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In the wake of #MeToo, a new spotlight on harassment in biomedical science

When, in early 2016, Dr. Reshma Jagsi published her survey on sexual harassment in biomedical research labs, it prompted an outpouring of emails from women in the field. The study was the first of its kind in two decades, and its findings were startling: Among a sample of 1,000 biomedical researchers, both men and women, the number of women reporting workplace sexual harassment had declined since 1995, but still amounted to 1 in 3 women.

Now, in the wake of high-profile sexual assault allegations sweeping through popular culture, Jagsi — who heads the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan — has found that her research has gotten a second life. The biggest change, she said, is that she is hearing from more men.

In the several emails a week she now gets, “They’re saying things like, ‘I had no idea this was so widespread,’” she said. “And of course I’m thinking, ‘Hello! I did a study on this; thanks for not reading it.’”

Alongside the #MeToo movement and a continuing drumbeat of assault allegations, biomedical science has also had its share of accused harassers. Jagsi lays out some of the many anecdotal instances in a perspective article published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Other cases have been more high-profile. University of Washington microbiology researcher Michael Katze was fired in August, after an investigation found he harassed women working in his lab. In October, the University of Southern California dropped medical school dean Dr. Rohit Varma after news stories uncovered the school’s 2003 disciplinary action against Varma for sexually harassing a female colleague.

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Last year, Jagsi told STAT that victims of harassment are reluctant to report it because of, among other things, “a misperception that it is rare.” Jagsi wanted to believe that herself.

“Ironically, my hope had been, when I initiated my own study, that we would find some good news,” she said. “There have actually been a number of studies of sexual harassment in academic medicine, but many are dated, and so most of us assumed they reflected a bygone era.”

But today, she said, the current revelatory climate is debunking that misperception, not only among victims, but also among male scientists and department heads who might perpetuate or witness sexual harassment in biomedical research.

“So, now they’re asking, ‘How do I make sure this isn’t happening in my department?’ And since a lot of them don’t know how to look for it, they ask, ‘How do I see it when it’s happening?’ ‘How do I prevent it?’”

Too often, the answer to such questions is meetings, lectures, or handouts on diversity or sensitivity, said Dr. Pat D’Amore, research director at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear, where she oversees ophthalmology labs and researchers.

“Most of the solutions that are brought up involve training,” she said. “All that does is put the issue on the map, and give people a vocabulary to talk about it, but does it change behavior? I don’t think so.”

The way people are taught about preventing sexual harassment has to change, D’Amore said. “Training has to be interactive, something that turns this into a real conversation.”

Jagsi agreed, saying that the first step to creating a workplace culture that is a safer and more respectful to women is to talk about what might be undermining that goal. She pointed out that male department heads have to start “noticing when there are things in the department that create a situation where women feel left out, or excluded.”

All-male poker nights are one example she cites. Those events are all well and good — just as long as all genders feel welcome, Jagsi said. “And that goes for other single-gender events, like Super Bowl parties. And if there’s an event where you feel women cannot be included, then you have to think about why you feel that way. Is it because you believe that women wouldn’t know anything about poker or wouldn’t enjoy football? Why do you believe that? Or is it that there will be behavior that would be offensive to women? Why is that taking place?”

She also points to the importance of mentorship. One model, she said, is Astronomy Allies, a support system set up by women astronomers to assist and protect younger female colleagues. They offer confidential mentoring for postdocs and others who may need help but feel unable to get it within their institutions.

“It’s confidential, so they can reach out without worrying out it getting back to the guy who has to evaluate their research,” Jagsi said.

READ NEXT: Female scientists face gender bias in NIH grant process

And since sexual harassment and assault often occur at meetings and conferences, Astronomy Allies attend these gatherings wearing buttons to identify themselves.

“They let the young women know that if they find themselves in an uncomfortable conversation at a conference, they can message the Allies to tell them, ‘Help, I’m at Booth A and I need to get away from this creep,’ and someone will get to them and get them out of that situation.”

But she admits that the Allies effort is “reactive instead of proactive.” She is hoping that the male researchers and department heads now discovering her survey will take concrete steps to prevent the harassment of female colleagues.

“[The survey is] making many well-meaning men at least think about it,” she said.

This article is reproduced with permission from STAT. It was first published on Dec. 15, 2017. Find the original story here.

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