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Disobedience is a mandate, not an award

News and Views

Disobedience is a mandate, not an award

News and Views

BethAnn McLaughlin
Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, USA


In November I sat surrounded by friends at my house shaking and crying. I had received a call telling me that I was a recipient of the MIT Disobedience Award. Endowed by philanthropist Reid Hoffman, the $250,000 unrestricted cash prize gave immediate moral clarity and authenticity to work of the #MeTooSTEM movement.

Five years before that phone call, things were far murkier. The #MeToo movement hadn’t caused the worldwide culture shift we see now. Five years ago, I did the bravest thing I had done professionally up until that point. I decided to stand firmly behind University of Washington scientist Dana Miller, and backed her report describing an evening in which we witnessed retaliatory threats against a student that were both serious and frightening. I remember with great clarity realizing that this choice would almost certainly end my career.

Dana decided to protect a student she had never met. I spoke my truth to support both of them, and there were consequences. The tables were turned and I was investigated. I had to retain my own counsel. I endured internal and external investigations that spanned years. These investigations also stalled my up-until-then successful bid for tenure at an institution I love and helped grow. Countless lost hours, friends and opportunities later, part of my story was reported in February by Meredith Wadman in Science magazine. In response, a scientist I had never met, Sharona Gordon, rallied much-needed support to save my job. She gathered over 11,000 signatures from scientists, students and science allies supporting my bid for tenure. Undergraduates brought that petition and the signatures to my Chancellor’s Office.

Two months later, when Dana, Sharona and I met at the University of Washington for the first time as a group, there were no victory laps or sense of accomplishment. There were only apologies on how we had failed each other. We knew that the bravest thing each of us had ever done professionally was still not enough to protect the person we had tried to help.

The student was never notified of the threats against her. The retaliation against those who reported escalated. Some of us would learn new and painful lessons about how helpless we all are in protecting our families and students even when we were “experts”.

The joy that I took in running my own lab studying cell chaperones, neural metabolism and neurodegeneration is, to this day, overshadowed by the very real likelihood I will never be employable at a research institution again. I have said too much. What I have said is true, but it is too much. I have been too disobedient. Too disrespectful of the systems which are designed to silence and shame us. I save my respect for the thousands of students, faculty and staff, the concerned advisors and frightened spouses who have called, emailed and come to see me speak asking for help and validation since I founded #MeTooSTEM. You can read many of their heartbreaking stories of careers ended too soon on our website metoostem.com.

I am greeted on campuses with hugs, presents and so many tears by amazing women so grateful to be heard, and I am tolerated by men who have sat with crossed arms while students around them cry because someone is finally telling them the truth they knew already. These are my lectures.

Women and other minority voices too often lack the support to speak their truth. No one living this reality considers themselves to be heroic, tireless or fearless. What the three of us share is an aspirational goal of academic decency and relentless dedication to the truth. Dana, Sharona and so many other brave people have formed a foundation of #MeTooSTEM decency and civil disobedience that paves our path forward. It allows us to forge ahead with the moral certainty knowing success is inevitable. I take strength from the knowledge that when the textbooks are written, the pursuit of equity and safety spawned by #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM will be valued more than any gel being run or bit of DNA being manipulated.

History will reveal that women, minorities, LGBTQ family and those with disabilities are neither helped nor honored in any meaningful way in our jobs. We are in STEM, as physician and #MeTooSTEM advocate Eunice Neeley says, not because of institutional commitment to diversity and equity, but in spite of their notable absence of support.

I look at Eunice and am keenly aware that if we want black women in science, and we should, we need to recognize 60% of women from that demographic have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. That is unacceptable, but pretending that is not their lived experience, a source of vulnerability and wisdom is nothing short of willful ignorance.

We navel gaze, have special lectures and pontificate about “equity and diversity” and fail to recognise showing up at work in academia is unsafe for too many people. Pettiness, fear and prejudice are only unsolvable problems if you refuse to spend real money on solving them. All these problems will persist until we refuse to reward those individuals and institutions that violate our shared belief that we do better science by having better humans as scientists.

It is my sincere hope that we become deeply uncomfortable that we fail to expect great things from our STEM administrators and scientific society leaders. That we vote too many people into positions of power and influence as rewards for their publications instead of as endorsements for their principled stances. I hope that those who hear conversation around #MeTooSTEM and feel uncomfortable realize they should. I mean to make you uncomfortable. You have likely been comfortable at some else’s expense for far too long. I was.

If you’ve read this far, I ask you honour the people who have sacrificed so you can be in your space. Do the bravest moral thing you can do in your job today. Then do a slightly braver one tomorrow. I will forever be grateful that a woman, Tarana Burke, who had no great power saw her community devastated by silence and despair and spoke her truth, founding #MeToo. I will forever be grateful one man in particular with great power, Reid Hoffman, shared his moral authority on what is decent and forever changed my life and immediately empowered us to speak our truth more bravely.
The Disobedience Prize was not an award, it is a mandate. It is a mandate that men believe women. That women refuse to publicly drag and diminish each other. It is a statement that we honor those like Dana, Sharona, Eunice and those that have supported us and a reminder that you never have enough power, money or friends to be decent.

Go forward and be disobedient, friends. Don’t believe administrators that tell you “they have it”. You have it. Disobey anyone that tries to silence you when you speak out about safety. You are the hero someone needs and trainee eyes are fixed on you at this moment. Believe women. Protect minorities. Fail epically and share your failures. It’s how we learn things in academia. And we still have a lot to learn.

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