The culture of "the lab that socializes together" enables the predators

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.

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

16 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:


  • AsstProf says:

    I totally agree. What's your call on lab drinking sand PI. I've been so please that my trainees go out without me and so pleased that I'm not invited. Should I be keeping a tighter reign on this? How?

  • GM says:

    I don't think the separation between work and personal life that is expected in 9-to-5 occupations can be realistically maintained in science because science is not a 9-to-5 occupation.

    Many people have absolutely no life outside of science because they spend all their time in the lab and/or together with people they work with.

    So by the logic of this post, they have to live like celibate medieval monks...

  • Girlparts says:

    The partying labs also discourage work-life balance. Folks who want to work efficiently and then go home to their families feel unwelcome.

  • GM says:

    Those folks can always work as technicians

  • Odyssey says:

    Those folks can always work as technicians

    Seriously? You don't see an issue with that statement?

  • Ola says:

    It is deeply misplaced to highlight the role of an otherwise benign activity in facilitating a few bad actors, while completely ignoring the billions of times daily where this same activity does NOT lead to sexual assault. What next? Professor offers to drive student home, so we should ban cars? Professor invites student to his house, so we should ban Professors from having houses? Yes, in this case a Profossor who appears to be a sexual predator happens to also hit the sauce, but does that mean we should ban alcohol for everyone else who did nothing wrong? This is why we can't have nice things.

    As a commenter on the Dartmouth article correctly states, it is naive here to blame the alcohol, to blame the culture that facilitated these creeps. Just blame the damn creeps! Blaming it on the alcohol lessens the issue, gives them an "excuse", devalues the claims of the victims. Oh, they were just drunk, nothing to see here, move right along.

    If it wasn't the drinking then they would've likely found other ways to get their jigglys. Take away some opportunities for abuse and you just drive the abuser to other avenues ("sorry all the single rooms at the conference were already booked").

  • BethAnn McLaughlinB @mclneuro says:

    I had a recent hire who wanted to take everyone out for drinks to thank them for transitioning help. It's a reasonable request and was a perfect opportunity to explain there were other ways to show gratitude in our profession.
    As a woman, my worst moments have been around senior drinking men who were bosses or leaders at institutions or labs I was part of.

  • Rheophile says:

    Yeah, clearly the only options are "go out and heavily drink with people you're supervising every damn week" and "live like celibate medieval monks." I feel like "Be friendly, supportive, and honest - but not intimate! - with trainees" is not that heavy a lift.

    Ola: is the argument here that the description "...Kelley encouraged his lab members to drink and socialize at least weekly, often on weeknights and at times during business hours" represents a benign activity?

  • SEL says:

    "Professor offers to drive student home, so we should ban cars? Professor invites student to his house, so we should ban Professors from having houses?"

    I'm not for banning cars or houses, but offering to drive individual students home or inviting individual students to the profs home is....a bit creepy. Students should hang out and socialize with each other, not with the professor. I'm a prof myself, and I do NOT want to hang out with my students. I want them to see me as a boss, not a buddy.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    I'm not sure "seeing you as a boss" is entirely correct either, except maybe for the techs. You aren't either a boss or a buddy -- you are a mentor. Which does involve some emotional connection, if not necessarily getting drunk with your lab.

  • Grumpy says:

    Lol academia.

    Personally, Ive always opted out of these things (don't drink and would rather make dinner for my family).

    But, I'm with Ola on this one. If you happen to be one of the millions of bosses who likes to socialize with their employees, doing so is not going to accidentally turn you into the creepy prof who groped the student here. That happens when you are a sexual harrasser.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Exactly. If the creep wanted his lab to go on a weekly hike followed by a healthy celery snack, it wouldn't change the issue a bit. It's not like Brigham Young is free of sexual harassment cases.

  • JJ says:

    "...because science is not a 9-to-5 occupation" Without getting into the harassment business, it's precisely this attitude that enables 24/7 exploitation of vulnerable postdocs and grad students. It's similar to work from home "perks" and bring your dog, pingpong and whatnot "fun stuff" on tech company premises that perpetuates 24/7 surveillance. I suspect after hours drinking is similar. Academic science is about projects people need to complete. PIs have absolutely no right to determine if that's done via 9-to-5 mindful work or goofing off during daytime and burning the midnight oil. I also absolutely disagree that 9-to-5 is simply not enough time. I am yet to see a human being who is at peak effectiveness for more than 8 hours a day.

  • drugmonkey says:

    it wouldn't change the issue a bit

    It is expressing willing ignorance to pretend that alcohol fueled social events are more likely to facilitate the predator. Sure, it happens in the non-social setting and probably the non-alcohol social setting as well. But the lab or academic meeting drinking events present special risks and it is no coincidence that many serial predators have been revealed to have preyed upon women in these environments.

  • […] Readers of this blog will not need too much reminder that sexual harassment and sex-based workplace discrimination is very much a problem in academic science. We have seen numerous cases of this sort of academic misconduct reach the national and sometimes international press in the past several years. Indeed, recent discussions on this blog have mentioned the cases of Thomas Jessell and Inder Verma as well as three cases at Dartmouth College. […]

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