The now-viral #MeToo social campaign has been tweeted about nearly 2 million times by men and women in 85 countries, leaving me with a sense of hope — and one of frustration. These posts are often accompanied by stories of encounters that range from gross to humiliating to horrific.
The campaign has untied years of silence for thousands of women who were sexually harassed but kept quiet, and silence by women and men who knew what was occurring but did nothing about it. It has become a blunt indictment of the sexual balance of power that exists today between men and women in the Western world.
As a woman in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and a biotech entrepreneur, I have seen and experienced firsthand the challenges and struggles that women in male-dominated professions face every day. But while there is no overnight fix in any industry or sector, I believe the STEM industries play a critical role in the path to removing gender biases and sexual harassment in the workplace.
The data and research on implicit biases and the discrimination that affects women in STEM are well-documented. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that two-thirds of women in biomedical research have personally experienced “gender bias in professional advancement,” and one-third have experienced sexual harassment. Furthermore, STEM had its own “Harvey Weinstein” moment just over a year ago with Geoffrey Marcy, a well-known astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley.
Sadly, I know that my female peers on both the research and business sides of STEM don’t find these statistics surprising, as many of us have experienced some form of bias, discrimination, or harassment during our careers. For me, it sometimes comes in the form of what appear to be “minor” incidents — whether it is being questioned on my professionalism or having business conversations directed solely towards my male colleagues. Then there are the cases where my ideas and decisions are ignored when I share them, but they are enthusiastically accepted when they come from a man. I’ve been frequently interrupted and talked over (mansplaining). Sometimes in emails where I am very obviously a contributing member to the discussion, I have had colleagues treat me as a scheduling administrator because I was the only female name on the thread.
The most severe cases of harassment I’ve lived through, in both the business and research setting, are especially difficult for me to share publicly. But I have come to accept that the discomfort in thinking about and sharing these experiences is also the imperative for me to share.
I once received an invitation from a prominent Sand Hill Road venture capitalist to join him in a Jacuzzi for a “meeting.” I have been inexplicably and unexpectedly forced to kiss an investor in the middle of a business meeting.
As a researcher, I encountered sexual harassment at the critical and final stage of securing my Ph.D. — my search for a principal investigator. After identifying the top experts in my field, I secured a meeting with a highly respected professor. It was the equivalent of a budding musician meeting her lifelong idol. I was starstruck, and spent days preparing my research ideas. But as I gave him an overview of my dissertation, I realized the meeting was taking a turn for the worse. The professor, a male who, to my knowledge, is still a professor, was conducting a head-to-toe scan of my body and coyly smiling. I stopped mid-conversation to address this uncomfortable situation. He chuckled and unabashedly said, “Sorry, but if I must be honest, you are just much more intelligent than you look.”
Looking back on that episode, I want to believe that if the same thing happened to me today I would speak up and even report him. But at the time I didn’t do that. While I ultimately found another principal investigator, secured my Ph.D., and continued my professional development in the field, the same might not be true of other young women at a similar, or worse, crossroad.
While this scenario could, of course, still happen in an environment where more women are in positions of authority (women are not the only victims of sexual harassment, as we saw recently in the Kevin Spacey scandal), perhaps it would be the rare exception instead of an all-too-familiar story. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that significant power disparities between men and women in the workplace is a top risk factor for harassment. This harassment can, in turn, further perpetuate the status quo, making the respective field that much more challenging for a woman to succeed in, advance in, or enter to begin with. This, of course, extends beyond STEM.
But STEM is a field grounded in facts, hard data, and repetition. We’ve “repeated” enough tests, surveys, and studies of gender bias and sexual harassment, and we’ve reviewed the data. Now it’s time to take this moment to actively carve a path forward and join other industries in rooting out gender-based workplace harassment.
From a leadership perspective, companies and academic institutions large and small across STEM need to commit to “50 Percent in All” — equal representation of women on management teams, boards of directors, and all decision-making committees. To reach a point where this is possible, all executives in power today must leverage their positions of authority to find, discover, and cultivate talented women for leadership positions.
Similarly, women who are advancing in their careers and research need to rise up. Take comfort and courage from the brave stories of the women who’ve shared their #MeToo story. Speak up, reach out (and up), and seek all opportunities for growth early and often. If we approach this from both ends and apply the rigor and mindset of STEM disciplines to the drive to bring about change, STEM can be a driving force in addressing gender equality.
Karin Lachmi, Ph.D., is co-founder, chief scientific officer, and president of Bioz. She previously served as managing director of the western region of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center U.S.