We are a group of graduate students in a STEM* department that may be similar to yours in many ways. As trainees**, we are new to academia, enthusiastic about our research, working tirelessly toward an uneasy job market, and very much dependent on our mentors for career training, intellectual and financial support, and perhaps morale. In many cases, the story of this mentor-trainee relationship has a happy ending.
But the strongly hierarchical structure of academic labs leads to an asymmetric power dynamic; actions of misbehaving or exploitative mentors are left mostly unchecked by peers and department leadership, who are unknowing, unwilling, or unable to act. Their harmful actions are rendered permissible because trainees hold very little influence, and most departments simply don’t yet have the infrastructure needed to address these issues, both large and small.
A former faculty member from our department was recently involved in a publicly reported, high-profile instance of sexual harassment at another university. Afterward, we organically formed a group and started meeting to discuss what it meant, and how to act on a moment where people around us seemed interested in engaging in this conversation. We want to share what we’ve done with the broader academic community (and beyond) in hopes that the groundwork we’ve laid might lower the activation energy to spur change at other institutions.
*Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
**We refer to “trainees” as people working under a Principal Investigator in a research lab (e.g., graduate students, undergraduate students, lab technicians, post-docs)