Dear Advice Column, What Do I Do When A Premier Journal In My Field Is Sexism Apologetic?

Jun 01 2015 Published by under Careerism

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.

 

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.

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

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.

This advice reads as yet another excuse for leering, sexist and/or harassing behavior on the part of professors who should know better.

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:

Breaking brand: Science magazine’s latest self-inflicted crisis

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.

Good call.

66 responses so far

  • dsks says:

    "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."

    ?!?!?!

  • jmz4gtu says:

    Well, that was terrible advice. It obviously bothers the woman, and so telling her she should essentially stop worrying about it is not productive.

    The advice should have gone, "while you don't have the basis for a legal claim, if it's bothering you, just confront it head on, most standards of common decency are on your side. However, as it is *relatively* innocuous behavior, he may not be consciously aware of, perhaps use a little humor to lighten the mood, or not be too strident in your complaints." Her advice comes way to close to saying that this behavior is permissible, and not just in a legal gray area (but not an ethical one).

    On a sidenote, I think Zen is being a little hyperbolic when he talks about the "decay of the brand". The chief role of the AAS is science, not gender relations. Within that second field is a landscape fraught with unintended consequences and repressed issues that are just now getting an airing. I'm surprised when those archaic institutions get anything right about women's and LGBTQ issues, not the opposite.

  • Namesaste_Ish says:

    Advice from a woman who married her post doc advisor on what's appropriate in the work place? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_S._Huang
    Well done, Science. Well done.

  • dsks says:

    I liked it in the olden days when the job of the editorial staff was to edit stuff before it's published. The publish-first-and-edit-only-if-it-provokes-a-shitstorm approach has some distinct disadvantages, imho.

  • ABC says:

    I think this sexist political correctness witch-hunt has gone too far.

    This is all the evidence the woman have provided: "Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt."

    Why the fuck do you immediately assume the worst DM and dear readers? Did Ms Bothered said that her advisor looks at her, AND does not take her science seriously? Did Ms Bothered said she was being discriminated or passed on in favor of male labmates? All she said was my advisor looks at my tits, sometimes.

    Now don't tell me that this doesn't happen outside academia. I'll bet both my nuts with you that male supervisors do look at their subordinates tits at times (not everyone does it, and I'm not saying it should be encouraged, but it DOES HAPPEN). Big Fucking Deal.

    So Alice's advise was don't make a mountain out of a molehill until you have something concrete, which IS SENSIBLE.

    Seriously, WTF is with all this sexist political correctness bullshit?! It's just like that sexist PLoS ONE reviewer, where everyone was dissing the reviewer but NOBODY had read the full transcript of the review (including me). I reserved my judgement in that case until I have all the facts. Why can't you? It's amazing how we call ourselves scientist and make a living out of evidence-based findings, but when it comes to hot button topics like these, most people can't think straight.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I was pretty clear on why I assume the worst. Because I find that by the time a woman bothers to seek advice about a man in a supervisory position leering, it is not just the occasional glance but a pattern of actual, well, leering. So in this context, it is most likely that the prof was creeping....

  • dsks says:

    Hey, ABC, did you read this bit Alice's response, or did you only get as far as the first sentence before getting your ragin' mansplainin' on?

    "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."

  • zb says:

    Pretty awful.

    I suspect that a 76 year old can't really be giving advice on male/female interactions in the workplace. Yes some parts of the interactions are biology and evolution and aren't going to change. But, time has changed what is acceptable; I'm even surprised at the comparison between what I and my kid think is acceptable. Anyone else remember bra-snapping in middle school? (when girls first started wearing bras?). It's not a thing in my kiddos school any more (though admittedly the school isn't necessarily representative of all schools). My kid looked at me in shock when I suggested that's something boys just do to girls. To her it was clearly harassment.

    http://isisthescientist.com/2015/06/01/ask-isis-help-my-adviser-wont-stop-looking-down-my-shirt/

    Isis comes through with a better answer.

    I disagree with Isis that there's no possibility of changing the behavior though. Looking down a shirt is a tough one, since eye movements are difficult to define or to correct, but a clear instruction that you do not wish to be touched can change behavior (say if someone likes to touch you -- they say -- for emphasis, and it makes you uncomfortable). A clear instruction that you don't want sexual language used around you can sometimes be effective (I feel like it's gotten better hear, though I don't know why). There are men who do these things because they think the interaction is mutual and will stop if you are visibly uncomfortable.

    The power differential does make the situation difficult to address (straight out talking is more effective with colleagues). But men who think they are flirting or that appreciatively looking at a woman is a compliment aren't necessarily sexists unwilling to alter their behavior. You do run the risk of being labelled, but it was always worth the risk to me.

    The post-doc might also be more comfortable if she meets with the advisor in a more public place -- suggest coffee in a meeting room or meeting in the lab, rather than coming to the privacy of the advisor's office.

  • Anonymous says:

    "if it's bothering you, just confront it head on...."

    Seriously, jmz4gtu? I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but, how, exactly, would this conversation go? Can you give me an example, perhaps where you "use a little humor to lighten the mood, or [aren't] too strident in your complaints"?

