The National Institutes of Health apologized Thursday for failing to address sexual harassment within the influential and powerful organization. They also put forward a set of solutions. It’s about time — this harmful culture has affected scientists for decades.
Having worked in labs across multiple institutions, including at the NIH, I’ve heard accounts of sexual harassment from numerous female scientists and lab workers. These stories never rose to the level of meriting formal complaints. They represent a collection of off-color jokes and comments and inappropriate compliments often directed at young women at the onset of their careers. Women who couldn’t possibly risk pushing back on the remarks.
Research labs function like any professional workplace with a hierarchy, but in some ways fail to maintain professional conduct. In many labs, researchers wear casual clothes. They set their own schedules, coming in and out at odd hours, depending on the needs of a given experiment. They wear headphones while pipetting, or joke around with their coworkers while sitting side-by-side in sterile glass hoods where air constantly blows, drowning out most sounds.
It is in spaces like these that the women I’ve known have endured inappropriate sexual comments, like the researcher who joked about “passing” his female colleague around the lab. It is in these spaces that women have evaded inappropriate questions, like the woman whose colleague asked whether she had ever had an affair. It is in these spaces that women have laughed off jokes that center around their sex lives, like the woman who smiled at a joke that implied she had a sexually transmitted infection.
These anecdotes, exchanged over coffees in hospital cafeterias or during lunches on grassy campus knolls, are just one set of symptoms of a problematic culture — a culture that is perpetuated by the power dynamics that prevent these women from speaking up.
For women to thrive in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), this culture must be eradicated, not just treated once it has caused acute harm.
In its latest statement, the NIH prescribed a regimen for after-the-fact action once someone has already endured harassment. This is akin to administering treatments that reduce the burden of an already existing disease. Such treatments are the bread and butter of traditional health care, and there’s no question they improve lives.
But the future of medicine is in preventing illness. I had hoped that the nation’s premier agency for biomedical and public health research would offer something more than traditional bread-and-butter tactics. Instead of responding to reports of sexual harassment, I want the NIH to propose preventive measures to ensure that no one has to experience harassment in the first place. I want it to outline mechanisms for attacking the underlying cause of the problem: the power dynamics embedded in its culture that enable sexual harassment to go unchecked.
In the statement, NIH Director Francis. S. Collins returned to a theme he surfaced in September when he acknowledged the organization’s culture of sexual harassment: “Sexual harassment is about power,” he said. He then went on to offer solutions — none of which addressed that power.
Instead, the statement focused on ensuring accountability for allegations, fostering safe channels for reporting, and listening to the perspectives of individuals “whose careers or lives have been derailed by sexual harassment.”
At the NIH, I was fortunate to work for and with researchers who supported me and helped me get to where I am today — in medical school at Stanford University. Perhaps because of my own experience, while I am dissatisfied with their statement, I am still able look to the institution with hope and the expectation that it can and should do more.
I understand that the culture of sexual harassment is not unique to scientific or medical jobs, and that its roots run deep, ensnaring women in all occupations, white collar and blue alike. But the NIH and other scientific institutions are uniquely equipped to tackle this problem.
Biomedical research is a process of identifying problems, hypothesizing solutions, and then testing them one at a time. It is a slow, frustrating, and taxing endeavor, but it yields results.
Why not apply to this social and cultural ailment the same method the NIH applies to cancer, infectious disease, and other maladies? Why not study the problem and test creative, novel solutions — not just those that dampen the issue, but the kind that cut to the heart of the problem.
The NIH is home to researchers who develop vaccines and implement gene editing technologies. The institution has turned fatal diseases into chronic, livable conditions. If it can’t tackle the culture of sexual harassment, who can?
Orly Nadell Farber is a second-year student at Stanford University School of Medicine and was a reporting intern for STAT.