaking out.

With this in mind, should @McLNeuro be essentially fired because she tweeted a few things?

Similarly, do I think that the environment at Vanderbilt is especially hostile? Probably not. Sadly, it’s probably the norm. Based on data in the NASEM report, academia in general is hostile to women. I suspect what is playing out at Vanderbilt could conceivably play out at many of our own institutions.

But Vanderbilt University Medical Center is in hot seat right now, so to speak, and timing is everything. And guess what? #TimesUp. In a little over two days, almost three thousand people have signed a petition protesting the retaliation against @McLNeuro by VUMC. (Update: the petition below has reached over 5,000 signatures in 5 days!) You can sign it here:

At this scientific crossroads, one way to look at this messy predicament is to realize that VUMC has been given a unique opportunity to lead. Instead of firing Professor BethAnn McLaughlin, Vanderbilt University Medical Center could, as the NASEM report suggests institutions should, “convey through their actions that reporting harassment is an honorable and courageous action”. VUMC could acknowledge that the institution essentially killed her career by placing her tenure decision on hold for nearly two years. VUMC could leverage @McLNeuro’s energy, passion and platform for the greater good. VUMC could lead in developing novel and creative mechanisms to nurture inclusive excellence in STEM environments.

Opportunities to make a real difference do not come along every day.

Will Vanderbilt University Medical Center make the right decision? Which side of history will they be on?

Women are watching.





#STEM Inclusion at #bps19

The Biophysical Society meeting is less than a month away, and I am excited to share that I will be running a session at the meeting entitled Nurturing a More Inclusive STEM Enterprise by Understanding our Biases (abstract below).

This workshop will take place on Tuesday, March 5 from 1:15 to 2:45 at the Baltimore Convention Center. You must be registered for the meeting to attend this session. We will include a play-act scene of a classroom and are hoping to get an awesome discussion on how we can all be better, more inclusive scientists. #WeCanAllBeAllies

Here’s the Abstract:

We are all biased. Google’s PeopleAnalytics suggests that we as people can only consciously process about one millionth of the information that we receive at any moment. Instead, we rely heavily on our unconscious reasoning abilities to make decisions. Even though we scientists are trained to be objective and evidence based, we, too, use cognitive shortcuts in our every day interactions. This means we rely on our expectation biases, e.g. what we think we think about categories of people, things, situations. This behavior leads to unconscious errors in decision making that leads to discrimination in science against people who do not meet the stereotypical description of what a scientist looks like. This session will approach the phenomenon of unconscious bias as a science problem by examining the data in this area and by discussing tools that we can all use to nurture a more inclusive scientific enterprise. Attendees are encouraged to learn about their own biases by completing the Project Implicit Gender-Science IAT, Race IAT and Sexuality IAT tests at



handsoffix-benefits&opportunitiesTitle IX is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity receiving federal funding. Title IX was instituted almost 50 years ago to protect equal access to education.

As most of you know the way that Universities handle sexual misconduct has improved in the last decade.  Universities can use trauma-informed practices and put into effect policies that are better for all parties.  In November of 2017 Secretary of Education Betsy Devos withdrew the Title IX guidelines issued during the Obama administration that allowed for much of this reform.

This has the potential to take our universities back a number of steps.   Individuals and collectives have until Tuesday, January 29 to comment on her proposed regressive changes.  Advocates encourage as many people as possible to comment on these regulations.  Many organizations have posted instructions on how to do this.   The direct link to submit your comment is here:

Please take ten minutes to do this! For those of us with no extra time (ummm, that would be all of us), the following sites distill down the issues in succinct text and provide a pre-formatted comment form.

There is a a website here that suggests comments.  It has templates for letters and some data. The hastag is #HandsOffIX

The AAUW has an explanation and petition here.

The UVa Women’s Center page on the subject is here.