    And just in case it's not obvious why a woman might hesitate to "just confront it head on," check out ABC's response. Imagine that coming from your supervisor.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Can you give me an example, perhaps where you 'use a little humor to lighten the mood, or [aren't] too strident in your complaints'?"
    -Well, I'm predicating all this on the assumption that the PI is genuinely a fair and friendly person with whom questioner has a good working relationship, who is doing this unwittingly (or not knowing he's being observed to do it), which, from the questioner's context, seems reasonable.

    But, in that context, something along the lines of 1/2 jokingly saying"my face is up here", or an anti-ogling t-shirt to get the point across without putting his back up against the wall or causing him to freak out and get defensive. Or maybe just addressing the issue through an intermediary or in a non-accusatory and hostile tone? I honestly have very little frame of reference for the woman here, but I can imagine if I were the PI I might respond better to a less serious approach, rather than someone raining administrative thunder on my head with a formal complaint. I *would* however, want her to speak up in some way, since, it's clearly going to interfere with the mentoring relationship.

    "And just in case it's not obvious why a woman might hesitate to "just confront it head on," check out ABC's response. Imagine that coming from your supervisor."
    -Right, but look at how he opened his tirade, with a note of victimization and affront. Being made to feel like the bad guy makes people defensive and angry (even if they *are* the bad guy). Hence my suggestion, but you're right, I have very limited idea of how to accomplish it. In a similar situation I would probably just shut up and suffer.

    @ABC:
    "Big Fucking Deal."
    - Well, obviously it's a big deal for her. Besides, the point isn't whether or not the professor is actually much worse or better than other bosses out there, the point is that, assuming the complaints to be valid, the terrible advice offered is blaming the victim and condoning of borderline harassment.

  • becca says:

    Embroidered science dickies are totally my new Etsey shop.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Feel free to incorporate the DM logo becca

  • Anonymous says:

    Is it just me, because I can't imagine saying "my face is up here" to a supervisor that I've recently started working for. A colleague I've known for some time, maybe. But not my boss. Also, where can I get an anti-ogling t-shirt? And if I wore one would people think that I was serious about it or just making fun of people who take this stuff seriously?

  • DJMH says:

    I have to say it would be almost impossible for a trainee, even a fairly plain-spoken one, to bring this up to an advisor. My advice to this woman would be first, what Isis said--make sure you develop other mentors. And second, do up more buttons on your shirt, or wear a higher-necked item. The behavior is wrong, it's making her uncomfortable, but in her position all she can do is try to avert it, not call her advisor out on it.

    It's unfortunate that this second piece of advice means something different for bigger chested ladies than smaller chested ones, since that probably seems unfair, but I think you probably shouldn't be wearing something that gives people a view of your cleavage (or of your chest hair, menfolk) if your work environment is going to make that an uncomfortable experience.

  • AnonPostDoc says:

    I admit that I would be tempted, if I noticed this, to glance down at my chest too, or put my hand to my chest and then say something like "oh sorry! I thought there might be something on my shirt." This lets leering advisor know that you noticed but is not directly confrontational (or sexual). I would bet it only takes a few times before he stops.

    It is super annoying that women have to dress in a carefully calibrated way to get respectful treatment from men at work.

  • newbie PI says:

    I'm with Alice. This was career advice for one person, not advice on how to reprogram men to not like boobs. Does the behavior really warrant a formal harassment charge? Will it really help this postdoc in the long run to have a formal discussion about this? Alice says to get over it or deal with it in a humorous, non-confrontational way. Anything else is likely to be a detriment to her career. I think Alice is right on in terms of PRACTICAL career advice.

    Another thing -- who cares how old Alice is or who she chose to marry? She started an entire field of virology research and has held remarkable positions of power at research institutions and scientific societies. She's proven that she knows how to work the system and how to pick her battles.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Age is important b/c TehEldarz can be out of touch. As AH is. As McKnight is.

    I don't care who she married or why.

  • dsks says:

    I agree there's no effective way to bring this up with the PI without awkwardness.

    I do know that when a colleague comments to me, or to someone within earshot, that she has had this sort of experience, my immediate reaction is to become particularly self-conscious and sensitive about my own actions. So maybe she could try exclaiming loudly to a colleague in the PIs earshot something along the lines of, "Hot damn, some random sleazeball was totally perving on my boobs as I came into work this morning, it totally creeped me out! So glad that sort of sexist nonsense doesn't go on around here, AMIRITE!!?!??!"

    Maybe more subtle than that, but you get the picture.

    That might actually be slightly more subtle than coming to work wearing a Tactleneck, imho.

  • zb says:

    I'm getting frustrated by the advice that there's nothing to be done. The fact is that some men will look at women, and some women will be uncomfortable with the looking (while others don't care or like it). If you are a woman who doesn't like it, grinning and bearing it shouldn't be the only answer (and neither is retraining all men or even just supervisors not to look at adult women).

