The leadership of MeTooSTEM—an advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field—is crumbling under numerous allegations against the organization’s founder. Seven members have resigned since November, BuzzFeed News reports.
Email exchanges between MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin and other members reveal a pattern of hostile environment where feedback or questions regarding the organizational structure were met with “anger and retaliation,” especially toward the only two women of color on the team. The exchanges also share a common complaint about lack of transparency and McLaughlin’s behavior on Twitter, which members felt was alienating survivors.
An April email shared with BuzzFeed was co-signed by Deanna Arsala, a University of Illinois at Chicago biology graduate; Vidhya Sivakumaran, a former biophysicist; and Erica Smith, a physics postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University Bloomington. “We, Vidhya and Deanna (being the only women of color in this organization) felt that white leadership input was prioritized over our own,” the women wrote.
“Lastly, and perhaps the most concerning, when Deanna raised a concern about our non-profit status, it was met with anger and retaliation which was in stark contrast to the responses white leadership has received when they asked similar questions,” the email continued.
In an earlier email exchange from November, Julie Libarkin and Tisha Bohr sent in their resignation with similar grievances, outlining their concerns about McLaughlin’s tweets, her tendency to block people, and her lack of transparency with the rest of the team. In the same email, Libarkin and Bohr shared that they were scared to voice their concerns to McLaughlin out of fear she would respond with anger instead of using it an opportunity to discuss.
Members also complained they were kept in the dark about funding accumulated through a GoFundMe campaign, where the platform has so far raised $78,000. According to the email exchanges, members were concerned that McLaughlin was resistant to suggestions about delegating roles and that questions about changing the MetooStem to nonprofit status were dismissed with, “I have it covered.”
The core of the complaints—McLaughlin’s unwillingness to listen to a view different than her own, being dismissive toward experiences of women of color, and her alienating attitude on Twitter—is best summed up in one Twitter interaction from August 2018. In the thread, she urged people to choose seeking support from the police over Title IX resources, claiming the latter provides little to no support for survivors. In a subsequent conversation on the thread where another user tried to argue that the police is not deemed a safe option for many women of color, McLaughlin dismissed the responses, and ended the chat abruptly with a curt “bye.”
After the BuzzFeed story dropped, MeTooSTEM tweeted out an apology. “We are deeply sorry to any who have been harmed by the actions @MeTooSTEM has or has not taken, and in particular we recognize the harm to women of color,” the tweet said. “We are here to serve our community, and so we embrace your criticism and feedback.”
I care about survivors and about #MeToo. That is why after 6 months I'm coming forward in solidarity with others on some reasons for why we left leadership at #MeTooSTEM. I hope this opens a dialogue that the movement can evolve from. #MeTooPhD #ScienceToo https://t.co/RwqGdUMR5w
— Tisha Bohr (@TishaBohr) May 30, 2019
As a former associate of #MeTooSTEM who left the org last year, I respect & support everyone quoted in this @paldhous article outlining some of our concerns. Especially the brave early-career folks who just wanted to help fight sexual harassment in STEM.https://t.co/o9grkxEh74
— Scott Barolo (@sbarolo) May 30, 2019
As a former member of the #MeTooSTEM leadership team, I support the others who have come forward to express their concerns about the transparency of the organization and the direction of the movement.https://t.co/aGBcSeYKlh
— Dr. Erica Smith 🏳️🌈 (@nuDocES) May 30, 2019
Others on Twitter also expressed support for former group members.
This is about far more than fissures within the #MeTooSTEM movement but shows how powerful leaders can derail progress by stifling dissent. Effecting social change is hard. Often those willing to lead the charge have personal issues that undermine productive collaborations. https://t.co/xhXBMaj9W0
— Liza Gross (@lizabio) May 31, 2019
Everyone who cares about the fight to make science an equal playing field should be aware of this. I support the bravery of the other former members of this organization for speaking out about a situation about which they could no longer be silent.https://t.co/kEXh7WAvPN
— shrew (@shrewshrew) May 30, 2019
This hurts my heart but we can't replicate bad behavior as we work towards justice
transparency is an important criteria in ALL things and I support all the former members of #MeTooSTEM that came forward to discuss their concernshttps://t.co/iz7PiNCnzq
— Needhi Bhalla 💅🏽 (@NeedhiBhalla) May 30, 2019
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of New Hampshire, shared an especially incisive analysis, noting the lack of focus on allegations that McLaughlin shunned women of color.
The fact that women of color are experiencing problematic behavior at the hands of a white woman is unsurprising but very serious shit. Calling ppl “harassholes” on Twitter is not serious shit.
Harassment is a serious problem, not the language we use to express anger about it.
— #JusticeforBreonna Prescod-Weinstein 🙅🏽♀️ (@IBJIYONGI) May 30, 2019
“By focusing on BethAnn’s tone on Twitter rather than entirely on how she treated people—including ignoring questions about strategic use of her twitter account—Buzzfeed is relying on stereotypes of hysterically angry women and tone policing her,” wrote Prescod-Weinstein in follow-up tweets.
This is especially important given that the field of STEM already has a diversity problem, with women often not being taken seriously and their work remaining ignored. In the field, women of color face higher risks, with many refraining from professional opportunities out of fear for their safety in predominantly white and male spaces.
On Friday, McLaughlin, who was recently denied tenure at Vanderbilt University, shared a statement in response, denying the numerous claims and alleging that she shared information with BuzzFeed that the news organization left out. McLaughlin also said that MeTooSTEM has resources for sexual assault survivors, a contradiction to one of the complaints that alleged this was lacking, and that the organization was registered as a nonprofit two days ago.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement about McLaughlin’s response to Vidhya Sivakumaran and Deanna Arsala.
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H/T BuzzFeed News