The STEM Pipeline has gushing leaks as a consequence (mostly) of discrimination by a plethora of putdowns

Death by a thousand little cuts is a modern metaphor for a slow process in which a multitude of small – seemingly inconsequential (but bad) – things happen that ultimately culminate in the destruction of whomever was suffering the events. Like all sayings, there is truth behind it: historically, the phrase refers to a form of Chinese torture in which death – literally – was the outcome for a victim who was slowly tortured by being subjected to the process having their skin sliced. Pretty gruesome, huh?

An analogous figure of speech can be constructed for the collective effects of gender harassment in the STEM community: discrimination by a thousand little acts of bias (in the form of putdowns, either conscious or unconscious), which has culminated in a loss of STEM talent. As I point out in all my talks on equity in STEM, so much of the discussion has been concerned with blaming women for dropping out of the STEM pipeline (they choose to leave; it coincides with childbearing years; they don’t want to “work hard”; women don’t “lean in”, etc.). Yet, aside from an increasing discussion on family friendly policies at the institutional level, comparatively few studies have been focused on the pipeline itself.

This is quite perplexing to me because, when my kitchen sink leaks, I don’t actually blame the water.  Of course I am upset that water is dripping out, especially if it gets on the floor and makes a big mess, but even if that happens I immediately understand even without thinking about it that the dripping water is a pipeline issue at its core, not a water issue. It is the pipeline that has failed: it corroded; the gasket got old and dry; roots grew in it; etc. Whatever the cause, the water leaks. To remedy this situation, I call a plumber, who examines the pipes, identifies the weak point(s) and then remedies the situation by fixing the pipe.

This evidence-based process is what we continue to need in STEM: Let’s stop blaming the women who leave and instead conduct a serious examination of the pipeline so that we can identify the underlying causes for failure. Only then will we be able to fix it.

There is new hope. Continuing with my broken kitchen faucet metaphor, the National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine have recently played the role of a diagnostic plumber through a report they published this past June on Sexual Harassment in Academia. Their essential diagnosis is that the STEM pipeline is a hostile place for women. And although this NAS report has a dominant focus on the experiences of white women, their bottom line assessment of the STEM enterprise as a horror house for women (my words, not theirs) is most likely also true (and probably worse) for women of color, under-represented minorities and gender and sexual minorities.

Let’s pause and consider some facts from the NAS document:

  • Six out of ten women have experienced harassment in STEM, second only to the military.
  • Most harassment is gender harassment and does not rise to the legal definitions that necessarily fall under the purview of Title IX. In their iceberg image, gender harassment is “below the legal water line”.
  • Mostly, harassment is “put-downs” of women.
  • Institutional culture is the major determinant of the prevalence of harassment.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 4.05.14 PMThese facts (and more) in the NAS report define why the STEM pipeline leaks of women are not a trickling drip, drip, drip, but rather a gushing exodus.

Women leave because of a deep-seated institutional culture that tolerates tiny little acts of discrimination mediated by a plethora of putdowns that happen day-in and day-out. Altogether these send the message that women’s contributions, opinions or competencies are not valued as much as men’s are. And as a woman or any other member of the “out group”, it takes great fortitude and dedication to stay in a job/career/environment that incessantly makes a statement that you do not belong.

Plugging the leaky pipeline is a big, multi-scale problem, and to their credit, the NAS has come up with 15 broad recommendations that cover everything from new laws and policies to a re-envisioning of graduate training to a raised awareness of personal interactions. As an active member of the STEM field, I particularly gravitate towards recommendation #15, which indirectly points out, as the cliché goes, “we have met the enemy, and s/he is us”. This realization is at the same time intimidating and empowering because it means that we, alone, possess the ability to build a better pipeline. Because, as I wrote over at the Biophysical Society blog

We – the current practitioners – are the so-called STEM pipeline. We are the core structural elements of academia. We are the lives and souls of universities and research centers. The institutional transformation we so urgently need is not the metamorphosis of a nameless, faceless entity that is someone else’s problem. Rather, our institutions are composed of people: presidents, provosts, deans, faculty, staff, and students. We the people must develop the resolve to solve this problem. Any change must come from within us. We all need to plug the leaks in our STEM pipeline through our actions and words each and every day. All of us at all levels, collectively and individually, have a responsibility to create and nurture inclusion throughout the scientific enterprise.

