The Cost of Speaking Out? #MeTooSTEM Activist May Lose Her Job

Mar 10, 2019

Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin (third from left) was honored with a 2018 Disobedience Award for her #MeTooSTEM activism.
Credit Jon Tadiello, MIT Media Lab / https://goo.gl/6sxYZh

A leading voice in the fight against sexual harassment in academia has been denied tenure at Vanderbilt University, and some see it as a cautionary tale of the price women pay for speaking out.

Rates of sexual harassment in academia are second only to the military. In fact, a recent report from the National Academy of Science concluded that at least half of all women in science have experienced sexual harassment. So, when the #MeToo movement launched, women in science jumped right in and created their own hashtag, #MeTooSTEM - STEM, of course, being the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

Neuroscientist BethAnn McLaughlin (@McLNeuro) quickly became a leading voice - and a bit of a celebrity - in the movement. She founded #MeTooSTEM.com and launched a petition that called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - the largest funder of biomedical research in the U.S. - to hold those it funds accountable for sexual harassment.

"She's really gotten the attention of some big players in medical research," said Meredith Wadman, a staff writer who covers biomedical research and sexual harassment for the journal Science.

McLaughlin's work earned her a 2018 Disobedience Award from MIT's Media Lab, and even a public (Twitter) thank-you from the director of the NIH.

NIH Director Francis Collins recently thanked BethAnn McLaughlin for her work to combat sexual harassment in science.

But McLaughlin has been denied tenure and will soon lose her job at Vanderbilt University, unless the university's chancellor reverses the decision. And, while the situation is not directly linked to her #MeTooSTEM activism, it is very much linked to sexual harassment in academia.

In 2015, McLaughlin testified in a sexual harassment investigation of a colleague who, in turn, asked Vanderbilt University to investigate McLaughlin for defamatory tweets he claimed she had sent.

The University launched a disciplinary probe and froze her tenure process. In the end, the three-person committee voted in McLaughlin’s favor and no disciplinary action was taken.

"There were tweets sent. They were from an anonymous, multi-user account," Wadman explained. “They did not name Vanderbilt people or Vanderbilt, with one exception.”

But Wadman says that whether or not McLaughlin sent nasty tweets is beside the point.

"The bottom line is she testified in a sexual harassment investigation and found herself being investigated instead,” said Wadman. “This sends a chilling message to women who want to set up and report on sexual harassment.”

After the investigation, McLaughlin's tenure process was restarted and the application was initially approved. But the dean of medicine sent the application back to the committee with instructions to consider the disciplinary probe.

The second vote turned out very differently – unanimous rejection. That was in 2017. McLaughlin has appealed and is now waiting to see if the chancellor of the university will reverse that decision and save her job.

Wadman says McLaughlin’s story is representative of the broader challenges of addressing sexual harassment in academia.

According to Wadman: “The take-home message for anyone watching this from afar is: 'Ooh, you take a lot of risk when you report in a sexual harassment investigation.'”