The culture of “the lab that socializes together” enables the predators

June 14, 2018

There is a cautionary tale in the allegations against three Dartmouth Professors who are under investigation (one retired as a Dean reached a recommendation to fire him) for sexual harassment, assault and/or discrimination. From The Dartmouth:

several students in the PBS department described what they called an uncomfortable workplace culture that blurred the line between professional and personal relationships.

Oh, hai, buzzkill! I mean it’s just normal socializing. If you don’t like it nobody is forcing you to do it man. Why do you object to the rest of us party hounds having a little fun?

They said they often felt pressured to drink at social events in order to further their professional careers, a dynamic that they allege promoted favoritism and at times inappropriate behavior.

The answer is that this potential for nastiness is always lurking in these situations. There are biases within the laboratory that can have very lasting consequences for the trainees. Who gets put on what projects. Who gets preferential resources. Who is selected to attend a fancy meeting with a low trainee/PI ratio? Who is introduced around as the amazing talented postdoc and who is ignored? This happens all the time to some extent but why should willingness (and ability, many folks have family responsibilities after normal working hours) to socialize with the lab affect this?

Oh, come on, buzzkill! It’s just an occasional celebration of a paper getting accepted.

Several students who spoke to The Dartmouth said that Kelley encouraged his lab members to drink and socialize at least weekly, often on weeknights and at times during business hours, noting that Whalen occasionally joined Kelley for events off-campus.

Or, you know, constantly. Seriously? At the very least the PI has a drinking problem* and is covering it up with invented “lab” reasons to consume alcohol. But all too often it turns sinister and you can see the true slimy purpose revealed.

At certain social events, the second student said she sometimes refused drinks, only to find another drink in her hand, purchased or provided by one of the professors under the premise of being “a good host.”

Yeah, and now we get into the area of attempted drug-assisted sexual assault. Now sure, it could just be the PI thinking the grad student or postdoc can’t afford the drinks and wants to be a good chap. It could be. But then…..

She described an incident at a social event with members of the department, at which she said everyone was drinking, and one of the professors put his arm around her. She said his arm slid lower, to the point that she was uncomfortable and “very aware of where his hand [was] on [her] body,” and she said she felt like she was being tested.

Ugh. The full reveal of the behavior.

Look, as always, there is a spectrum here. The occasional lab celebration that involves the consumption of alcohol, and the society meeting social event that involves consumption of alcohol, can be just fine. Can be. But these traditions in the academic workplace are often co-opted by the creeper to his own ends. So you can end up with that hard-partying PI who is apparently just treating his lab like “friends” or “family” and belives that “everyone needs to blow off steam” to “build teamwork” and this lets everyone pull together….but then the allegations of harassment start to surface. All of the “buddies” who haven’t been affected (or more sinisterly have been affected for the good) circle the wagons.
Bro 1: Oh, he’s such a good guy.
Bro 2: Why are you being a buzzkill?
Bro 3: Don’t you think they are misinterpreting?

He isn’t, because people are being harmed and no, the victims are not “misinterpreting” the wandering arm/hand.

Keep a tight rein on the lab-based socializing, PIs. It leads to bad places if you do not.

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*And that needs to be considered even when there is not the vaguest shred of sexual assault or harassment in evidence.

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