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 actual, real 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, MeTooSTEM.com, 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 RateMyProfessors.com 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: https://www.change.org/p/nicholas-s-zeppos-vanderbilt-do-right-by-bethann-mclaughlin
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.