The Harassment Tax

TL;DR: This twitter thread from Michael Hendricks is on the money.

In a recent article in Science about the National Academies developing a procedure to expel sexual harassers, Dr. Robert Weinberg (Member, Whitehead Institute; and Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research in the Department of Biology at MIT) was quoted as saying, “Before there is a mad rush to approve such an ejection procedure, it might be useful to ask whether sexual harassment by a member has anything whatsoever to do with their credibility as a scientist and the soundness of their research accomplishments—the criteria that were used to elect them in the first place.” When scientists reach these milestones by imposing costs on others through falsification, harassment, or other means they are externalizing costs onto the rest of the field. We shouldn’t honor that.

We might be tempted to buy into a lone genius model of science. In popular media, scientists are sometimes presented as brilliant folks who toil in isolation and only emerge when they have some deep, self-evident insight that nobody can disagree with. However, this model is a myth and nothing could be further from the truth. Science is a messy, community-based process. The scientist toiling long hours in the lab has based work on the findings of others. That scientist has had ideas honed by a mentor, feedback from others in the research group, and directly or indirectly by external peers. For the work to be convincing and impactful, the scientist will need to rule out additional models raised by the community by performing more experiments. The ultimate trajectory of a research program and its influence is shaped by others.

As soon as one leaves the lone genius myth behind, it is obvious why harassers should not be admitted to the National Academies and should be expelled if they already have been admitted. Unfortunately, harassment is all too common in academia, with fifty-eight percent of female faculty and staff in academia reporting behaviors that constitute harassment. Scientists who are harassed have their time and attention unfairly taken from them. They may leave one field and transition to another to escape their harasser(s) – requiring them to spend time gaining additional skills and knowledge – or even leave science entirely (see the NASEM report on Sexual Harassment of Women, Chapter 4). Those who support such scientists (for example Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, founder of #MeTooSTEM) are also taxed for their own time and attention. Too often, these may be ghost mentors who receive little or no credit for their efforts.*

Harassment taxes the harassed scientist’s time, attention and resources, as well as those of other scientists. It weakens the community: by promoting a homogeneity of experiences and backgrounds it reduces the effectiveness of scientific inquiry. In short, it imposes the costs for the failings of the harasser on others. Revisiting Dr. Weinberg’s question of whether or not sexual harassment has anything to do with a perpetrator’s credibility and research accomplishments, my answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

It’s clear that the National Academies can be a force for good: see, for example, their own report on the impact of Sexual Harassment. If the National Academies fail to pass this policy during the vote on April 30th, then they will have failed the scientific community. Other organizations, for example the Wellcome Trusts, are moving ahead with policies to reduce harassment in science. Every time that the National Academies fail to expel harassers, they look more like relics of a bygone age. This diminishes the relevance of the Academies to the future of science and the honor associated with membership.

* Take Dr. McLaughlin for example: her work is more widely cited than mine, she’s received more NIH funding than I have (in addition to other federal funding), and she’s clearly had a larger impact on the practice of science than I have (AAAS and NAS among many others). It’s clear that she is far more qualified to be a tenured faculty member than I am. In a seemingly absurd decision, Vanderbilt denied her tenure case after the dean of VUMC, Jeffrey Balser, had her case reconsidered by a committee that included a faculty member now on leave for sexual misconduct (David Sweatt). The committee in question was overturning two initial favorable tenure decisions. The Chancellor of Vanderbilt University, Nick Zeppos, has failed to support her tenure case, though he has published a blog post on the importance of women at Vanderbilt. It conspicuously ignores Dr. McLaughlin, a winner of the MIT Disobedience Prize.

P.S. I gave a talk at UAB recently, where I included some slides (+ a new bonus slide with Dr. Weinberg’s quotation for a seminar I’m giving at NYU on Monday, April 8). You are welcome to use them in your own talks (note the arrangement, which is my own, is CC0 licensed, but certain content is by others and not openly licensed and so uses of those portions must fall under fair use).

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