    So -- ideas, non confrontational ones, with the hope that the man in question is a reasonable one

    1) meet in public places
    2) where higher necked shirts
    3) mention the issue to others (maybe women?) maybe a woman with more power. I know that as a pi I would have said something to a male colleague if a student told me of discomfort (hopefully carefully)
    4) be a bit less friendly? I once wore a skirt that was too short for the work I was doing, and found my advisor staring at my legs -- being visibly uncomfortable and awkward worked (and this was an advisor who routinely dated in the department) (ie tugging at my skirt and moving further away)

  • qaz says:

    "Seriously, jmz4gtu? I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but, how, exactly, would this conversation go?"

    Well, I'll give you two examples. One from when I was in college, when women would say to their male friends "I'm up here." Believe me, being told that once was more than enough and most of them started making eye contact. And, of course, the few that didn't, well, then you knew. Yes, people were more on an equal basis, but another possibility is that she could say something to her friends in lab meeting or something of "I hate when guys are looking down here rather than up here, know what I mean." (I like AnonPostDoc's suggestion.)

    Second, was from a female student to me after I was a PI. We always referred to making plots "sexy" for GlamourMagz - basically meaning that we were using graphic design concepts to make the plots easier to read. She complained and the entire lab switched to "snazzy" and we've never gone back, even though she graduated a decade ago.

    The issue is that what we have is a woman saying she is facing an advisor situation that bothers her. That's something that should be addressed. I think Huang's response was the worst one of all. The postdoc should not put up with it because it will make it more difficult for HER to get the most out of her advisor's science. If she starts to avoid meeting with him because she's uncomfortable, that's going to hurt her career. It is important to find a way to resolve this situation.

    However, there is a big difference between a guy leering because he thinks that she's cute and he thinks its his right (or worse that he thinks she'll like it) and a guy who's eyes "stray". (Remember all the discussion about the placement of SFN nametags!)

    PS. I like Isis's suggestion to get other mentors in case this guy turns out to be sleazy rather than clueless. (Actually, having multiple mentors is good advice in any case because postdoc-advisor interactions can go bad for lots of reasons.)

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    jmz4gtu wrote: "I think Zen is being a little hyperbolic when he talks about the 'decay of the brand'. The chief role of the AAS is science, not gender relations."

    Yeah, probably. Though my comment on "decay" was not supposed to be confined to gender relations.

    I tried to point out that Science magazine has been having a rough ride on the scientific issues, too - the Michael LaCour retraction is a current example, but there are a lot before that. Arsenic life, and how many others can be named?

    But it's hard to know how much people associate Science magazine with Science Careers website, or the Science Advances journal, and so on. I think of them as being close, because they're all run AAAS and all feature the same "Science" logo, but maybe other people don't see the as the same brand.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "and how many others can be named?"
    -Not as many as Nature (43 to 36 via retraction watch)? There have always been frauds, it's just easier to find them out now. Nature has been on way more a tear of retractions recently.

  • zb says:

    "She complained and the entire lab switched to "snazzy" and we've never gone back, even though she graduated a decade ago."

    Really great.

    I was that student & post doc (though not necessarily in that context, since using sexy to refer to a graphic figure didn't bug me), but other things did (don't like the casual use of the four letter f word, for example), and, when I said so, people stopped, around me. Yeah, they also snickered a bit, at first, and, I'm sure they didn't change the way they talked always, but, it was good enough.

  • ninacat says:

    "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."

    Can you just imagine if a woman said "Wow-that guy was so hot-I couldn't pay attention to the data" ? She would be considered vacuous, not serious about her career and worse.

    I knew about a PI who liked to ask women about their sex life. Some women didn't mind sharing, some made up stuff--and the rest were appalled and left the lab. No one could do anything about it because he was a favored son and brought in lots of indirects. If you didn't "share" there was retribution--bad project/neg assessment etc. It was really sad that that was what you had to put up with if you wanted to stay in this lab--and many did because he was quite famous and good in his area.

    When is this type of inappropriate behavior going to end? Maybe Alice doesn't realize it, but by "humoring" this guy, it is tacit acknowledgment that this type of behavior is acceptable. I don't think it should be up to the trainee to confront the person--with or without humor. We need a better way.

    @ABC
    So--if he listens to my science-I have to put up with inappropriate behavior?
    That's probably exactly what he thinks.

  • Ola says:

    One idea that might be worth exploring (altho' is a little creepy) - I would assume this prof' has a page/entry on ratemyprefessors.com? If he's doing it to grad students and is involved in teaching, then the undergrads are probably getting it too. They typically don't hold back in joining the chorus to call out such behavior.

  • Adam says:

    Clearly, if someone takes the time to write to an advice columnist and signs it "Bothered", then the situation qualifies as a "hostile environment" and is therefore sexual harassment. Direct confrontation is the first step.

    However, we should be careful not to confound "sexual" with "sexism" (as in the title of the blog post). The two occasionally go together, but not necessarily. In this case, we don't know that the PI made unfounded generalizations about the complainant on the basis of sex. In fact, we don't even know the sex of the complainant, and are merely making assumptions (which is not exactly empirical, and these sorts of assumptions are themselves sexism). What if the trainee is a guy with some nice pecs? What if the PI is staunchly bisexual and harasses everyone equally?

