Beyond #MeToo: Sexual Harassment in Biomedicine

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The fight against sexual misconduct in the workplace has transcended Hollywood and become a major issue across industries.

Biomedical research and academic medicine are not immune to problems with sexual harassment. In early 2016, Reshma Jagsi surveyed 1,000 men and women on sexual harassment in biomedical research labs, and her study revealed that the proportion of women who reported workplace sexual harassment was one in three. I am one of those women. And I have some ideas about what ought to be done to stop harassment.

Despite the widespread nature of sexual harassment, it’s not always easy to identify. The subtle, garden-variety acts of misogyny are the ones that slowly chip away at female scientists, healthcare providers, postdocs, and graduate students. The regularity of these instances is only made worse by the fact that leadership in academia is still predominantly male.

And it is a concern. While women are entering biomedicine in equal numbers to men, women are more likely than men to quit academia at the postdoc level. There is some evidence to suggest that men and women alike demonstrate a gender bias that negatively affects the hiring and retaining of women in science. A randomized, double-blind study of science faculty from research-intensive universities were asked to evaluate sample application materials for a lab manager position in which identical applicants were randomly assigned a male or female name. Male and female professors rated male applicants more highly. They were inclined to offer male applicants higher salaries and more career mentoring opportunities than their female counterparts.

Sexual harassment happens in hospitals, labs, and academic departments to women at all stages of their careers. On her first week on the job, a friend of mine who is an OB tech, said that she was informed that a male colleague would probably rub her shoulders and wolf-whistle when she walked by him, but “that’s just what he does.” Others I spoke to relayed similar outrages. A clinical research coordinator reported that a male physician asked her why she doesn’t wear more makeup. A professor, at a conference at which she was invited to speak, was assumed to be a male colleague’s girlfriend and sexual partner. A male superior told a research technician that if he weren’t married, he’d sleep with her. A male postdoc told a group of women at a lab meeting that “the problem with women in science” is their inability to control their emotions.

Harassment in academic settings isn’t necessarily overtly sexual, either. Before I transitioned to a career in medical ethics, I was a lab manager at a cancer research institution. At one point, I was the only staff member without a PhD employed by this particular lab. A postdoc got my personal phone number and began texting me at odd hours to grill me about happenings in the lab. He would check the log books on weekends to learn when I was working, confronting me about how much time I spent with lab animals or passaging cells. He subjected me to verbal abuse, standing over me at my desk and screaming at me to show him my personal emails.

When you work in a lab, you often share small spaces with lab mates for long periods of time, waiting for a reaction to occur or observing a lab animal after a procedure. After he loomed over my desk (a lá Donald Trump stalking Hillary Clinton on the debate stage), I told my boss that I no longer felt safe at work. My boss had a casual conversation with the postdoc, but much of the behavior didn’t stop. I can’t help but feel that had I been male and part of this lab’s boys’ club atmosphere, I might have stayed in my position. But in a group of people who had completed more of their education than I had—who didn’t consider themselves my peers—I felt alone. The lab’s atmosphere was not conducive to my learning or the lab’s success.

I decided to leave and enroll in my graduate program full time. I finished my degree, and I now work as a researcher in a department where a great number of my colleagues are female. The men in my department are prime examples of how male allies should act—and if they are intimidated by the women in our office, they don’t show it. But as I have spoken to more and more men and women in science, I know that this workplace gender makeup isn’t the norm.

While #MeToo has been a revolutionary moment for women across industries to finally speak out about their consistently present discomfort at work, the campaign’s end goal hasn’t been clear. Publicly naming accusers focuses the movement on the lurid details of men’s bad behavior, instead of correcting the wrongs of the experience of women—and in some cases, men—who have been harassed on the job.

Academic institutions can and should be doing more to support a diverse female workforce, and this includes providing resources to women regardless of their educational level. Others have argued for harsher punishments for assailants of campus sexual assault, while also providing supportive care and resources for survivors during an investigation. While such policies are crucial to bringing perpetrators of sexual violence to justice, institutional policies should be implemented in a way that takes seriously the veracity of reported instances of workplace harassment on academic and research-intensive campuses, even if an institution’s policy does not classify the situation as sexual assault.

Many cases of sexual harassment go unreported. When women do report sexual harassment, they often experience tangibly negative fallout. In my case, I sacrificed a competitive salary and tuition benefits so that I wouldn’t suffer from daily verbal abuse. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study stated that 75 percent of women who report sexual harassment face some kind of retaliation, including damage to their professional reputation and ostracism in the workplace. Taking accusations of harassment seriously means actively involving those who come forward in decisions on how to appropriately and justly hold perpetrators accountable, giving accusers a sense of empowerment over a situation for which they are not at fault.

