Panel of scientists talk sexual harassment, offer a variety of ways to handle abuse


To address the proliferation of gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the scientific community, and its multi-faceted nature, Biotech Vendor Services (BVS) hosted a panel event, “Women Breaking the Barriers of Science,” June 28 at the La Jolla Marriott.

Largely serious, with moments of lightness and humor, the panelists shared their personal experiences to bring the issue out in the open, and they discussed how communication can be pivotal in preventing its perpetuation.

La Jollan and BVS CEO Pam Gardner opened with recently released statistics that show “just how bad harassment and discrimination is within the science field” from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“Harassment in the science field was ranked second to abuse in the military,” she said. “Thirty-four percent of female university employees reported harassment and 19.6 percent reported unwanted sexual attention … for medical students, 49.6 percent reported gender-based sexist hostility.” She added that sex-based harassment in the tech industry is the main reason women leave the field.

The discussion was divided into two panels, both moderated by Athena CEO Holly Smithson.

Part 1: Women breaking barriers

The first panel, “Women who have broken the barriers of science,” consisted of Luna DNA co-founder and president Dawn Barry, BioFluidica COO Judy Muller-Cohn, Eurofins DiscoverX business development manager Sonela Schlottmann, and Katherine Kantardjieff, dean of Cal State San Marcos College of Science and Mathematics.

The women discussed their personal career paths, the struggles they faced along the way and how they overcame them.

Barry opened: “At my first job, we had leadership coaching. I had an interesting moment with that coach, who was a woman, that always stuck with me. I was coached to pull my hair back, don’t wear so much makeup, take off the big earrings, don’t be friends with the people you work with, don’t giggle so much. Be a guy.

“That didn’t feel authentic to me. And it manifested in strange ways. For example, I never had family photos on my desk because I didn’t want to seem vulnerable. … I’ve learned since, that to connect with people, you have to open up. That felt authentic.” Since that change, Barry reports better relationships with employees and a better work environment.

Affirming Gardner’s report that women tend to leave their place of employment due to harassment, Muller-Cohn shared that an incident of gender discrimination caused her to make a “lateral move” within her company. From there, she founded a cancer diagnostics company with her business partner/husband.

Opining on the mental challenges that women face, Schlottmann recalled being let go from a job and questioning why.

“As part of what was termed ‘a reduction in force,’ I got laid off from a job in 2007,” she told the crowd. “While it wasn’t specific to me, I wondered: Is it because I’m going on maternity leave? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m an immigrant? Maybe not, but it sucks to have to wonder about these things.”

In concluding remarks, Kantardjieff shared what she called “one of the biggest challenges that I had and still have” — maintaining her identity as a woman and as a scientist.

“They are not supposed to be mutually exclusive, but expected behaviors and stereotypes tend to cloud that,” she said. “Even to this day, I get comments like, ‘You don’t look like a chemist.’ ” She added that she tries to use humor to deflect these incidents.

Part 2: The #MeToo movement

The second panel, “What are the implications of the #MeToo movement in life sciences?” consisted of Higgs, Fletcher & Mack partner Alexis Gutierrez, Health Tech Associates San Diego CEO Ann Randolph, Newberry Williams HR consultant Cathy Zumberge, and San Diego Biotechnology Network founder Mary Canady.

In terms of defining sexual harassment, Gutierrez said the concept is covered in many ways. In California, sexual harassment is “any type of harassment that is sexual in nature, meaning it is predicated and motivated by sex, whether or not the accused perpetrator is motivated by sex.”

From the HR perspective, Zumberge added: “When you are working somewhere, you should always be very aware of your rights and the company’s policies. You can find all that in the employee handbook.”

Several of the speakers advocated for keeping the lines of communication open.

Zumberge advised: “You can, and should, inform the harasser that their conduct is unacceptable and must stop. If you are uncomfortable doing that … inform your supervisor or go to HR.” She also recommended documenting incidents with dates and details, “just don’t do it on the company computer.”

Canady suggested reaching out to female colleagues for support or to understand the scope of the discrimination.

The event wrapped with a question-and-answer session that included attendees’ experiences and thoughts on the overall practice of gender discrimination.

The plan is for BVS to host additional activities and panels in the future, but no dates nor topics were announced. Learn more at