    As scientists, we should be precise with our descriptions and base them on the available evidence.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah, and the available evidence points overwhelmingly to the null hypothesis that Bothered is female and the PI is heteronormative male.

  • Adam says:

    Which evidence is that, exactly? Your generalizations based on prior experiences with other males and females besides the specific individuals in question? That's sexism by definition.

  • Adam says:

    Also, even if you leapt to the correct conclusion regarding the sex of the two individuals in question, we would need to observe how the PI treats males in order to know if the behavior is discriminatory.

  • ABC says:

    It's nice to see a bit more balanced opinion from the comments, and practical solutions like changing dress styles are definitely worthwhile.

    Again, I think at this times whole thing has gotten out of control (not just sexism, although that's the most popular topic) but discrimination in general.

    Basically there is 2 solutions to the problem:

    1) Construct this ideal "fantasy" world of how you should be treated, and then go all out to advocate and fight for it. In this context, it would be going head-to-head with the PI and telling him stop staring at my boobs. Now, if you do it this way, it will probably have repercussions on your career. People will start labeling you as whiny, overly-sensitive, etc... especially if you make a big deal out of no deal. That's a true fact, whether or not you think it is justified.

    2) Accept the reality and move on, adjust and compensate accordingly. If you were born with big boobs and don't like people staring, then don't show cleavage. Yes, this will bring in the fanatics of "why should women change their dress code to adjust to the situation, it's sexist!" To which I would reply, DEAL WITH IT, we live in a real world, and you pick and choose battles that are worth fighting. So a PI looking at your boobs is something that you ignore, but your PI encouraging you to have sex with him or else he will write damaging letters of recommendations is something that you fight.

    I think this philosophy applies to every sort of discrimination, and yes I pick option (2). For the record, I am a minority, and I know there are certain stereotypes that I need to "overcome" just because of my ethnicity. Do I make a big shit out of it and complain life is unfair and the world is discriminatory? NO. I deal with the problem, and if necessary proactively seek out to overthrow such stereotypes and discrimination. Is it fair to me? No, of course not, but since when is life fair?

  • ABC says:

    And for the record, people discriminate (whether knowingly or not) all the time.

    Not just gender and race/ethnicity, but your social status, height, weight, your favorite sport, etc...

    So please tell me what makes your gender so damn sacred? If you want to complain about discrimination, I'm a short, slightly overweight, minority male, who doesn't drink and don't follow sports. I've already listed 4 ways that I can be discriminated, yet I don't make a fuss out of it everyday.

  • qaz says:

    Adam - sexual harrasment of young men is STILL harrasment and STILL wrong. And STILL illegal. Whether this PI does this to everybody or just women or just this student is irrelevant.

    The issue here has absolutely nothing to do with discrimination. It has to do with an uncomfortable situation that is interfering with this student's career trajectory. There is a question as to whether this is merely an uncomfortable situation (clueless PI) or true harrasment (throw the book at the bastard), but it is a situation that has to stop and one that has to be fixed.

  • Adam says:

    qaz,

    I am unclear as to whether you are supporting me or criticizing me. The tone sounds critical, but I agree with you completely. In fact, after I explicitly stated that the behavior described by "Bothered" was sexual harassment, I also explicitly used the word "harass" to describe inappropriate treatment of men (regardless of age, by the way; I don't see why it would be relevant whether they're "young" or not, which simply adds ageism to the mix). I also agree with you that this issue has nothing to do with discrimination, and therefore does not have anything to do with sexism. It was the author of the blog post that implicated discrimination by using the word "sexism", and I was merely trying to point out, as you did, that sexual harassment and sexism are two different things.

    Anyway, I'll take your comment as supportive, and grant thanks to you for that!

  • drugmonkey says:

    I'm a short, slightly overweight, minority male, who doesn't drink and don't follow sports. I've already listed 4 ways that I can be discriminated, yet I don't make a fuss out of it everyday.

    Your theoretical points of discrimination that might, vaguely, in a general sense put you at some sort of disadvantage are equivalent to specific, one-on-one behavior that is very common in work harassment and discrimination cases such as this Bothered person is describing?

    When you are actually discriminated against (not "can be", but actually) on these bases come back and let us know. I'm sure Alice will have advice for you.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I deal with the problem, and if necessary proactively seek out to overthrow such stereotypes and discrimination.

    And what differs in 1) Bothered's question, 2) Alice Huang's attempted answer and 3) various Internet comments about the entire situation?

    Everyone is chiming in with how they think the problem should and should not be dealt with and how to "proactively" address discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

    Interestingly, you claim sometimes that you find it necessary to be proactive and yet in your point 2 you say "accept the reality and move on". Clearly your issue here is not structural but rather that you don't happen to find leering to be above your personal threshold for proactive overthrowing.

    Not sure how that generalizes as a principle, it just reiterates that you don't find boob staring to be a big deal. Clearly Bothered does.

