Science Careers has an advice column called Ask Alice with Alice Huang.
She got one spectacularly wrong. It was pulled from the main site but can be viewed in archive here. I’ll reprint the text in case that disappears for some reason.
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?
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.
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.
I’ll suggest that whenever someone is seeking advice (even from an advice column) and says “whenever we meet…” that it suggests that this behavior is repeated, unwelcome, offensive and is making the workplace inhospitable.
I also think that one-on-one personal advice along the lines of “well just how bad is it?” and trying to make sure the person isn’t on a hair trigger for some reason is totally inappropriate for an advice column in ScienceCareer from the journal Sciences. This is a high profile venue and this issue needs to be dealt with under the assumption of broad generalization.
Look, I know a great number of normal, decent, nonharassing people fear the spectre of being brought up on career charges for an inadvertent glance at a deep bit of cleavage. Being the heteronormative male raised in US culture that I am, yeah, I am to be found looking at bits of other people’s anatomy from time to time. A lot of it feels subconscious, automatic and reflexive (NOT MY FAULT!).
I get it. Nobody feels like a person should be run out of their job for a stray look.
But my experience suggests that the vast majority of these cases reveal that women are incredibly tolerant and reluctant to cry “harassment” based on the unintentional stray look. I tend to suspect that by the time a woman is talking about a mentor leering at her in solo settings there is a good chance the behavior is well beyond normal, inadvertent glancing.
I don’t know this for sure, of course. I certainly don’t think that I leer. I think that I keep my eyes to myself in a professional setting as best I am able and I think that I consciously notice when my eyes have strayed and take effort to knock that shit off. But perhaps I have made employees uncomfortable and hopefully if I am ever made aware of that I would apologize profusely. At the very least I would try to defend myself without trying to pretend it was all in her head and generally gaslighting the remotest possibility that something I did might have made an underling uncomfortable.
So I think Ask Alice has run off the rails on this one. Our default, public, high profile response to situations like this should not be to suggest the victim should merely put up with it as “human and…forgivable” behavior. Our default response should be to assume that by the time someone complains about it, the odds are that the behavior is repeated and severe enough to be offensive. The mentor is already not paying sufficient attention to “your science” and his duties to provide “his best advice”. Putting up with the leering isn’t going to change that.
Related from Zen:
UPDATE: Science Careers Editor Note on pulling the piece:
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.