Vulnerable in the Hands of Leaders
It was my 45th birthday. I was on my way to a friend’s restaurant to celebrate with family when I got the text. Had I seen the email? “No,” I wrote back, “and I won’t for a while. I am off to celebrate my birthday.”
Arriving home later that night, I positioned myself in a comfortable resting chair and opened emails. I had received a message from leadership at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I was accused of presenting sensitive material in a workshop before getting the appropriate approval and reminded of my obligations under data agreements I had signed.
I was aghast, frustrated, disappointed. First, because I never gave said presentation; the accusation was false. Second, this email, in combination with past communications I had received, felt threatening. It was coming from a top executive who clearly was not the first-line individual responsible for policing data breaches. How did this escalate to that level without anyone verify facts? If I were older, more established, less assertive, or male would the false assumptions and quick escalation that led to that email have been the same? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way I felt exhausted, tired, intimidated.
The NIH is a magnificent place, filled with wonder, smarts, discovery, passion. Upon landing a job there, I immediately fell in love. The NIH is the closest the federal government will ever get to replicating an academic environment. I was post-Ph.D. and after a couple of stints at the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Census Bureau, I took a job at NIH in the Office of the Director to work in the newly minted Division of Biomedical Research Workforce. I was 37 years old.
The energy was exciting, the passion touchable. It was a stretch position. I went from being one of many economists in a national statistical office to the only economist in the director’s office. Without a chief economist, I ended up participating in numerous high-level discussions. “What does our economist think?” and grey-haired heads would all turn to look at me. “What would economists say about return on investment, R&D mechanisms, inflation in biomedicine, NIH’s contribution?” are questions I would get asked. I am, by training, a development economist with a flair for the household. Putting my skills to work thinking about the ideas economy was exciting, fun, and adventurous. I gained ground exponentially; I had no other choice.
The Division was new and, lacking a director, I was put in charge of managing the budget, developing project ideas, directing strategy, and the like. I built a team, developed collaborations with external stakeholders, and advanced the work in a direction that lined up with NIH’s vision of being able to better steady the waters of training and the retention of biomedical research scientists across the nation.
New Leadership, New Role
It all went south rather quickly. With a new director on board, I suddenly became a nuisance. My efforts seen as dubious and suspect. In one example, I had trouble getting approval to publish a piece I wrote in a foreign language — told the English translation I provided for the approval process could not be trusted. The level of insecurity displayed regarding my position, role, and work was exhausting. It became difficult to do my job without support. I decided the best option was to move on. I went back to the Census Bureau where my work was not suspiciously questioned and where I could continue to excel.
I am not naïve. The position I was hired for and what I was actually doing were not the same. I was hired to conduct economic research on the biomedical research workforce under the leadership of a division head. By the time a division head was hired, I had spent more than two years leading economic analysis and, absent any legitimate chief economist, had sometimes played that role. I had asked to be promoted on multiple occasions so that the work I was doing more directly aligned with my position, but the requests were denied. At the end of the day, I simply outgrew the position. And, once leadership support buckled, there was nowhere for me to go but out.
I thought my troubles were over once I left. What I did not anticipate was for the negativity to continue. I began hearing rumors. So-and-so is telling people not to work with you because you cannot be trusted with the data. In my career as a federal economist, spanning more than a decade, not once have I experienced a data breach. Not once have I committed any action that would put secured data in jeopardy. All of my research on the biomedical research workforce was, in fact, advancing the knowledge base for NIH. I was helping. And so, these whispering innuendos and accusations were frustrating because, at the end of the day, they were tarnishing my reputation — and without merit.
A Leader’s Responsibility
When individuals are young and ambitious, their experiences are fragile. When leadership decides not to support them, there is an ease and superiority with which they can attack. The attacks can be relentless, exhausting, and leave one with a sense of hopelessness.
I was interested in doing high quality research to advance NIH’s mission and understanding of the biomedical workforce using methods deemed appropriate for the style of research I do. For a while I was successful. But I was always fragile. While the work I engaged in did not change, once leadership made a decision not to support me, my work life became unbearable. And the angst against me led to continued negative chatter and influence well after I left the agency.
I want to be clear; this situation is not unique and, actually, I imagine it appears time and again throughout a diverse set of agencies and organizations, regardless of whether it is private, public, or nonprofit. It should not be so easy for those in power to tarnish reputations and intimidate when it is no longer convenient to support. This type of closed door behavior against young, smart, ambitious women (and men) really needs to stop. We deserve a spot at the table. We deserve better treatment. We deserve for our work and leadership to be recognized, admired, replicated.
We cannot advance without the support of leaders and executives. The flip side of this coin is that we can easily be pushed aside and potentially ruined when we are no longer deemed beneficial or useful. We hold no power unless someone decides to give it to us. And, as has been my experience, it can be easily taken away — and you can be taken down in the process. This makes us especially vulnerable — I want to increase awareness of this fact and take back my power, the narrative of my story.
This is not just about me — or anyone on the other side of my story. We all have stories to tell. Unless we start telling them, nothing will change. Let’s move discussion forward — especially with those in power. My hope is that future executives, leaders, and the like take time to understand this vulnerability and be particularly thoughtful and aware of the whimsical ways in which their actions can help (or hinder) ambitious, young, professional women (and men).
Side Note: If I were to ask advice on whether to publish this, the advice I would most likely get is do not publish. That no good can come of it. That like all those before me who have brought these inequities to light, I will be viewed as the problem child. That future potential managers will steer clear of me. I will be seen as trouble, toxic. However, this advice that we generally give ambitious, young women (and men) is exactly why I feel a deep need to speak out. This advice lets those in power continue to get away with their behavior without understanding the impact it has on those of us with ambition. This advice somehow assumes the victim is to blame.