  • qaz says:

    The issue is that the side-track into discrimination is irrelevant and distracts from the real issues here. It doesn't matter whether the PI is discriminatory (meaning aimed at a single person/group). In fact, there is no evidence from Bothered's letter that the PI doesn't treat her science and ideas with appropriate gravity and respect. In fact, Bothered explicitly says that "My adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy." She does not feel discriminated against. She presents no evidence that the PI treats male and female postdocs differently scientifically, or treats them differently in terms of helping them get to the next stage in their careers. She explicitly says she likes her project. The issue is that she is uncomfortable because her advisor is staring down her shirt.

    What matters is that we have a situation wherein someone is uncomfortable in their workplace due to sexual overtones. In our current society, this is unacceptable. (There are good reasons for this being unacceptable. I suppose we can discuss this if people need it discussed.) The real issue is that Huang's suggestion of just get over it does not solve the problem well. Bothered needs a process by which she can become comfortable meeting with her advisor. (And, as Isis points out, a process by which she is not solely dependent on her advisor's good will.)

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "I deal with the problem, and if necessary proactively seek out to overthrow such stereotypes and discrimination. "
    -You mean, by like, pitching a fit on the internet, for example?

    "It was the author of the blog post that implicated discrimination by using the word "sexism", and I was merely trying to point out, as you did, that sexual harassment and sexism are two different things. "

    Adam, they are different things, but, as you pointed out, they go hand in hand. Objectification of another, regardless of gender, is a necessary step towards outright discrimination, no? By making light of this type of behavior, the column promotes an environment conducive towards sexism, thereby tacitly condoning it.

  • bacillus says:

    I buy all of my staff "Howie" lab-coats which button up to the neck, and are far safer for microbiology research than the usual variety which often have V collars that go well below the breast-line. Also, for safety our organization (govt) insists that everyone wear attire that protects exposed legs (pants) and feet (no open toed shoes). Of course this dress code only applies to wet-lab work and you can't bring it to conferences, but it can obviate lecherous leaders and fellow laboratarians.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    @Bacillus,
    You know, you should also get them the welder's goggles, since they're much more sturdy than plastic lab goggles. And those nice thick black PVC gloves, since latex and nitrile gloves tear so easily
    ....
    OK, maybe I just want a lab of Dr. Horribles.

  • DON'T ASK ALICE... & SURE AS HELL DON'T ASK ANNA!

    I once had a mentor who sat me down and tried to explain to me “that PhDs aren’t for everyone,” and that “some people just should not have them.” Having been in science for some 30 years prior to this discussion, I was to say the least dumb-founded by her thesis.

    In the run-up to this conversation, I had recently suffered severe verbal abuse from a professor. This professor would only act this way in the presence of other students (for example, during her lectures). In the presence of other faculty, she showered me with praise. She would at least once per lecture single me out, and hurl unfounded, scathing accusations at me. So severe were these attacks that other graduate students frequently took me aside to express their concern. This professor also failed me on a term paper (worth 1/2 the total grade)- not because of any flaw or failure to adhere to stated requirements but, because in her mind I “violated the spirit of the assignment”. Apparently I was supposed to read minds instead of literature… .

    Well, the abuse became so blatant that I attempted to withdraw from her coursework and remove her from my thesis committee. My mentor resisted, eventually forcing me into a corner. My mentor was aware I was a survivor of PTSD, and I communicated to her and others the abuse exasperated the condition, making me unable to perform for this person. That was when my mentor explained “some people, such as those with disabilities, should not have PhDs.” I was so stunned and offended I did not bother to reply to such an insulting remark. Eventually, my mentor placed me on an unfair academic probation, stipulating I would be terminated if I did not work with the abuser.

    And mind you, this mentor spent her entire life lobbying for gay marriage, continually asserting she and her partner were discriminated against, mistreated & abused by society. I appealed the probation, and my mentor immediately resigned and pulled all of my funding, and fired me from my paid research position. Her stated reason? I “went over her head”.

    Don’t ask Alice… and lemme tell ya, Don’t ask Anna.

    [ DM - specifics on the case edited out. I'm not keen on off-topic personal axe grinding in the comments, regardless of whether true or not. I think we all get the flavor from the above. ]

  • ABC says:

    "Not sure how that generalizes as a principle, it just reiterates that you don't find boob staring to be a big deal. Clearly Bothered does."

    Fine, I brought up discrimination because that have more real impacts on one's career and life than mere boob staring.

    If we are on this question, that I would respond: what is the median expectation, "is boob staring a big deal?" within academia? If she is >2 SD away from the median expectation, she is being oversensitive, and should suck it up. If her expectations are line with the rest of the community, then it becomes a question, do you think it's a battle worth fighting in light of possible career repercussions, and Alice advice is actually SPOT ON on this aspect. I got newsflash for you guys living in the cave, people with money and power actually do get away with "things" that others with lesser money and power aren't able to get away with. It's a fact of life. Deal with it.