In an effort to deter sexual harassment in scientific research, the National Science Foundation recently announced a new set of policies that allow the suspension or elimination of research grants after an institution completes an investigation into an accusation of sexual harassment. While this policy creates serious consequences for sexual harassers that should be in place, the policy puts the onus on institutions receiving grant money to report confirmed cases of harassment. It doesn’t—and can’t—address those sexual harassment cases that are swept under the rug, often to protect men who procure large amounts of NSF funding. If other federal funding agencies follow suit, the NSF reporting requirements may indeed be bolstered.

Serious consequences for sexual harassers, such as suspension or termination from a position, are necessary to foster a safe workplace for women, but they aren’t sufficient to ensure that a workplace remains that way. They don’t fix a deeply engrained, underlying cultural phenomenon: Biomedical science, like many other disciplines, is often sexist. Far fewer women than men apply for NIH funding. In 2014, women only constituted about 30 percent of NIH research grant project principal investigators. There has never been a female director of the National Cancer Institute. A lack of gender diversity in scientific leadership positions may help explain why women are still not accurately represented in clinical trials, despite federal efforts to increase women’s participation in research studies for new treatments. And as the current administration slowly chips away at protections for women’s healthcare services and federal regulations that prohibit discrimination in health insurance coverage on the basis of sex, there has never been a time where we need women in scientific leadership positions more.

When I reflect on my career in academia so far, I have benefitted from the mentorship of women.

My undergraduate research advisor, whom I still consult for advice, became a role model for how to be a woman in science, balancing the expectations of motherhood and family with advancing in her career. My co-workers continue to provide this mentorship, particularly as I move forward with my education in the coming years. I fear that other women may not have this support and are struggling in a field that has long been dominated by men. To date, several initiatives that would have required or incentivized the creation of committees to mentor junior faculty members seeking first government grants have garnered, at best, lukewarm support.

In addition to handing serious consequences to harassers and perpetrators of sexual misconduct in the workplace, institutions must prioritize mentorship for and among women. One method of accomplishing this goal is by fostering institutional events where female scientists can interact, discussing the stressors of their work and gender-related problems they encounter. In such a setting, early career academics can seek out advice from women in more advanced positions, which would be particularly helpful for those who work under male principal investigators.

Women of color, foreign-born scientists, and LGBTQ+ people may face additional struggles in the workplace. Specific resources for them, including the availability of a confidential space in which to voice their concerns, must also be a part of institutionally supported mentorship programs.

While most institutions provide staff members with training courses and employee assistance programs for short-term mental health issues, people appointed to fixed-term academic positions, like postdocs, may not have the same human resources support.

The success of a postdoc almost entirely depends upon the principal investigator, which could prove disastrous for a postdoc’s future career if the principal investigator is ill-equipped to handle reports of harassment on the job. Anecdotally, postdocs receive far fewer employment benefits than staff members. The entire workforce at an institution, regardless of the individual’s position as a staff member, postdoc, or professor, should have access to an employee assistance program that will help those suffering from harassment.

On the flip side, my harasser may have benefitted from counseling to prevent more women from being sexually harassed, if only my former employer mandated such a program for postdocs who behave badly.

Sexual harassment is a symptom of implicit biases, or attitudes that affect our understanding of others in an unconscious manner. Implicit biases are thought to contribute to relatively automatic behaviors, which is why some legislators have suggested that training on implicit bias be incorporated into law enforcement education to combat police violence against the African American community.

The aggregate of individual implicit biases against women in science has been documented, and one 2008 study suggested that these biases are predictive of gender differences in math and science achievement between male and female students. It’s important to note that research studies have been unable to demonstrate that men are more apt in mathematics or science than women; any differences in performance are the result of self-fulfilling beliefs that women lack requisite skills to succeed in these academic disciplines. There may be a role in biomedicine for implicit bias training, aimed at connecting underlying, unconscious beliefs about gender roles with the substantial consequences of those beliefs, which affect women in science and medicine negatively.

Training isn’t and won’t be enough to change workplace culture by itself. Shifts in cultural thought happen over time through sustained individual effort to combat implicit bias. In the meantime, institutions must prioritize proactive solutions for gender inequity in biomedicine, in addition to taking seriously events that unequivocally cross a line.

Creating a new culture of inclusion in biomedicine will take years. But, I am hopeful that #MeToo will encourage more women to speak up and move up in the biomedical arena, taking us several steps closer to finally breaking the glass ceiling.

Kelly McBride Folkers is a research associate at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU School of Medicine. The author would like to thank Arthur Caplan, the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics at NYU School of Medicine, for comments on earlier drafts of this piece.


President Joe Biden’s proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health would be a welcome partner to NCI—particularly in conducting large, collaborative clinical investigations, NCI Director Ned Sharpless said.“I think having ARPA-H as part of the NIH is good for the NCI,” Sharpless said April 11 in his remarks at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. “How this would fit with the ongoing efforts in cancer at the NCI is still something to work out.”
Research associate, Division of Medical Ethics, NYU School of Medicine