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Q&A: Scientist and Advocate BethAnn McLaughlin

The neuroscientist talks about her experiences with trying to change how the scientific community copes with sexual assault and harassment.

Aug 7, 2018
Anna Azvolinsky

ABOVE: BethAnn McLaughlin (left) and her daughter on vacation in the Teton mountains of Wyoming
BETHANN MCLAUGHLIN

BethAnn McLaughlin is a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist who has started online petitions calling on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to revoke the memberships of those found guilty of sexual harassment or assault. Through her advocacy, she got the website RateMyProfessors.com—which lets college students rate their professors—to drop its red chili pepper professor "hotness” rating.

McLaughlin spoke with The Scientist about how she got started on her advocacy, the various reactions to it, and why she’s made it a priority.

The Scientist: How did you got into advocacy?

Beth McLaughlin: I didn’t mean to get into advocacy. . . . But I just couldn’t stand it anymore. The thought that my trainees are facing the same problems I had when I graduated college. The same fears of going to meetings and having to have a “buddy” check on you. It’s the same need to vet your new boss through the whisper net to see if they have sexually assaulted someone because there is no public record of most of these things. I had blogged about my experiences with Title IX for years both [using my real name] and anonymously, but taking the fight to NAS, AAAS, universities, and to men in science to do better is a necessary next step. And by “necessary,” I mean we have to do it now or pass this disgrace and fear onto the next generation of women in science. That’s not okay. It ends with us.

TS: What are some advocacy activities you’ve been involved in beyond the NAS and AAAS petitions?

BM: When the NAS report on the incidence of sexual harassment and assault of women in science came out . . . it occurred to me that the first very public-facing profile that many junior professors have is their rating on RateMyProfessors. The idea that you have a student that could be your kid rating if you are hot or not is such a not-funny, outdated, and jocular thing that is beneath the RateMyProfessors website. So I just tweeted at them. . . . And some of my male professor colleagues also spoke up on social media saying that they want the chili pepper rating gone because it makes them uncomfortable and makes them seem sketchy, as if they are hitting on their undergraduate students. So within 72 hours of my tweet, RateMyProfessors took down the rating. 

Recently, a turtle researcher, Dick Vogt, gave an acceptance speech for a Herpetologists’ League award and showed photos of some of his students in bikinis during the talk that the conference organizers even censored in blue. I was contacted by those at this meeting following Vogt’s speech, and I contacted the Herpetologists’ League, which, in the end, rescinded Vogt’s award. Some of those women that were at the presentation and reached out—and I see this often—have a lack of confidence. . . . We keep brushing this stuff under the rug, but the rug doesn’t even touch the ground anymore!

TS: What have been some of your positive experiences as an advocate?

BM: I started the MeTooStem website where people can share their stories about having been harassed or assaulted or retaliated against. It seemed important to me that we have real people tell their stories that go along with the numbers and statistics on harassment. There is a long historical trail of women who have left science because of harassment and it is still impacting women in important and devastating ways, emotionally and financially. Invariably the people who have contributed to the website thank me. This is the one thing where I have experienced the least amount of backlash from the scientific community. It is incredibly emotionally difficult to read and post the stories, but it’s so important to give these women a voice.

We keep brushing this stuff under the rug, but the rug doesn't even touch the ground anymore!

-BethAnn McLaughlin, Vanderbilt University neuroscientist

TS: Why do you think there has been minimal criticism of this website compared to the negative responses to some of your other activities?

BM: I see a lot of humanity in scientists who see the careers of female scientists that are destroyed and that is a real gut punch [for readers]. Of the hundreds of women I have talked to and corresponded with . . . every single one says that the Title IX process was horrible and sometimes worse than the actual harassment or retaliation. The process is arcane, unfair, and vicious, and there is zero justice at the end and zero transparency. We desperately have to change that. 

TS: What are some of the negative experiences you’ve had as a result of your advocacy?

BM: The most backlash has been on the NAS petition. A number of NAS members have written emails to me telling me that I am not one of them and have no right to question what the NAS does. One female NAS member wrote me and quoted the Bible, telling me not to “cast the first stone” at Marcia McNutt [the current NAS president]. My argument is that McNutt is not actually doing anything for women in science and is harming science because she is sitting in a position of power and saying she is powerless to affect NAS policies. We don’t need to think about this problem anymore, we need to get rid of [harassers] and stop honoring them and move onto the real problem of helping the female scientists whose careers have been affected, and to prevent more women from leaving science because of this. I refuse to engage with anyone saying “it will be hard” but not actually doing anything about it. 

In May 2018, McLaughlin started a petition to remove members found guilty of sexual harassment.
FLICKR, EP_JHU

TS: Have there been other unpleasant side effects of your activism?

BM: The negative social [media] comments have been difficult because I have a 15-year-old daughter who is new to social media. Unfortunately, she’s seen people post a Google image of our house, and she is seeing people commenting on who I am, how I look, and why I need to shut up. I wasn’t trying to let her see these negative comments, but there was a day I was at a conference where I couldn’t be in touch with her for a few hours, the day the chili pepper RateMyProfessors comments went viral. She was poking around Twitter and saw comments [from] people telling me that they are going to kill me and that I am a horrible bitch. She panicked and started calling my friends to figure out if I was ok. 

That’s been the hardest part of this, to watch my daughter see this angry backlash of people. She understands what I am trying to do and keeps asking “Why is this not done?” and “Of course they need to take an award away from someone who has harassed women.” These are obvious things to her and I almost feel silly telling her, “No, the science community has not gotten rid of these people who assaulted women.” 

TS: Have you been surprised by anything that’s come out of your activism?

BM: One of the things that has made my daughter happy are the Edible Arrangements that a few people have sent us. She thinks all of this might be worth it for the fantastic fruit that we get! I’ve received about eight Edible Arrangements in the last month from 500 Women Scientists and other scientists. It’s all because I was tweeting at McNutt, telling her that she should send me an Edible Arrangement gift because I am bringing attention to her cause of sexual harassment . . . I was giving her a hard time. 

Also the guys participating in the #STEMTrollAlert hashtag, which is men responding to trolling and negative comments against women. They respond to the men who say, “I need to hear more stories of sexual harassment to understand this issue,” or who say, “You should be tough or you shouldn’t be in science.” We have enough statistics on this that it’s real. Ten percent of female scientists don’t go to conferences to avoid sexual harassment, according to Kate Clancy’s work. It’s exhausting to have to keep re-explaining this so I love that there are guys taking up the cause. 

TS: What has been the general response from the women in science who you know?

BM: There are so many younger women in science who thank me . . . and support me publicly and engage me in conversations and tell their stories. Yet there are women in science who have made it, who are 50, 60 years old, and the editors of journals, AAAS Fellows, NAS members, and full professors, but that I don’t see reaching back and speaking out publicly. Their voices would mean so much to this cause—to both young women in training and women like me struggling to be seen as more than a lone voice. People think I am a senior scientist with stability and security, but that is not the case. I did not turn in a grant this summer because there was too much to do and there was no one else doing it. But I very much consider this part of my job. I think I am doing more for science than a lot of people are by pipetting. You have to get to a point where you realize you are never going to have enough colleagues, mentors, funding, and security. The future of women in science matters more than you or your lab.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity.

November 2018

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