    Now, you may turn the question around to ask, is boob staring expectations inside academia statistically different from outside the ivory tower, i.e. are our standards too low? To answer this question, you'll have to provide evidence that to prove that. And as Alice has mentioned, "boob staring" is not a capital offense even in the real world, and so I highly doubt that our standards are statistically different from the outside world.

    Sure, perhaps Bothered is bothered by this incident. But the questions to ask is:
    1) Is my standards outside the norm?
    2) If not, should I fight this?

    And Alice's advice addressed both of these quite well.

    Again, it brings back to this over-importance of gender that I am nitpicking on. Let's say my advisor picks his nose in front of me, and I am REALLY SO BOTHERED about this behavior, to the same extent that Bothered is over the boob staring incident. If I wrote a letter to Science complaining about it, I'll be the joke of the year, yet fundamentally it is no different from Bothered's situation.

    Until the advisor crosses the line like "grades/graduation for sex" or starts "touching" her, based on the description Bothered provided here, there is no case to be made. A simple thought experiment is let's put this case on trial, assume Bothered sues her advisor for sexual harassment. Do you think the charges will stick?

  • physioprof says:

    Do you really not get that sexually objectifying people in a professional environment is different from picking your nose?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Do you really think that conduct that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law is that only conduct that is objectionable in the workplace, ABC?

    *Intentionally* faking data, for example?

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "Again, it brings back to this over-importance of gender that I am nitpicking on."
    -This has little to do with gender other than a gender-specific historical tolerance of sexual objectification of women.

    PIs should be held to the very reasonable expectation that they not harass or abuse their trainees. Now, I think the adviser in question deserves the benefit of the doubt, and since he might not be aware of the problem, Alice's advice of "do nothing" is not productive.

  • -This has little to do with gender other than a gender-specific historical tolerance of sexual objectification of women.

    Wuuuuuuuuut??????? That's like saying "Three strikes has little to do with getting out other than a strike-specific historical tolerance of batters being called out on strike three". This shitte is overwhelmingly about gender: it's about dudes feeling free to leer at women. (Yes, there are very rare exceptions. Focusing on them is a derail from the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases that represent systemic reality.)

  • Anonymous says:

    "Now, I think the adviser in question deserves the benefit of the doubt, and since he might not be aware of the problem...."

    Not to pick on you, jmz4gtu, but I am sick and tired of hearing this bullshit. What is it exactly that we think this highly educated man is unaware of? That checking out his trainee's chest is wrong? That he is looking at his trainee's chest, even if he didn't set out to do so? How many times does he have to catch himself doing something wrong in order to alter his behavior? Or is it OK to keep doing something wrong if you think nobody notices?

    It shouldn't be up to the trainee to tell him that he needs to stop. In fact, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that you shouldn't ogle the people that work for you, irrespective of whether the party on the receiving end likes it or is even provoking it!

    There are standards, people -- workplace rules that apply here. This is not a casual after-hours interaction among friends. Would it be OK if the guy unzipped in front of his trainee? Because really, if she hasn't told him that this makes her uncomfortable, how on earth should the poor guy know he shouldn't do that?

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "This shitte is overwhelmingly about gender: it's about dudes feeling free to leer at women."
    -Right, but that's societal, not gender based. ABC was trying to make the male persecution case by saying it's unfair to target only men for this behavior ("the over-importance of gender " he refers to) . My point is that the conduct would be wrong for either gender, it just so happens (due to a long history of male hegemony, as you point out) that this behavior is predominately a male problem. No one should leer at anyone, especially if they're in a mentorship position and the leeree is a trainee. Anyone that doesn't agree with that statement is a tool.

    "What is it exactly that we think this highly educated man is unaware of?"
    This one:
    "That he is looking at his trainee's chest, even if he didn't set out to do so?"
    -Look, I agree the behavior is wrong. I just know for a fact that many men don't realize when they're doing it. *If* the PI is decent in other respects (which the tone of the original complaint suggests), then it would seem possible that this is the case. If so, then confronting the issue would be a productive avenue of discussion. Since Alice doesn't acknowledge this, that (among the other reasons discussed) is why Alice's advice was bad, even from the "practical" stance ABC says she was coming from.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    "It shouldn't be up to the trainee to tell him that he needs to stop."
    -In an ideal world, yes, all our bosses would be perfect people that understood and respected social mores and followed acceptable behavior. And I have met many PIs that fit this mold. However, in practice, many of the PIs I've met could easily have been diagnosed with personality disorders. Scientific management has a serious misanthropy problem, some of which manifests as misogyny. Navigating your superiors' social issues is, regrettably, par for the course. It's especially harmful when it is gender based, but it doesn't make it any more easily manageable.

  • Anonymous says:

    @ jmz4gtu: "I just know for a fact that many men don't realize when they're doing it."

    Really? Then why do it? I mean, if you don't realize that you are actually looking at a chest, how can you possibly derive any pleasure from that? And what the hell do you think you're looking at, while you're looking at someone's chest? C'mon....

