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.

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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.

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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.

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  • I always find it amazing how some of the most brilliant minds in science have such a blind spot towards their own foibles. They completely lack introspection and insight, yet are quick to point out shortcomings in others. I hope those at the NIH take this seriously and consider a more proactive approach as suggested by the author.

  • For prevention of smoking, a standardized drawing that shows a giant red “X” through a cigarette is commonly posted. Similarly, for prevention of sexual harassment, why not post drawings that display a giant red “X” through a smiling wolf’s face?

  • I was the EEO OFFICER in NIDDK from 1973 until I retired in September 1994.
    The largest number of complaints I heard were from females were sexual harrashment incidents. Only two actual filed complaints. One didn’t sucede
    because she (PhD ) found another position. The other was denied an in grade because she would not have sex with supervisor. I suggested that she appeal the decision of denial of the in grade that personnel officer recommeded. She appealed to the Merit System Board and won her ingrade and a solution to her
    problem another position.
    A Section chief was accused by his secretary and other women in his section of
    unwanted touching parts of their bodies. He grinned and said Mr. Ager, they liked it. I reported this conduct to the scientific director who promise to take action. Nothing changed. I learned after I retired that collective the females in in section, which included his wife an MD reported his behavior to Dr. HEALY, the first and onl y women director of NIH. She called the person to her office and him a choice, resigned or fired. He resigned and landed a plum position with a well known research facility in Boston. On a visit to NIH to see friends. His former spouse was now working in the lab of my friend. When she came I to his office he told her I want you to me Joe. He was a chemist here for 25 years and answer your question to help U solve the problem. We both said we knew one another. He wanted to know how? She did not hesitate to tell Tom in not so flattering terms.

  • The NIH apparently is run by power- and control-hungry MEN. So what else did one expect from a NIH driven (read: controlled) internal review? To bring on real change at the NIH, other scientists and policy makers and women need to get involved – somehow infiltrate the Boys Club it apparently still is.

  • In the past women were considered chattel property to men and had with no rights. Men still feel entitled to mentally breaking down and mistreating women. Many institutions don’t hold men accountable for poor performance and bad, disrespectful behavior. Women even in a professional capacity also refuse to make men accountable for bad behavior. However in contrast, female managers enable abusive culture by having female workers overcompensate, take responsibility for errors or bad behavior exhibited by men. Essentially men and the abusive women behind them support abusive treatment of women socially and in the workplace.

  • Janet, with all due respect you comment really concerns me because it places the burden of this problem on the victim which is usually the disenfranchised, marginalized but highly capable and skilled woman in these sexual harassment or dominance cases and lets men off the hook for being unprofessional, disrespectful and not controlling themselves in a work environment. In the past women were chattel property with no rights. Men still feel entitled to mentally breaking down and mistreating women. Women even in a professional capacity refuse to make men accountable for low or poor performance and bad behavior. In the same vain female managers enable abusive culture by having female workers overcompensate, take responsibility for errors or bad behavior exhibited by men. Essentially men and the abusive women behind the support abusive treatment of women in workplaces and in the intimate reaches of their personal lives.

  • Sexual harassment isn’t so much about power distribution, it’s also about the recognition of a standard. We don’t have one! I propose the Catholic standard. That’s no sex outside of marriage. None. Zilch. And inside marriage, only un-contraceptive sex.

    I know, seems harsh. But if we want women to be free to participate in science or anything else, the rules have to be clear. It can’t be, she’ll play around with A but not with B. It has to be, she nor A nor B can play around at all.on pain of sin, on pain of dismissal. It’s the lack of clear boundaries that gets us.

    • I can’t tell if you’re joking or not. But if not: you do realize that sexual harassment still happened when our society was more conservative and those boundaries were clear? The power issue would still be there, and perhaps even more so. The “Catholic standard” would be a poor solution.

      Also, to the author: what would you have them do? I understand that you want the NIH to figure this out, but what would your solutions be? Trainings?

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