Biotech Beware, Your Culture Is Showing


Xconomy Boston — 

In a recent survey of 220 scientists, 60 percent of the respondents reported having experienced harassment at a conference at some point in their careers. Even more astounding is the fact that 82 percent of those who reported harassment did not report it when it occurred. That’s why it’s easy to say, “How big of a problem can it be? I don’t know anyone who’s been harassed.” If you are involved in any part of the life sciences industry, you almost certainly do know someone, and probably a lot of someones.

Five years ago I attended a large scientific conference in Boston. Posters were set up in the exhibit hall near the conference organizer’s booth and networking area. The conference was to be held in Hawaii the following year. Every 30 minutes or so, Hawaiian music would waft over to our booth in the nonprofit area. I strolled around the hall and was horrified to see that this music was accompanying four scantily clad women actually doing a hula dance in the exhibit hall. I went to the conference organizer’s booth to place a formal complaint. Women have enough barriers in science. Did we need to have them actually objectified right next to the poster session? Who thought this was a good idea?

I was told that, “There are men hula dancers too, but they are sick in the hotel,” (you can’t make this stuff up). After a few minutes some conference authorities came over and told me that I would be ejected from the hall if I didn’t stop harassing the hula dancers. The academic head of the conference was a woman. I e-mailed her and basically spelled out how a hostile science work environment can negatively impact women. She did not reply.

It doesn’t seem like a direct link, but the presence of scantily clad women in an exhibit hall gives people who will harass women an environment that permits harassment. It’s not overt, but it is tacit permission to behave badly.

Harassment happens when culture supports it. The vast majority of our colleagues know harassment is wrong, but it takes just a few jerks to change the entire tone of a workplace. All the bias and harassment training in the world is not going to solve the problem if you work in a place where your boss, who was known for having brought a sex toy to a holiday gift swap, texts to ask if you would consider being his side bit of action, and when you go to human resources they tell you to “work it out.” This actually happened to a friend of mine. She was revenge fired soon after.

So, topless dancers last week at a BIO after-party. Sure, maybe the sponsors didn’t know it would happen, so maybe we don’t blame them. Perhaps in the future they will ask the right questions and keep a better watch on their brand. Would you want to work somewhere that stood silently and didn’t come out with a strong statement against it? I have little sympathy for the party’s organizers, who seem to have been entirely deaf to what is going on in the world right now for women in the workplace. #MeToo but not for consultants I guess? They deserve any backlash they get and I don’t hesitate in asking, would you trust advice from a consulting firm that made the decision to organize this type of party?

What about the women attendees who were vocal on social media this week sharing that they weren’t offended and the party was fun? Can I explain how early in my career, with no awareness of bias, I rode on the wings of the support of gender blind parents and early mentors? How the Boston Association for Women in Science chapter folded as result of the passing of Title IX laws because we thought “it was all going to be totally gender fair now”? Will you see bias when you are the only woman in any meeting you attend all week and are asked to take minutes by a subordinate? Will you see it when your deserved promotion is given to someone else?  Will it hit you the first time a partner in your firm grabs your butt? In every wave of feminism, talented and bright young women have said, ‘I don’t want to be called a feminist,’ until they hit that wall of inequity.

You may be a nice person not harassing anybody, but all of us, men and women, are part of the problem if we stand silent when we observe harassment. Few people feel safe or supported enough to report harassment. If labeled as a whistle-blower in our tight community, one may never be able to get a job again. We have to change who the villain is here. It has to be the harassers, not those who report harassment or call out biased behaviors. If you see something, say something. If you are going to a conference, ask to see the harassment prevention and action policy. We all have to help educate people as to the unintended consequences of an environment that is not welcoming to all. You can refuse to present at conferences that do not have, or enforce, an anti-harassment policy or code of conduct. And you can hold people responsible for throwing a party or leading in an industry where women are invited but not welcomed.

Dr. Kamens is the Executive Director of Addgene, a mission driven, nonprofit dedicated to helping scientists around the world share useful research reagents and data. Follow @jkamens

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