    I'm sorry, but I'm going with DM on this one: "I think that I *consciously* notice when my eyes have strayed" [emphasis his]. I'm certainly aware of when my eyes stray. You can argue that it's different for me, because I'm a woman, but I don't think I buy it.

  • Anonymous says:

    "However, in practice, many of the PIs I've met could easily have been diagnosed with personality disorders."

    And if the guy has a personality disorder, I'm to believe that his behavior can be stopped by a simple "that makes me uncomfortable" from the trainee?

    Sometimes navigating a superior's social issue isn't worth it. Like when one doubts whether he can really focus on my research because he's too busy trying to look down blouse. It's time to stop telling women that this is "par for the course" and remind them that they can, in many cases, do better.

  • physioprof says:

    Right, but that's societal, not gender based.

    What the everloving fucke are you even talking about????? Do you even know what "gender" is????

    I'm done trying to explain reality to this gibbering fuckewitte.

  • jmz4 says:

    "C'mon...."
    Ok, I'll concede that the men who claim they don't notice they're doing it might, in fact, be liars. They might just think they're not being noticed and are lying to cover their asses.

    "Or is it OK to keep doing something wrong if you think nobody notices?"
    -No, objectifying people is wrong, but I think we all do it, to varying degrees and with more or less subtlety. Maybe this guy thinks he's getting away with it, and so he thinks, no harm no foul? Maybe if he was told he was being noticed, he'd at least try to amend his behavior?
    It seems to me you're making cynical assumptions about the PIs motivations and its impact on her work, which we really don't have enough info to form conclusions about. Alice goes the opposite direction, and I don't think either one leads to good advice.

    "Like when one doubts whether he can really focus on my research because he's too busy trying to look down blouse."
    -Which would be a problem if that was something Bothered had actually complained about. When I was replying to ABC, I'm trying to point out why Alice's advice was bad, not why the PI's behavior was unacceptable.

    "Sometimes navigating a superior's social issue isn't worth it"
    So your advice is to put up with it? Or go to a different lab? She likes the project, she likes the lab, and she apparently likes her mentor (ogling aside).
    Yes, he could be a vindictive A-hole if you bring it up, and if he does, then you can file a formal complaint so you have a record, and leave the lab. But I think, if it makes her uncomfortable and the boss is "a nice guy", it's worth a stab at addressing the issue. Judging from the comments on this page, it would be if many of the people here were her PI.

    My point with personality disorders was not to excuse them, but to note their prevalence, and the regrettable necessity of sometimes managing around them, not fleeing them. Also, that this seems like one of the more tractable behaviors to rectify, as opposed to some series issues of narcissism and emotional maturity that I've seen in Academia, the island of misfit toys.

  • jmz4 says:

    "Do you even know what "gender" is???? "
    -Yes, it is a set of (strictly speaking, biological) characteristics that apply differentially to males and females, forming them into two exclusive groups. If you say that leering is a gender issue, you're saying that men are just wired that way, it is a biologically ingrained gender-based trait. I'm saying that it's a social trait, one we learned from a society that has historically promoted the sexual objectification of women.

    The point ABC was making, which I called "male persecution" for shorthand, creates arguments by flipping the gender or removing it (by making it about asexual nose-picking). However, this isn't about gender, it's about the social context (a history of male-female objectification), which, as you said, means that this happens to a fuckeloade more women than it does to men. I was just elaborating on that reason.

  • physioprof says:

    -Yes, it is a set of (strictly speaking, biological) characteristics that apply differentially to males and females, forming them into two exclusive groups. If you say that leering is a gender issue, you're saying that men are just wired that way, it is a biologically ingrained gender-based trait. I'm saying that it's a social trait, one we learned from a society that has historically promoted the sexual objectification of women.

    I said I was done explaining shit to you, but because I'm a nice guy: Gender is the complete exact opposite of what you think it is.

  • qaz says:

    Anonymous: "if you don't realize that you are actually looking at a chest, how can you possibly derive any pleasure from that?"

    Are you seriously posting a comment on a neuroscience blog in the 21st century and don't know that actions and conscious decision-making do not track? The data that decision-making is a complex interaction of many different neurological components only some of which are conscious is so solid as to be practically fact at this point. In fact, the primary current models of decision-making assume multiple interacting decision-making systems, many of which conflict with each other. Many things we do are not conscious and can be stopped or controlled by bringing them to consciousness. Noticing sexual characteristics is very classically driven by non-conscious decision-making systems.

    Even this specific case (males checking out female chests) is well known to stop when brought to the guy's attention (for many men). The idea that there is no possibility to educate the professor is unfair to the professor and dangerous to the student. There's no reason to go nuclear until necessary.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Top-down ftw, qaz?

  • Philapodia says:

    There are those of us that frequent this blog that are not in the neurosciences Qaz, so it's not impossible that some of us may not know these things that you take for granted. For example, I know jack-shitte about neuroscience except that the brain is somewhere in the northern hemisphere of the body, but I come here for grantsmanship help/advice/bitching. The education in modern neuroscience is appreciated, though, especially about that cool new technique optogenetics. Sounds like fun!

