An outspoken campaigner against sexual harassment in science is facing a crisis of leadership at MeTooSTEM, the volunteer organization she founded last year to support victims and hold perpetrators and institutions accountable.
Since November, seven members of the leadership team have resigned, citing concerns about the behavior of its founder, BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
In their resignation letters, former MeTooSTEM leaders said that McLaughlin kept them in the dark about key decisions and reacted with hostility when they asked about the small organization’s finances and legal structure. They also worried that McLaughlin had alienated allies through her combative tweets.
“There have been several instances where supporters of MeTooSTEM have been upset by the tenor of your tweets, up to and including blocking you or being blocked by you,” wrote Julie Libarkin, an environmental scientist at Michigan State University who has compiled a database of more than 770 academic sexual misconduct cases, and Tisha Bohr, a biology postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, in their resignation email sent in November.
“Some of them, victims themselves, have reached out to us for clarification and support ... putting us in an impossible position of trying to support victims as well as you and the movement,” the message continued.
The most recent three departures, on April 24, included the only two women of color on the MeTooSTEM leadership team. “We … felt that white leadership input was prioritized over our own,” wrote Deanna Arsala, a biology graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Vidhya Sivakumaran, a former biophysicist who now works for a health informatics company.
MeTooSTEM was formed after a string of sexual harassment scandals involving leading scientists, amid growing recognition that sexual and gender harassment is a pervasive problem in science. The rifts within the organization come against the backdrop of a debate about how best to tackle these problems, as McLaughlin’s burn-it-all-down zeal clashes with efforts by some activists to work with the academic establishment to achieve reform.
“I am aware that BethAnn is a polarizing person. Much of her effectiveness has been in bringing truth to power and being in your face,” said Carol Greider, a Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University, who earlier this month agreed to serve on MeTooSTEM’s board. “And sometimes those approaches do undermine the effectiveness.”
McLaughlin declined multiple requests for comment.
Leaders who have stayed with the organization defended McLaughlin’s activism, much of which is not in public view, they said.
“In my experience, all ideas were welcome and supported,” Britteny Watson, MeTooSTEM’s business manager, told BuzzFeed News by email.
“On the whole, I have personally had positive experiences with BethAnn and MeTooSTEM. I have seen her consistently go above and beyond for survivors, especially for transgender people of color and people who are dealing with issues related to immigration,” said Johanna Folk, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.
Folk added, however, that she can’t speak for anyone else. “My overall positive experience does not negate the concerns of others. All the people who left MeTooSTEM are ones I really look up to and value both personally and professionally. I am grateful for all of their work."
MeTooSTEM is not the first grassroots activist organization to face growing pains: Occupy Wall Street was riven by infighting among its founders; the Women’s March was accused of anti-Semitism; Black Lives Matter has wrestled with debates over its future direction; and the March for Science, formed to protest the Trump administration’s science policies, added women of color to its leadership in 2017 after complaints that it was neglecting the concerns of minority groups.
McLaughlin is a particular lightning rod within the #MeToo movement in science because she has become its public face amid concerns that her combative approach may sometimes do more harm than good.
“There is a distinction between trying to speak truth to power and just bringing heat.”
“There is a distinction between trying to speak truth to power and just bringing heat,” said Kate Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana and an longtime advocate of women facing sexual harassment in science, who reached out to former volunteers after seeing their resignation tweets.
“What I’m hearing and seeing is heat being brought to women of color, heat being brought to grad students, and heat being brought to victims of sexual harassment,” Clancy said.
McLaughlin’s public activism grew from turmoil in her own career at Vanderbilt. Her application for tenure was put on hold after another Vanderbilt neuroscientist, Aurelio Galli, accused her of sending abusive tweets about him and other colleagues from multiuser accounts.
Galli had already been accused of sexual harassment by a former PhD student, who in July 2014 sued him and the university. McLaughlin later testified in support of a research collaborator from the University of Washington who in January 2015 alleged that Galli said, during a dinner at his house, that he would spend “every last penny” to make sure the person who accused him was ruined. (Vanderbilt settled the lawsuit brought by the PhD student in December 2014, and the judge dismissed her case against Galli.)
McLaughlin’s tenure application eventually restarted in 2017, but a faculty committee voted against her. She filed a grievance, which was rejected in February. (Galli has left Vanderbilt for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and filed his own lawsuit against McLaughlin for defamation in October 2018.)
McLaughlin rose to public prominence in May 2018, when she launched a petition asking the National Academy of Sciences remove members who had been sanctioned for sexual harassment. She followed up with a similar demand to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and later pressured the National Institutes of Health, the main federal funding agency for biomedical research, to stop giving grants to harassers and to exclude them from committees that help decide which scientists should get funded.
Through her acerbic Twitter account @McLNeuro, McLaughlin railed against “harassholes” and sparred with scientific leaders including NAS President Marcia McNutt. In June 2018, she founded MeTooSTEM, initially as a website for women in science to tell their own stories about harassment.
