Physiologist Sharona Gordon on Preventing Sexual Harassment in STEM

By
McKenna Princing
Image
The members of the Gordon lab.
Credit:
Courtesy of Sharona Gordon
Sharona Gordon, bottom center, with members of her lab.
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For Sharona Gordon, PhD, much of her work involves trying to understand pain. 

As a physiologist, her research focuses on the mechanisms that cause extra pain during inflammation in the body. Someday, her work could lead to new, more effective therapies for chronic pain. 

But she doesn’t just study physical pain. As an advocate for workplace equity, she works to educate people in positions of power about the pain of things like discrimination and harassment — and how to disrupt them. 

Though her fields of inquiry may seem disparate, she sees parallels.

“Discrimination and harassment aren’t so different from the chronic inflammation that makes our experience of pain more difficult. If you’re constantly being told you’re not good enough, when you get a minor comment it hurts a lot more than for someone who isn’t dealing with that low-level bias,” she explains.

As a tenured professor in UW’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics and as the associate dean for Research and Graduate Education at the UW School of Medicine, Gordon recognizes that she has privilege and power. Her goal is to use both in ways that benefit others.

Now she has even more opportunities for that. Thanks to a new endowment in her name from the Society of General Physiologists, each year she will be able to award an individual who, like her, works to increase equity in science.

“I do what I do to try to inspire people, so to me having this endowment to support an award to recognize others is so consistent with my values of trying to help others reach their full potential,” she explains.

An inciting incident

In the ’90s, when Gordon was a grad student, women made up only a quarter of physiology faculty. Today those numbers have gone up to around 30%, which Gordon describes as a “glacial increase.” 

“The bottom line is that academia is not a welcoming environment for people who are considered different,” she says.

Social justice has always been something Gordon cared about. Her interest turned into something stronger, however, after she experienced sexual harassment as an assistant professor. She describes it as a “pivotal” set of events that put her on the path she’s on today.

“Colleagues stood up for me, I wasn’t alone and the institution did the right thing. I saw people stick their necks out and it made a real difference for me, and I feel the need to pay that back,” she says.

It showed her that individuals can make a difference for someone who has experienced harassment. But she knew that many people who experience it don’t get the same kind of support.

And so began her journey to infuse her workplace and academic field with equity. 

Facets of equity

In the letter announcing the endowment created in her name, the councilors and presidents of the Society of General Physiologists called out several specific initiatives Gordon has taken to advance equity, including establishing equitable standards in a peer-reviewed journal, educating peers about sexual harassment and providing mentorship opportunities. 

Gordon served as editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed Journal of General Physiology, where she recently worked to implement a peer-review process that would have less gender bias. Research has shown that all-male review teams favor papers authored by other men, so Gordon helped establish a rule that all submitted papers must be sent to review teams that include women.

“Now we get more papers submitted by female senior authors,” she says.

She founded an organization called Below the Waterline, through which she helps educate others about sexual harassment. It’s a much-needed education: A 2018 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that, among all workplaces, sexual harassment is worst in academia, second only to the military. 

Through Below the Waterline, Gordon holds talks and events to help her peers learn about what she calls “gender harassment”: things like put-downs, patronizing and stereotyping that aren’t as extreme as outright sexual harassment, but still have a serious impact on someone’s career and life. 

The organization also offers mentorship for students and helps arrange meetings between students seeking guidance and faculty allies.  

Gordon takes mentorship seriously, recognizing that grad students in particular need a mentor who will be completely supportive.

“They are usually paid poorly with long hours and don’t get much appreciation, and their families don’t always recognize what they’re doing as a legitimate endeavor. They need people with power to stand up for them,” she says. 

She also helps peers learn how to best support each other, through a practice known as trauma-informed peer support training, which focuses on building non-hierarchical, authentic connections between people. 

“Assume people are best qualified to make decisions in their own lives and support them as they do that. People who want support shouldn’t be treated like they’re broken,” she says.

Learning from equity work

Gordon has learned a lot — and continues to learn — from her equity work. 

There’s the realization that, despite being raised in the scientific tradition of being competitive, collaborating with other people instead of putting down their ideas is actually more beneficial for science. And disagreement should come from a place of listening and respect, a norm she hopes science will adopt one day.

“We can bring in a diverse population, but if we don’t listen to them, they’re going to leave,” she says.

Her work has also helped her recognize her own privilege and bias —  for example, the fact that she’s a mother of four kids yet still finds herself thinking that moms aren’t as committed to science as women who don’t have children. 

She knows where this erroneous belief comes from: society. And she knows society is at the root of most equity issues in her field. 

“When I interact with my colleagues, they’re wonderful people, so why is there this disconnect between the individuals who want to do well and be welcoming and the culture which isn’t? That’s because we’ve developed bad habits that we’re socialized from a young age to think of women, people of color and other people as less than. You don’t magically break out of those habits just because you’re in academia,” she says.

What she comes back to as a way to deal with this societal bias is the idea of what individuals can do to make a difference. She believes that, no matter what, everyone has power and influence in some way, even if it’s just around your own family and friends. And people can use that power and influence to make academia more welcoming for everyone.

She believes everyone can make a difference — and she doesn’t see doing so as an option, but rather as a necessity. 

“I was born into privilege; I got into this because I can. If I can’t do something from this place of privilege, then shame on me,” she says.

Local equity resources for students:
Below the Waterline’s Peer Support and Faculty Allies
Scientists Advocating for Representation, Justice, and Equity
UW Postdoc Diversity Alliance
UAW Local 4121

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