Earlier this week, Vanderbilt University neurobiologist BethAnn McLaughlin helped expose sexual misconduct allegations against a fellow scientist.
Using her Twitter handle, @McLNeuro, she shared online posts about an effort by university professors to bar a West Coast computer scientist from speaking at a prestigious international conference because of known sexual harassment allegations.
“I will take your money and your sense of privilege and entitlement and make people aware of who you are and what you’ve done and what you have been found guilty of,” McLaughlin said.
It was business as usual for McLaughlin, 50, who has been described as both a hero and a vigilante in the scientific community for her efforts to call out sexual harassment. Most recently, she has taken up the cause of seven Dartmouth College students who sued the school saying it did not protect them from a culture of harassment and assault.
McLaughlin’s unconventional approach to dealing with known and alleged sexual harassers in the scientific community has earned her an ardent social media following, fans and enemies alike, and anonymous mail deliveries of both fruit baskets and feces.
On Friday, she received the Disobedience Award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which honored her and this year’s other winners for refusing to be silenced despite the risks, MIT officials said.
“The way science works — your peers control your funding, your publications, and your fate,” said Ed Boyden, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab. “Speaking out requires great courage. And BethAnn indeed incurred a lot of backlash, but kept on going.”
At a time when universities and their venerable scientific research laboratories are grappling with how to address sexual harassment, the Boston-born scientist has become one of the leading voices for change.
She has called on the National Academy of Science to strip lifetime membership to the prestigious group from anyone found to have violated sexual harassment policies. She started an online petition urging the National Institutes of Health, the country’s leading research funder, to bar scientists with a known history of sexual misconduct from receiving grant money, travel funds, or career awards. The petition has collected more than 2,100 signatures.
And this past summer, she got RatemyProfessors.com to drop its chili pepper “hotness” rating for professors, arguing that it created a poor academic environment for women.
McLaughlin, who grew up in Hanover, N.H., shared Friday’s award and the $250,000 cash prize with two other women — Tarana Burke, the founder of the “Me Too” movement, and Sherry Marts, a biologist who consults with nonprofits on dealing with sexual harassment at meetings and conferences.
McLaughlin is unapologetic about turning a spotlight on scientists known to have violated sexual misconduct policies on campuses, in their labs, or at conferences, because, she says, institutions and universities don’t do enough to police sexual harassment or to strip titles and funding from those found in violation.
“What’s the alternative?” she said. “I used to be nice, honestly, I really was. The thing that pushed me further was seeing these smart and talented women who didn’t want to go to work — would rather stay home . . . than communicate with their colleagues.”
McLaughlin recently launched a nonprofit, MeTooSTEM, to advise scientists dealing with sexual harassment at their labs, schools, and workplaces. She hopes that the organization will put colleges and universities on notice that somebody is watching how they handle sexual harassment complaints, she said.
McLaughlin’s backers say that her efforts are crucial to improving the environment for women in the sciences. Her critics say that she is side-stepping due process for these scientists and that their misconduct doesn’t diminish the scientific breakthroughs for which they have received honors.
“It was easier to go public knowing that there was a whole MeTooSTEM community who would have my back,” said Sasha Brietzke, one of the seven Dartmouth students who filed the lawsuit. “She uses a bold, loud voice and, in doing so, has helped enact real change.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a sweeping study found that sexual harassment is pervasive in the medical and engineering fields where undergraduate and graduate students are more likely to be exposed to inappropriate behavior from faculty or staff than their peers in non-STEM fields. In one survey, almost half of female medical students reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment by faculty or staff. And about 20 percent of female science students and 25 percent of female engineering students said they had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff, according to surveys commissioned by the report’s authors.
The study found that the harassment took a toll on women’s careers and that current policies aren’t curbing the problem.
McLaughlin said her own experience as a witness in a sexual harassment case showed her the shortcomings of the Title IX process, which is designed to deal with sexual harassment complaints.
But McLaughlin took on a much more public role and launched MeTooSTEM after allegations of sexual harassment against cancer scientist Inder Verma surfaced earlier this year in the magazine Science. Verma was a prominent researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He resigned from Salk before the institute took action on the allegations, but he remains a member of the academy.
McLaughlin’s efforts have yielded mixed results overall.
Officials with the National Institutes for Health said McLaughlin’s criticisms that the agency has done little to curb sexual harassment are wrong and unfair.
“The allegation of the institute doing nothing is incorrect,” said Jodi Black, deputy director for outside research at NIH.
NIH has to be certain that there are official findings of wrongdoing, not simply allegations, before sanctioning scientists, officials said.
They could not recall a recent instance where a researcher was barred from receiving federal funds because of sexual misconduct.
NIH has replaced principal researchers on its grants if the agency becomes aware of sexual misconduct findings or investigations. But pulling the money isn’t always the best approach, Black said.
“We try to preserve the science,” Black said. “There are students and postdocs and junior faculty in the lab that we don’t want to harm.”
But she acknowledged that the process is heavily reliant on colleges and universities notifying NIH of investigations, and sometimes institutions are wary about divulging personnel-related actions because of privacy concerns.
NIH is trying to communicate more with universities about notification guidelines, training for researchers, and prevention efforts to address sexual harassment. NIH will be conducting a climate survey early next year of its own internal researchers to measure the extent of the problem in the hopes that it can be a model for colleges and universities.
That’s not enough for McLaughlin, who said she’ll continue bringing attention to organizations such as NIH, until she sees more comprehensive changes.
“I don’t want to study sexual harassment, I want to end sexual harassment,” McLaughlin said.