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The Activist Group MeTooSTEM Is Facing Allegations Of Harassment Against Its Own Leader

BethAnn McLaughlin, founder of MeTooSTEM, has repeatedly been accused of harassing behavior, especially toward people of color.

Last updated on February 22, 2020, at 6:21 p.m. ET

Posted on February 22, 2020, at 5:13 p.m. ET

Boston Globe / Getty Images

BethAnn McLaughlin

MeTooSTEM, a nonprofit founded to support survivors of sexual harassment and assault in science and to hold perpetrators and institutions accountable, has reached a crisis point.

Two individuals on the group’s three-person leadership team have resigned, a week after one of them wrote to the group’s governing board calling for MeTooSTEM’s controversial founder, BethAnn McLaughlin, to step down. The two leaders, Angela Rasmussen and Teresa Swanson, had backed a Chinese American MeTooSTEM volunteer, Jaedyn Ruli, who complained that McLaughlin had harassed them. Ruli has also resigned from the group.

“Time and time again, she doesn’t listen to people of color,” Ruli told BuzzFeed News.

BuzzFeed News first reported on serious concerns about McLaughlin’s leadership in May last year. There have been multiple rounds of departures since MeTooSTEM was founded in June 2018, each prompted by concerns about McLaughlin’s behavior. Earlier resignations in 2019 also followed complaints about McLaughlin marginalizing and harassing people of color.

McLaughlin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York, and Swanson, a pharmacologist and leader of March for Science Seattle, announced their resignations on Twitter shortly after the Chronicle of Higher Education first reported that the scientists had called for McLaughlin to step down.

“We joined MeTooSTEM because we needed the community to deal with our own pain and trauma. We also believed in the organizational mission and thought that by helping others who had endured similar horrors, we could make STEM fields more equitable and just,” Rasmussen and Swanson wrote in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News.

Earlier leaders to step down had described McLaughlin as hostile, complained about a lack of transparency, and said that she had marginalized women of color.

“We misunderstood the complaints of former volunteers as interpersonal disputes. We deeply regret this and are focused on making amends,” Rasmussen and Swanson wrote. “However, by far the person who has done the most harm is BethAnn McLaughlin herself. We resigned in part because of BethAnn's refusal to be accountable for the pain she caused to others and to us. It is unconscionable and cowardly that a ‘leader’ of this movement remains silent when there are so many people suffering because she will not take responsibility for her abuse and the damage she has caused.”

The dispute between McLaughlin and Ruli began during an online video chat for sexual harassment survivors on Jan. 30. Ruli questioned McLaughlin’s advice to involve police in complaints, given historical experiences of people of color. Things quickly escalated. After Ruli said “all cops are Nazis,” McLaughlin told them “to not stereotype cops” and to “be sensitive to those who have cops as family members,” Ruli told BuzzFeed News.

Ruli later sought an apology for what they regarded as McLaughlin’s “tone policing.” In a letter sent to the MeTooSTEM board on Feb. 20, Ruli wrote that a phone call to try to resolve the issue “turned dismissive and aggressive.” On Feb. 11, McLaughlin had also emailed other MeTooSTEM leaders complaining that Ruli had “crossed boundaries with me and others in ways that are disturbing and distressing.”

“She weaponized my mental health struggles to dismiss my concerns,” Ruli said.

Swanson and Rasmussen backed Ruli, and on Feb. 14, Swanson emailed members of the MeTooSTEM board requesting McLaughlin’s resignation. “The Board has not given indication of action,” Swanson wrote in a tweet announcing her departure from MeTooSTEM.

“We told them we were digesting their many concerns,” Carol Greider, a board member and Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed News by email. She added that the board members all individually let Swanson and Rasmussen know that they had received their emails and that the board has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issues raised next week.

With MeTooSTEM’s leadership team now consisting of McLaughlin alone, the path forward for the organization is unclear. Other prominent advocates responded by pointing out the movement to fight sexual harassment in science is much bigger than one individual or one organization.

Just a quick pain-in-the-ass thread about the #MeTooSTEM thing. It's a movement. It never needed a non-profit or a savior. STEM could really learn from critical humanists who discuss the de-stabilizing effects of non-profits...

Others are using the hashtag #STEMToo, rather than #MeTooSTEM, to distance themselves from McLaughlin.

I have experienced bullying and intimidation by the founder of MeTooSTEM (which I refuse to use as.a hashtag anymore), and I split that damn prize with her. She isn’t the movement, and there are so many of us working to change the culture of STEM. It will happen. #STEMToo

“Right now, we don’t need a nonprofit with one leader. We need a strong community,” Ruli said.


CORRECTION

Jaedyn Ruli uses they/them pronouns. An earlier version of this story used an incorrect pronoun in one instance.


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