In 2018, the NIH issued a statement about their commitment to address sexual harassment wherever NIH-funded activities take place. This action was prompted by the growing reports of sexual harassment incidents and the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering (NASEM) report suggesting that “federal agencies may be perpetuating the problem of sexual harassment.” As Dr. Francis Collins pledged, “We are concerned that NIH has been part of the problem. We are determined to become part of the solution.”
A recent background statement by the NIH states, “As stewards of the biomedical research workforce, NIH is deeply concerned about accounts of sexual harassment in scientific research settings. Sexual harassment is inexcusable, as are workplace cultures that promote harassment through gender discrimination. Pervasive harassment creates obstacles for women—who are particularly more likely to be subject to sexual harassment—at all stages of their career. In addition to internal actions, the NIH Director has concluded that a high level working group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director is essential to review the plans and recommend further action…”
On May 16, the NIH ACD Working Group on Changing Culture to End Sexual Harassment held “a public listening session for individuals adversely affected by sexual harassment and their advocates.”
One by one, women stepped forward to share their stories of being victims of sexual aggression or targets of unwanted sexual advances that they had faced as students, physicians in training, study coordinators, or members. Speakers included Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, founder of #MeToo STEM, Dr. Esther Choo, founder of TIME’S UP Healthcare, and Dr. Roberta Gebhard, AMWA President and co-founder of AMWA’s Gender Equity Task Force. A common thread in these testimonials was a failure of institutional leaders to appropriately address the situation, leaving the women to feel powerless within a hierarchical power system despite Title IX protections. Worse yet, women often saw their perpetrators rewarded by promotions and career accolades. In fact, one speaker pointed to inherent conflicts of interest within the current system purported to address these issues, raising the question of their overall effectiveness.
As powerful as these testimonials were, we know that they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Most women suffer in silence, for fear of career repercussions, public shame, or retaliation.
The NIH, as a key funding source for scientific research, is in a unique position to enact significant consequences for perpetrators of sexual harassment and the institutions who support them.
In his closing statement NIH Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak acknowledged the courageous women who had shared their testimonies, saying “Thank you for holding us accountable and for making us listen.” He concluded with a pledge: “NIH will change policies and procedures that will change the culture of science.
AMWA applauds the leadership of the NIH in this bold initiative and their commitment to effectively address sexual harassment within the scientific community.