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MeTooSTEM founder BethAnn McLaughlin faces a severe challenge to her leadership.

Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Update: MeTooSTEM board members stand by embattled founder

*Update, 2 March, 3:55 p.m.: The executive board of MeTooSTEM is standing behind the organization’s embattled leader, BethAnn McLaughlin, according to a statement provided to ScienceInsider today:

The Executive Board of MeTooSTEM … met on February 26th and discussed: 

  1. continuing services developed over the last year which have served hundreds of clients with free legal consultations, care and safety packages and assistance with federal agency filings in cases of sexual misconduct and
  2. mechanisms to develop the organizational structure and promote the long term stability of the organization.  The Board also asked Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin to continue to serve in a leadership position.

“I’m heartened by the board’s response and deeply committed to providing better resources for people who are really struggling in this space,” McLaughlin said in an interview today. “Our services have continued uninterrupted. All of our clients have gotten anything they requested.”

The board includes Nobel laureate Carol Greider, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University, and Vicki Lundblad, a National Academy of Sciences member who was one of three senior women who sued the Salk Institute for Biological Studies for gender discrimination in 2017. (Her case was settled out of court.) A third board member is McLaughlin's brother, John. Here is our previous story, from 24 February:

The prominent nonprofit group MeTooSTEM appears to be imploding amid resignations and accusations of bullying by founder BethAnn McLaughlin. Critics, many of whom are antiharassment advocates, say she has sidelined people of color and bullied volunteers, activists, and fellow leaders both at the nonprofit and outside of it. Two of the organization’s leaders resigned last week, 1 week after writing to the group’s board asking it to remove McLaughlin. In 2018, then-neuroscientist McLaughlin founded the group to support survivors of sexual harassment in science.

“I believe that MeTooSTEM is beyond salvaging as an organization,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University and a former member of the group’s leadership team, wrote to the board in a 21 February resignation letter.

“We will not support an organization whose leader uses the same tactics as the abusers we are fighting against to promote white supremacy, shame, victim blaming, and dismissal. We urge BethAnn to be publicly accountable for her actions and apologize to those who are hurting badly as a result,” Rasmussen and Teresa Swanson, a science communicator based in Seattle, said in a joint statement provided to Science. Swanson, who was a leadership team member, also resigned on 21 February.

The turmoil, first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education and later by BuzzFeed, leaves McLaughlin with few visible allies as MeTooSTEM’s board prepares to meet this week to discuss her fate.

In a telephone interview today, McLaughlin said of her critics who resigned and others who have called her out on Twitter: “I’m really sorry they’re hurting. I know they’re not lying. I care deeply, but I cannot fix that problem.”

She added: “If you are able to show me a person who says: ‘She [McLaughlin] wouldn’t file a FOIA [freedom of information act] for me, she wouldn’t find a lawyer that helped me,’ you let me know. But to the extent that we cannot tolerate strong women … I think there are a lot of people that feel uncomfortable and they should get used to it.”

Of the bullying charges, she added: “If they consider me saying: ‘You can’t show up to an event until you have trained as a sexual assault survivor advocate’—if they consider that bullying, then so be it. … I consider it safety.”

This is not the first time McLaughlin’s management style has prompted resignations. In April 2019,  two women of color alleged that McLaughlin was dismissive of their concerns and voices, and they resigned from the organization’s leadership team. Several white women have also previously resigned.

Jaedyn Ruli (they are using their middle name instead of their last name for privacy reasons), 23, a 2019 biology and environmental sciences graduate of Binghamton University, resigned on 19 February after volunteering for MeTooSTEM since November 2019. “I left because I saw no future for MeTooSTEM that represented inclusivity or equity,” says Ruli, a Chinese American who last month clashed with McLaughlin over whether reporting to police was safe for victims of sexual harassment. Ruli wrote in a 20 February letter to MeTooSTEM’s board of directors: “I feel an intense amount of fear and distress being remotely associated with BethAnn McLaughlin,” adding that there was a “dire need” to replace McLaughlin.

Currently, the MeTooSTEM website lists one leader, McLaughlin, and one volunteer. According to McLaughlin, the organization has relied on a GoFundMe campaign that raised about $70,000, as well as most of the $63,000 after taxes that McLaughlin won from an activism prize. With these funds, the organization has provided stipends to some volunteers, offset legal fees for sexual harassment survivors, and sent out safety packages including whistles and home video cameras to those under threat. The organization also received a small initial grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. McLaughlin says she pays herself nothing.

MeTooSTEM board member and Nobel laureate Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University wrote in an emailed statement: “The Board members all individually let the leadership members of MeTooSTEM, who contacted us, know that we had received their e-mails. We told them we were digesting their many concerns. We scheduled a phone call to discuss the issues with Board members [this] week.”

Just 1 year ago, McLaughlin was a leading voice against sexual harassment in science. She had recently launched MeTooSTEM and shared a high-profile “Disobedience” award from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab even as she fought her own tenure battle at Vanderbilt University. She was denied tenure and left the university in July 2019, after reaching an undisclosed legal settlement with Vanderbilt.