You know that feeling you get when someone tells you to just shut up and take sexual harassment -- and if you can, take it with a sense of humor? Well now we can all get that feeling, thanks to a column in the magazine of lauded journal Science. The advice column has since been pulled, but Retraction Watch has an archive.
Here's the gist: A female post-doc wrote in about her adviser, an otherwise solid scientist who can't seem to help himself from trying to peek down her shirt every time they're together. The response from Science Careers columnist Alice Huang sparked an uproar from many readers:
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.
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.
It's not surprising that people were outraged. The answer isn't just problematic -- Huang basically says that the female student's career will suffer if she stands up to being leered at repeatedly by someone in a position of power over her, and that it isn't worth the risk, plus she seems to think that some amount of ogling is just hunky dory -- but it's also emblematic of the institutional problem of sexism in the sciences. This is how it works: Reporting so-called minor grievances that make one feel unsafe and uncomfortable at work -- repeated peeks down a shirt or sexually inappropriate remarks, for example -- is just a bad idea, because the repercussions will hurt the recipient of inappropriate behavior, not the perpetrator.
If we lived in a perfect world, the student could just say "hey, stop," and her adviser would stop. We don't live in a perfect world, so the student knows that talking to the adviser directly might not be the best idea. In a slightly less perfect world, the student would be expected to report the behavior to someone who would do the reprimanding for her, and the professor would respond appropriately. But we don't live in that world either, and the student is left asking for advice.
And then we come to the response, which tells you everything you need to know about being a young woman in the sciences: Taking the professor to task for this behavior and making it stop is obviously the right thing to do for this woman. But is it right for her career prospects? Nope. That's what Huang seems to be trying to get across. And that's not right.
Huang's column clearly struck a nerve, and Science now says it goes against their editorial standards. "We regret that the article had not undergone proper editorial review prior to posting," the retraction note states. "Women in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace."
But as always, it's not the single column that really stings. It's the fact that its contents -- while egregious -- are really just par for the course.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the letter writer as a graduate student. She is in fact a post-doctoral researcher.