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  • Washington Highlights

    NIH Hosts Listening Session for Individuals Adversely Affected by Sexual Harassment

    Amanda Field, Specialist, Science Policy

    The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Working Group on Changing Culture to End Sexual Harassment May 16 held a public listening session at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, to better understand how individuals are adversely affected by sexual harassment. The purpose of this session was to “provide a venue to targets of sexual harassment to share their experiences” with the Working Group, the NIH, the biomedical research community, and the public.

    After an opening statement from NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, and brief statements from the Working Groups co-chairs, Francis Cuss, MB, BChir, FRCP, Kristina Johnson, PhD, and Carrie Wolinetz, PhD, [see Washington Highlights, March 1, 2019], the session facilitator Wolinetz welcomed five invited guests to speak. These guests included women from across the biomedical community who told their stories about harassment, their attempts to report it, and the retaliation and ostracization they received afterwards. While some of the women were able to remain in their field despite these difficulties, most had felt forced to leave. Importantly, the audience heard from one scientist who was able to speak about the experiences of women of color in science, and who testified that it is “hard to work when you are scared.”

    Following these stories, Beth AnnMcLaughlin, PhD, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who has been a prominent voice in the #MeTooSTEM movement, spoke about her own experience and frustration with the current attempts to address sexual harassment in science. Another leader in the movement, Esther Choo, MD, spoke on behalf of Time’s Up Healthcare. Then, Wolinetz invited testimonies from the audience and online. The session ended with a personal and professional apology from Lawrence A. Tabak, DDS, PhD, NIH principal deputy director and deputy ethics counselor.

    Common themes in the speakers’ suggestions for NIH and for the broader community included: a need for accountability, a change in power dynamics and structure to support the victims and survivors rather than the faculty and institution, effective reporting processes within institutions and through NIH, mechanisms to investigate incidents beyond Title IX so that third parties are performing the investigation rather than the institutions investigating themselves, particular support and help for women of color, and sincere recognition of wrong-doing and immediate change.

    This listening session is one of the activities of the ACD Working Group on Changing Culture to End Sexual Harassment, and was webcast and archived. It follows a Feb. 28 NIH Update on Efforts to Address Sexual Harassment in Science [see Washington Highlights, Dec. 14, 2018]. The Working Group expects to provide interim recommendations in June 2019, and a final report in Dec. 2019.