She got results. In June 2018, the website RateMyProfessors.com dropped its “chili pepper” rating of professors’ “hotness” after a McLaughlin tweet criticizing the feature as “obnoxious and utterly irrelevant” was widely shared. In September, the AAAS announced a procedure to remove elected fellows involved in cases of sexual or gender harassment. And in February this year, NIH Director Francis Collins and other agency leaders cited McLaughlin’s activism in a statement that apologized for a failure to “address the climate and culture that has caused such harm” and promised: “We can do better. We must do better.”
Praise for McLaughlin culminated in November 2018 with the $250,000 MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award, which she shared with Tarana Burke, the civil rights activist who founded the #MeToo movement, and Sherry Marts, who has worked with scientific organizations and other nonprofits to make their events more inclusive.
But by that time, volunteers who had joined MeTooSTEM were starting to leave the organization.
First to depart, on Nov. 9, were the two scientists behind the @9replyguys Twitter account, launched to highlight the trolling and unhelpful comments that women often experience on social media. Scott Barolo, a cell biologist at the University of Michigan, said that he and the anonymous @shrewshrew, the account’s other author, were worried about a lack of transparency over the direction, structure, and finances of the organization.
“@shrewshrew and I became concerned that we were publicly associated with a fundraising organization that we didn’t understand and couldn’t get any information about,” Barolo told BuzzFeed News by email.
They were followed later that month by Bohr and Libarkin. “I left because I felt like attempts to organize structure and incorporate inclusive language were dismissed or ignored, that credit wasn't being properly allocated, and that differing opinions were often met with hostility both privately and publicly,” Bohr told BuzzFeed News.
“The things which people want (bylaws, structure, hierarchy, communication) are all critical,” McLaughlin replied to Bohr and Libarkin’s resignation email. “But those things do not have to happen now.”
Other leaders said that they pressed McLaughlin to give them designated roles. “When we tried to make long-term plans, BethAnn wasn’t really interested,” Erica Smith, a physics postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University Bloomington, who resigned in April, told BuzzFeed News. “We had a leadership team in name, but not really in practice.”
Smith, Arsala, and Sivakumaran left after a tense exchange of messages with McLaughlin after they asked questions about MeTooSTEM’s nonprofit status and finances, boosted by a GoFundMe launched in October 2018. The campaign has so far raised more than $78,000 toward a $200,000 goal. The money, according to the donation page, will be used to file for status as a tax-exempt nonprofit and to provide legal help for victims of harassment.
McLaughlin has also clashed on Twitter with activists who have disagreed with her. In August 2018, Anna Waymack, a humanities graduate student at Cornell University, responded to a McLaughlin tweet that told victims of campus sexual assault: “Title IX is broken. Go the the police.”
After Waymack argued that survivors should make their own choices, and pointed out that some have been further traumatized by the criminal justice system, McLaughlin cut her short with a one-word tweet: “Bye.”
“Being blown off like that was personally upsetting but also concerning because it replicates what the academy already does with that sort of dismissiveness,” Waymack told BuzzFeed News.
Last month, McLaughlin tweeted angrily at Hontas Farmer, a transgender woman of color who teaches physics at the City Colleges of Chicago. In a thread about student–faculty relationships, Farmer noted that it would be “unenforceable to forbid relationships.”
“Get off my time line with your pro-preying on students garbage,” McLaughlin responded. “Grown ups are talking. #STEMTrollAlert.”
That hashtag had previously been used to encourage allies to defend women scientists being trolled on Twitter. In response to its use against Farmer, one Twitter user tweeted an image of Jimmy Fallon in a wig. (The user later deleted the tweet, and apologized to Farmer.)
Farmer told BuzzFeed News that she has experienced worse attacks online, and she has continued to retweet McLaughlin after the incident. “I’ve dealt with people like BethAnn before. They’re very driven by what they believe and that sometimes makes them do wrong things,” she said.
McLaughlin’s strongly held beliefs extend to the current debate about how best to reduce sexual harassment in academia. Speaking at a meeting at the NIH on May 16, she condemned an effort launched in April called the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education, led by the National Academies and involving more than 40 colleges, universities, and research institutions.
“Every single one of them takes this Action Collaborative as a gold ribbon that they have done something right,” McLaughlin said. “They have all done something terribly, terribly wrong, and they have the wrong people at the table.”
That position has put her at odds with advocates including Clancy and Greider, who argue that reform should involve leading institutions. “I disagree with BethAnn about that,” Greider said. “We can have disagreements about approaches and still go forward.”
The volunteers who have left MeTooSTEM said that they are still committed to its wider goals of supporting victims of sexual harassment. “I believe that STEM would greatly benefit from having an organization, or more than one, with the goals of fighting sexual harassment and discrimination,” Barolo said.
“My hope is that we can learn from this experience to make a stronger and more inclusive community intent on battling harassment,” Bohr said.
Vidhya Sivakumaran’s surname was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.