Good Morning! You’re about to sit through one of the most uncomfortable talks of your life.

I attended IScientist 2019 as a representative for MeTooSTEM alongside the powerful Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, who arguably blew the whole conference away (read my quick review of the conference). I opened our session with “Good morning everyone! I hope you’ve had your breakfast and coffee, you’re about to sit through one of the most uncomfortable talks of your life.” Not exactly what you want to hear in the morning, right? I went on to tell Dr. McLaughlin’s story of being a whistleblower at Vanderbilt University and how it got her fired (read more about her story) before turning the attention to how we’ll never be able to keep women in science to the highest levels if we’re bullied, harassed and assaulted out of the lab at every career step.

Ironically, TU Berlin has this gigantic painting in the main stairwell of the building we were in. I don’t know who the artist is, it’s history, or why it’s there. All I know is that in it, women pictured are at least partially naked. There’s a woman’s ass peeking out of her dress, another woman’s breasts on display. I couldn’t let this go without comment, so I put it up on the two huge projection screens. There was a quiet murmur–I wasn’t the only one who’d seen this. It’s no wonder women don’t enter STEM when there are enormous paintings like this one in the staircases of their local universities. They serve as a morbid warning for what is to come if a woman dares to enter STEM. 

Dr. McLaughlin delivered a horrific, riveting talk about the realities of reporting sexual misconduct in academia. 45 minutes of painful truths about how victims are retraumatized when they report, and how their communities ostracize them. In the US, Title IX laws states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” But the Title IX offices are not the safe haven they’re meant to be. They’re staffed with university lawyers, run by university risk analysts and marketing professionals, and report to the highest levels of administration. No one in these offices is trained to respond to trauma, resources are not shared with victims, and protection is not given. Instead, victims are shamed, blamed, gaslit, silenced, and bankrupted. Retaliation rates against victims and whistleblowers is upwards of 90%, and universities will drag out the process until the victim is exhausted, broke from litigation, or both, often resulting in a non-disclosure agreement, barring the victim from discussing their experience. Reporting is not a safe act on campuses, and countless careers and lives have been ruined because of it.

Universities don’t want you to know about this. People don’t want to hear it. But MeTooSTEM wants to end it, so we talk about it. And it’s difficult to swallow every f*$#ing time. The hardest part is looking out at the audience and seeing your colleagues silently crying, and there’s always more than a few. At IScientist 2019, we received the largest standing ovation I’ve ever seen for an academic talk. It went on and on and on, while the tears flowed. My heart broke on that stage, looking out at all the faces bearing the pain they’ve carried silently for so long. While the MeToo conversation is still new to the US, it seems to have barely even begun in Europe, and we opened the floodgates for so many in that audience. 

Everywhere we go, MeTooSTEM hosts a safe space for those who have ideas, need resources, or just need an ear. We host these because every person deserves the space to be seen and validated. We are not mandatory reporters, unlike so many at universities.  We had conversations on the safety at remote field sites, medical programs and how to support friends, and each of these people has taken this back to their communities. The space is somber but empowering. I hope attendees find a place in our community, where they will be supported. We see you, you are not alone. We are fighting for you. 

One thing was very clear during this trip-the #MeTooSTEM movement needs to be global. Europe is primed for the conversations, and we regularly hear from others across the world. We need people to push the culture forward towards inclusivity and respect. Please, join us. Science needs people to raise their voices, to refuse the status quo. Science needs people like you.

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