  • qaz says:

    Philapodia - Fair enough.

    Short statement is that the psych and neuro data are very strongly showing that there are multiple decision-making processes that drive actions in both human and non-human mammals. (Monkey and rat data is very solid. Mouse data is pretty good. There is less available from other mammalian species, and the data from non-mammalian species is clearly not the same.) Each process uses different neural structures. (This means lesions and manipulations can drive behavior towards one system or another.) These structures track between mammalian species very closely. Some of these are accessible to consciousness in humans, some not. (Whether there is a "conscious" system in non-human animals is debated, but the same action-selection processes exist using similar neural structures in both human and non-human animals.) Latest results suggest that lots of the evolutionarily-useful actions (think sex) are driven by non-conscious systems.

    What this means is that it is definitely possible (and likely!) that some subset of males staring at female chests are not doing it consciously and would very quickly (and embarrasedly) change if it was brought to their more conscious decision-making systems.

    Science tells us that we need to take these non-conscious processes into account. So we should do so when making decisions about how to change someone's actions - like first figuring out whether we are dealing with Professor Clueless or Professor the Harrasser here.

  • Anonymous says:

    @qaz: "Noticing sexual characteristics is very classically driven by non-conscious decision-making systems."

    If you actually read what I wrote, I never said that the guy made a conscious decision to look at his trainee's chest. In fact, I explicitly allowed for the opposite. What I claim is that once he looks at the chest, he is aware of having done it.

    Do feel free to provide the scientific evidence that disputes that.

    "Even this specific case (males checking out female chests) is well known to stop when brought to the guy's attention (for many men). The idea that there is no possibility to educate the professor is unfair to the professor and dangerous to the student."

    Are you seriously claiming that an academic in 21st C. USA needs to be "educated" by his trainee that (1) he is ogling her chest, and (2) to do so is wrong? Because there is really no other source of information out there that could have possibly made him conscious of this, since he has been presumably living under a rock all of his life and battling a severe personality disorder?

  • Anonymous says:

    @jmz4: "Maybe this guy thinks he's getting away with it, and so he thinks, no harm no foul?"

    You could argue that if this woman was some random person at a bar. The fact that she is his trainee and he's engaging in behavior that compromises his ability to do his job (pay attention to her science, treat her and see her as a junior colleague, not some sex object) is the "harm" in this case, irrespective of whether she notices.

  • Anonymous says:

    "There's no reason to go nuclear until necessary."

    The safest thing for this trainee to do is to go to another lab, if possible. I speak from experience. Though I'd be interested to hear from someone *who has actually been in this very position* and chose to stay how it all worked out for her.

  • qaz says:

    "What I claim is that once he looks at the chest, he is aware of having done it. Do feel free to provide the scientific evidence that disputes that."

    Lots of evidence. From modern psychology, psychophysics going back over 150 years, and from 30+ years of neuroscience showing effects in brain that never reach consciousness. As a trivial example, dozens of data differentiating recognition of action-chains leading to preparation for sequences that the subject never recognizes. As another trivial example, dozens and dozens of studies showing effects of emotional signals on actions that are not recognized but change behavior. I'd point you to a half-dozen review books that list the hundreds of studies but that would likely compromise what little is left of my qaz-based anonymity.

    "he's engaging in behavior that compromises his ability to do his job (pay attention to her science, treat her and see her as a junior colleague, not some sex object) "

    For the record, we have no evidence from Bothered's letter that this has compromised the PI's ability to pay attention to her science or see her as a junior colleague. What we have is Bothered's response to this which is that she has trouble concentrating on her science in his presence. Note that this is also unacceptable, and the solution is for her to change the situation, not for her to suck it up.

    The first step is (as Isis said) to get a larger community. The second step is to see whether the professor can change. The third step is to go nuclear and get out.

    I gave an example of a student who complained about us using the term "sexy" (to refer to graphs) in my lab, which made her uncomfortable. We changed the lab behavior. She graduated two years later with an excellent PhD, went on to get an excellent job in the field she wanted to, and is doing exceptionally well, thank you very much.

  • Anonymous says:

    @qaz: "I'd point you to a half-dozen review books that list the hundreds of studies but that would likely compromise what little is left of my qaz-based anonymity."

    Really? Would pointing me to a couple of very-well accepted review articles in your field *that directly refute what I wrote* compromise your anonymity? Actual scientific articles is what I meant by "evidence."

    "For the record, we have no evidence from Bothered's letter that this has compromised the PI's ability to pay attention to her science or see her as a junior colleague."

    Sure, sure -- that seems like a reasonable assumption. Perhaps the PI has 2 heads, too. We have no evidence from Bothered's letter that he doesn't.

    "I gave an example of a student who complained about us using the term "sexy" (to refer to graphs) in my lab, which made her uncomfortable. We changed the lab behavior. She graduated two years later with an excellent PhD, went on to get an excellent job in the field she wanted to, and is doing exceptionally well, thank you very much."

    You do get that this is IN NO WAY COMPARABLE to Bothered's situation, don't you?

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