Career advice in a Science Magazine column has stirred up debate about what’s appropriate in a lab, and whether young women should ignore what could be considered sexual harassment. (iStock)

It’s safe to say that Science Magazine’s career-advice column doesn’t usually scorch up the Internet.

But a well-known molecular biologist and senior faculty member at Caltech touched a raw nerve when a young researcher asked for advice about handling her adviser’s repeated attempts, whenever they met in his office, to peer down her shirt.

“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,” wrote Alice Huang, a regular columnist for Science, whose profile says she has always advocated for women in the field.

Through a spokesman, Huang politely declined to comment as she is traveling.

Much of her response was quickly shared on social media, angering some people who felt her advice was particularly lousy for women in research labs, where they often are outnumbered by men and might feel it’s more of a struggle than it should be to be taken seriously.

While some agreed with Huang that it was better to focus on research than on what might well be a slight, and unintentional, bit of unwanted attention, others started a sarcastic hashtag about bad advice – and then later another thread offering their own advice to young researchers.

“I thought it was appalling advice,” said Imogen Coe, dean of the faculty of science at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a professor of chemistry and biology who quickly fired off a letter to the magazine. “There has been a lot of discussion about the situation for women in science… but nobody should be having to work in an environment that’s less than respectful.”

The magazine, part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, pulled the piece – which is archived here through the magic of the interweb – with some words of apology:

“The Ask Alice article, ‘Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt,’ on this website has been removed by Science because it did not meet our editorial standards, was inconsistent with our extensive institutional efforts to promote the role of women in science, and had not been reviewed by experts knowledgeable about laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. We regret that the article had not undergone proper editorial review prior to posting. Women in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.”

Here’s some of the exchange that set this off:

“Dear Alice,

“Q: 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?

“—Bothered

 

“Dear Bothered,

“A: 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.”

Her response goes on to discuss unlawful sexual harassment in the workplace, suggests there are worse things than leering, and closes with, “His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.”

Many readers were Bothered.

One woman asked: “Have you ever known a trainee who reported harassment with a positive outcome? There’s a reason people tolerate this [rotten, no-good stuff.]”

A man responded to a “Got a question for #askalice?” tweet with: “Yes! Dear Alice, why are you dolling out terrible 1950s-style advice about ‘just take your lumps’ to women trainees?”

Another researcher posted a photo of a blue-footed booby (a species of long-winged seabirds, natch — and their feet ARE astonishingly blue) with the words: “My eyes are up here.” Oh, science humor.

There was lots of sarcasm.

The issue took off, both in forums frequented by researchers such as insidehighered.com, and the buzzy, irreverent Jezebel, perhaps because it touched on something often cited as a particular problem in scientific fields, but familiar to many in all sorts of lines of work and study.

Coe said it’s a familiar problem: “I think there are issues in a number of disciplines where you have an imbalance of power. The example of post-doc supervisor is an example of a very unbalanced power dynamic. They are very dependent on the approval, attention, support of this individual — they don’t want to jeopardize it.

“That’s not exclusive to science… certainly in science I’ve seen it, I’ve dealt with it, I’ve discussed it.”

She thought Huang has done much work in her career to further women in science, and this was just a mistake, but she wanted to be sure people knew there were appropriate and constructive ways — other than trying to ignore it — to deal with uncomfortable situations. Most universities have very clear guidelines, she said.

Some readers were struck by something from Huang’s own impressive resume: After earning degrees from Wellesley and Johns Hopkins, she did post-doctoral research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and MIT. Her research mentor David Baltimore went on to win a Nobel prize — and marry her.