An Academic Journal's Advice Columnist Says A Scientist Should Put Up With Male Leering -- and I Say NO

Aw, poor unthinking accomplished scientist can’t manage to control his eyes in a professional lab when interacting with a subordinate! Take pity on this man!
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Publish date:
June 2, 2015
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work, bad advice, sexual harassment

We’ve just been treated to an especially clear example of how far some women have not come in the fight for equality. The vibrant little lesson came to us courtesy of the Science Careers (via ScienceMag.org) advice column “Ask Alice.”

For those of us familiar with the tune, this is an appropriate moment to sing a line or two of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” OK, let’s continue.

“Ask Alice” is written by Alice Huang, but more on her in a moment. The column in question was titled “Help! My Advisor Won’t Stop Looking Down My Shirt!” and began with the following question:

I’ve just joined a new lab for my second postdoc. It’s a good lab. I’m happy with my project. I think it could really lead to some good results. My adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy. Here’s the problem: Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt. Not that this matters, but he’s married.”

What should I do?

The inquiry was signed “Bothered,” which is what the reply left many readers:

Dear Bothered,

Imagine what life would be like if there were no individuals of the opposite—or preferred—sex. It would be pretty dull, eh? Well, like it or not, the workplace is a part of life.

It’s true that, in principle, we’re all supposed to be asexual while working. But the kind of behavior you mention is common in the workplace. Once, a friend told me that he was so distracted by an attractive visiting professor that he could not concentrate on a word of her seminar. Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines unlawful sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” It goes on to say that “harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).” I’m not an attorney, but to me the behavior you’re describing doesn’t seem unlawful by this standard.

Some definitions of sexual harassment do include inappropriate looking or staring, especially when it’s repeated to the point where the workplace becomes inhospitable. Has it reached that point? I don’t mean to suggest that leering is appropriate workplace behavior—it isn’t—but it is human and up to a point, I think, forgivable. Certainly there are worse things, including the unlawful behaviors described by the EEOC. No one should ever use a position of authority to take sexual advantage of another.

As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.

- Alice

Well. Right out of the gate, Alice has taken a sharp turn to the left. She responds to this legitimate problem with a hypothetical question in which she imagines a man-less world and asks “Bothered” to do the same. It sets the tone for what is to follow, as if she’s saying Girl I’ll get to your lil’ issue in a sec but first Imma need you to join me in praise of men or at least whoever we each want to bang because banging is everything and yay men!

Alice follows that odd start with a bit of old-school tough love, asserting that this type of comportment is “common in the workplace.” Gotcha. Now what are we going to do about it?

Nothing, apparently. Alice shares an anecdote about a male friend being generally male, and then lets the offending party off the hook because he “may not even be aware of what he is doing.” Awwwww, poor unthinking accomplished scientist can’t manage to control his eyes in a professional lab when interacting with a subordinate! Take pity on this man! Consider his feelings!

Seeing the mention of the EEOC at least gave me some hope for the next paragraph, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be quoted in defense of the man in question. Alright, maybe “defense” is a little strong, since Alice does allow that leering is not “appropriate workplace behavior.” However, she details the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment with a focus on the unlawful part, as though the penal code was the complainant’s main concern.

The inquiring scientist’s question ends with “What should I do?” not “Can I have my adviser arrested or press charges against him?” Assessing the legality of a situation is a fine way to measure one’s response, but it’s not so useful to use the absence of a criminal infraction as a reason to poo-poo the problem. Alice’s brief admission that she thinks the adviser’s behavior is inappropriate is immediately undercut by her declaration that it is also “human” and “forgivable.”

She then offers that shining gem of non-helpful responses to legitimate concerns, it could be worse, essentially telling the woman that there are more serious things he could be doing to her, so this is no biggie.

Listen, I’m all for recognizing the humanity in others, and perspective is crucial in adulting. But this is not Alice encouraging the woman to put the behavior in perspective as a lead-in to how she might put an end to it or at the very least, to address it. This is Alice literally telling her to “put up with it, with good humor if you can.”

Put. Up. With. It.

The only thing that prevented me from flipping my laptop at the sight of those four words was my utter confusion at the closing sentence.

His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.

If we replace the words “may be” with “is definitely,” since that is the whole reason why the question was posed in the first place, Alice’s closing sentence actually works as an opening sentence of a reply that might have sincerely addressed the problem. The scientist does need, and in fact deserves, her adviser’s attention on her science and his best advice.

So how does she go about getting it when he’s repeatedly trying to look down her shirt? Alice can’t answer that, and she doesn’t even seem to feel that she should have to.

The page was taken down shortly after it was posted, but here’s an archived link if you want to see it for yourself. Immediately after being removed, the link just led to the Science homepage, but a few hours later, an Editor’s Note replaced the original column, indicating no fewer than four reasons why the article had been removed.

My first thought upon reading the original post, after I’m glad I got confused at the end and didn’t flip my laptop, was to question Alice’s age and background. I did the knee-jerk thing of trying to cut her some slack for possibly being of a different generation or cultural background. However, I stopped myself from fully going down that road, because slack is not going to bring us equality.

Alice’s qualifications and accolades as listed on the advice column page are so impressive that I’m not entirely comfortable referring to her as “Alice.”

She is Dr. Huang, a scientist whose achievements are impressive to the point of awesomeness. She is a woman in an industry that is dominated by men. She is an educator whose bio includes the statement, “Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science.” And she is telling a woman asking for advice about a leering man to put up with it.

Who knows what Dr. Huang had to put up with when she was coming up? I don’t necessarily want to think the worst, but perhaps her personal experiences were negative in ways that truly do dwarf “Bothered’s” situation? Perhaps Dr. Huang’s own letter would have been signed “Attacked,” “Assaulted,” or worse? I want to allow for Dr. Huang’s experiences and humanity, but part of achieving at a high level and choosing to also teach and write an advice column is paving the way for others to have an easier time advancing.

That is a little thing we like to call progress, and Dr. Huang’s response flies in the face of it.

When my shock abated, I asked myself what I would tell the scientist who had made the inquiry. I know very little of the world of laboratories, but I know plenty about being leered at, particularly by men in a position of power in a work environment.

Personally, I’ve employed humor as an initial response, but firm humor of the this is your chance to check yourself before I do it for you variety. Not the “put up with it” type. Depending on the context, and my level of safety and relative comfort within the discomfort inherent in the situation, I might lean in and say something like, “Is it a cliché if I say ‘my eyes are up here’?”

I might speak with other women who work with this man, provided that I feel comfortable asking them if they’ve experienced similar things and if anyone else has taken action, or might want to join forces in doing so. The woman who wrote in states many positives about her lab, so it might be extreme to suggest leaving or looking for a different lab or advisor altogether, but that is also an option.

It would be ideal to have a third party address the adviser for her, but that would require trustworthiness on the part of that person, and that they could address it in a respectful way, not a Dr. Huang way. There’s also the fear that the woman could face retaliatory behavior if the adviser feels threatened or faces disciplinary action.

So, I don’t know the exact right way for that particular woman to handle her situation, but I know there are a few ways to try, and none of them involves “putting up with it.” As the Science Careers Editor’s Note states, “Women in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.”

Go tell Alice.