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I Now Cringe at a Sexist Joke I Made in the Lab. Why Don’t All Scientists Learn?

As a young biologist, I learned fast that sexism in the lab didn't fly. Why aren't all scientists getting the message?
Image: Macrovector/Shutterstock

"Your mom" jokes are best relegated to middle-school locker rooms, but when I was a 19-year-old intern in a molecular biology lab, I still sometimes wore a T-shirt bearing a variant on the form. "For a good time, call your mom," it read. It was my second summer interning in this lab, and my screen tees didn't feel out of place—I had a friendly rapport with my mentor, a graduate student I'll call Dana (not her real name), and we bantered while we worked on our experiments.


As the summer came to a close, the head of my lab (known as a principal investigator, or PI) instructed me to present my research at a poster fair that I was not invited to. Because I was not an official participant, I had to display my poster away from the main contest, and I didn't think I should be required to dress up for the occasion.

"What, you can't spend just one afternoon wearing something other than a silly T-shirt?" Dana remarked. I didn't skip a beat. "Of course I can't, I was planning on wearing my 'For a good time, call Dana' shirt!"

The "your mom" shirt. The incident did not happen at UC Berkeley. Image: Levi Gadye

Dana's face soured. "I need to speak with you in private," she said.

She took me aside and told me, sternly, that if my PI found out about what I had just said, I could be fired. I apologized, but the damage was done. At the end of the summer, I left that lab knowing I had failed to live up to its standards of conduct. Even though the nuances of this experience would take time to sink in, I was determined to never make the same mistake again.


I'm now a graduate student in neuroscience at UC Berkeley. My memory of being called out for my teenaged, misogynistic joke has stuck with me for nearly a decade, shaping my conduct with mentors, colleagues, and students. Having my mentor confront me directly left me with a lasting impression: I hurt a fellow scientist with my words, and risked my reputation and career. The regret I felt was deep and real. Today I cringe knowing that my joke contributed to the dark cloud of sexism that still hangs over much of the scientific community.


There are people—usually men—who see nothing wrong with the odd off-color joke in the workplace, even if it rings of misogyny. In my experience, it's also not uncommon to hear that things aren't that bad for women in the sciences.

There's ample evidence, however, that female scientists are still frequent targets of gender-based discrimination, from the subtle to the overtly threatening. Dig into the experiences of female scientists, and it becomes clear that instances of intentional harassment and assault, let alone misogynistic comments, are rarely called out and taken seriously.

Why doesn't this sort of message get through to all scientists?

Even when universities investigate allegations, the punishment for a professor found guilty of serial sexual harassment might be as light as probation—as was the case with prominent UC Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, who was alleged to have harassed four female students over the course of many years. Only when these allegations, and the findings of UC Berkeley's investigation, were revealed to the public did Marcy resign.

From my experience, it was clear the lab I worked at would not tolerate gender-based harassment. Why doesn't this sort of message get through to all scientists?

Janet Stemwedel, professor of philosophy at San Jose State University and a well-known commentator on science ethics, says part of the problem—and solution—lies in the freedom that senior scientists have to determine the social tone of their labs with little oversight. Sometimes, such authority is used to imbue young scientists with a proper understanding of workplace conduct.


"If the PI is saying, 'Really you need to treat each other with this level of respect in the science community,' then that's going to make an impact," Stemwedel said. "This is the person with control over your career, and in many cases your only close role model as you're apprenticed on how to be a good scientist."

"In professional societies, people are pushing back and saying, 'Why the hell are you protecting this kind of bad behavior that makes us all look bad?''"

Yet investing such social power in one person can "cut both ways," Stemwedel noted. "There's this attitude that, almost like parenting, there's something rude about interfering with how people raise their new scientists and run their labs," she said.

Harvard astronomer John Asher Johnson, a former student of Geoff Marcy's, wrote in the wake of Marcy's story going public that few astronomers had dared to criticize Marcy's behavior. Instead, "'Underground' networks of women pass information about Geoff to junior scientists in an attempt to keep them safe," Johnson wrote. "Sometimes it works. Other times it hasn't."

Stemwedel has proposed that the scientific community switch to a model in which students are funded independently from their PIs, a move that would incentivize faculty to establish healthy lab atmospheres in order to retain their students. If graduate students could rely on a "bubble" of money to support their work, instead of faculty money, they could avoid working for PIs who are unsupportive—or who harass them. Moreover, funding agencies, like the NIH, could incentivize a commitment to gender equality by requiring that the recipients of its grants demonstrate effective mentorship of their students, she argues. Mentorship could be assessed using honest feedback from graduate students about their advisors, flipping the tables on social policing that typically flows in just one direction.

For now, public pressure, amplified by the internet, will continue to hold fire to the feet of authority figures who let harassment slide. "In professional societies, people are pushing back and saying, 'Why the hell are you protecting this kind of bad behavior that makes us all look bad?''" said Stemwedel. "Each one of these stories that comes out, it's the public's opinion of scientists as a group that's getting hurt."

Take heart, though, that gender equality can be also be achieved when scientists take the time to personally criticise and correct sexism in their own labs. My own learning experience in this regard wasn't fun, but I survived, and I grew. Dana wrote one of the letters of reference that got me into my graduate program.