Let’s stop the leaks in the pipeline. Inclusive excellence depends on it. The next generation is counting on us.

#WeMustBeBetter #WeMustDoBetter #LetsDoThisWork #WeCanAllBeAllies


Reactions from the student newspaper on our WWS event covering the NASEM report on sexual harassment in academia

Screen Shot 2018-11-07 at 8.20.49 AMAnne-Elizabeth and I were pleased that the Johns Hopkins News-Letter covered our Where We Stand event last week. This is the student newspaper, and it is always interesting to hear how the students react. You can read about it here:


Happening Today: Where We Stand

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 10.42.23 PMLater today I will co-lead the second of a series of discussions on the findings and recommendations of the NAS report on sexual and gender harassment in the STEMM fields. I hope you will come tonight to learn more about this important study and to help craft solutions to this pipeline leak. In the meantime, I leave you with one of the most important pieces of data in the report: 58% of women faculty and staff have experienced one kind or another of sexual harassment! Fifty-eight percent!

It’s no wonder women leave.

Where We Stand is tonight, Oct 25 from 5:30 to 7:00 PM in the Mudd UTL Atrium

#WeMustDoBetter #WeMustBeBetter

#BystanderIntervention at Oberlin

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 10.21.31 PMIn early October, I was hosted by the Department of Chemistry at Oberlin College for a #science seminar on the chaperones that I study (which play hot potato with outer membrane proteins in the bacterial periplasm).  As part of the visit, I did a second session later that evening on #BystanderIntervention. This workshop is an interactive, socratic type discussion that takes apart a scene that is (by design) a little over the top with implicit bias, microaggression, and gender stereotypes. It’s really fun to do, and the thing I like the most about it is the diversity of opinions from the audience. While there are common themes that arise, everyone views a scene from their own place. This makes this session a learning experience for the entire group, me included! And afterwards, I was stunned when a URM woman came up to me and said she came to the session because she wanted to see with her own eyes “a real actual scientist committed to diversity and inclusion”. What an honor to fill that role!

I was also interviewed by the school newspaper.

#WeCanBeBetter #WeMustDoBetter

What are your favorite tips for being a better #bystander?

Discussion on Sexual Harassment in STEM

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 9.59.45 PMThe Women Faculty Forum is hosting a special reception this Thursday to discuss the recommendations of the recently published National Academies report on Sexual Harassment in Academic Science, Engineering and Medicine. The NAS study identifies institutional culture as one of the key determinants of sexual and gender harassment. 

This  Where We Stand event will happen this Thursday, October 25, from 5:30-7pm in Mudd Atrium, hosted by the Women Faculty Forum at Homewood (WFF@H, formerly the Committee on the Status of Women). There will be good food and good company, and children are welcome (we’ll have toys and coloring pages there).
We’ll have multiple tables set up, each focusing on a different recommendation. After Dean Toscano’s introduction, I will present an overview of the report with a commentary on intersectionality—which any understanding of academic culture must clearly reckon with—and then we will arrive at the heart of the event: themed tables where participants will discuss concrete ways that Johns Hopkins can activate these recommendations across the Homewood campus, across all disciplines.
Various resources will be on the table to inform your discussions: a copy of the NAS report (2018); the Vision 2020 report (2006); Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion (2016); Report on Faculty Composition (2016); Report Card on Vision 2020 (2017); and others.
On behalf of the WFF, we very much hope you can join the discussion.  Finally, we invite you to follow our blog and/or twitter (@wffhop).


Happening Today: How are you heard by others?

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 9.00.06 AM

Photo from:

Consider attending the professional development workshop I’m running this afternoon on the topic of Communication. This will take place in the Mudd UTL Atrium from 5-7 PM.

Workshop Details & Description

Kid friendly: We have toddler legos and coloring supplies.