Sexual harassment and the lab

Dec. 21, 2017
In recent months, the issue of sexual harassment in work environments—in politics, in the entertainment industry, in the corporate world, elsewhere—has come to the forefront of public attention as never before. People are speaking in terms of this being a transformative moment, a “sea-change,” one of those times in American cultural history when a significant, permanent shift in the way people look at something is taking place. In general, I tend to be skeptical of such claims—it’s hard to change the world, and cultural battles are, for better or worse, rarely irreversibly won or lost—but I think this is one of those times when things are not going to go back to the way they were. A half-century after the flowering of the modern feminist movement in the United States (for example, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, or the founding of the National Organization for Women, or the publication of the first issue of Ms. magazine), I think that women and men are looking at their daily interactions in a new way.

In the workplace, it isn’t just a matter of overt, criminal sexual behavior—a man forcing himself on a woman—or powerful men letting women know that their career advancement will depend on their agreeing to sexual relations, or a woman being fired for not going along with such behavior. Most decent people have always despised those kinds of things, while at the same time knowing that they happen. It isn’t just a matter of inappropriate touching. People have now been sensitized to more subtle behaviors: men bringing up sexual subjects in conversation intended to make women uncomfortable; men patronizing women by showing that they do not take their opinions and contributions seriously; men naturally assuming the right to speak first and most and loudest at office meetings and showing impatience when women contribute; men treating women differently and less respectfully in a thousand ways, some so ingrained and unconscious and automatic that they are very difficult to change (difficult but not impossible). Men are coming to see that it has been hard for them to do the obviously right thing in the workplace: treat everyone the same, and with respect, regardless of gender.

In the context of all this, I am thinking about the clinical lab environment. How do men and women relate as colleagues in the lab? Do women experience discrimination or worse? Overall, I suspect that the lab gets pretty good marks compared to most workplaces. Part of this is because teamwork is emphasized; part of it is because laboratorians are scientists, and there is a certain democracy in science: concepts and their technological applications are privileged, not personalities. Part of it is because women some time ago achieved parity with men in terms of leadership positions in the lab (if not in terms of pay, but that’s another column).

But I’m also sure that the inequalities and indignities that occur in other workplaces exist in the lab too—sometimes subtle, sometimes shockingly overt. And I’m interested in hearing from readers about this. There is an article about this somewhere down the road, based on experiences shared by readers. Of course, names and any details that would identify the workplace will be withheld on request.

Let me hear from you—and not just women readers. I’d like to hear from men as well, men who, with the new consciousness, have come to realize that they have said or done things that are sexist. Recognition is the first step toward reformation, and, speaking as a man, I know that we all have room for improvement.

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