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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Science Advice and Sexual Harassment

By Phil Plait

Science is the official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a very large and prestigious scientific organization.

They have a section on their site for career advice, with articles, a forum, and an advice column. Yesterday, they ran into a, um, slight issue with that last one.

A postdoc, presumably a woman, sent in this 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? 

This is not an easy situation by any means, but there is plenty of advice I can think of. As one example, pull him aside in private and say, “Listen, I know this is uncomfortable, and you may not even be aware of it, but I’ve seen you looking at my chest on more than one occasion. This is really inappropriate, and I’m asking you to stop.” If he does it again, give him a sterner warning. If he does a third time, leave footprints on his forehead — talk to the department chair.

But that’s not the answer “Bothered” got. Her question was fielded by Alice Huang, a microbiologist and former president of the AAAS. After giving a definition of what encompasses sexual harassment, Huang wrote:”

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.

Yikes. I mean, seriously, yikes.

This advice is deeply, profoundly, wrong. Put up with it because he has power over you?


Understandably, the article was taken down, and after a short period was replaced with an 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.

Well stated. Short, simple, and on point. I hope the editors have a chat with Dr. Huang, and she writes a follow-up. I sent an email to Science about this (before the apology was issued), but as of right now I have not heard back.

I’m satisfied with the apology; they recognized that this advice was terrible — a woman should never have to put up with this sort of thing, especially for the reasons given — and clearly the editorial policy of the magazine supports that. Hopefully they’ll put guidelines in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

As for “Bothered”, I certainly hope things work out for her. A lot of women, many of whom are scientists and have some experience in this, have written about this online and discuss her situation (such as here, and here, and especially here), and I hope she sees it.

But it’s important for men to speak up about this as well, so allow me add my own thoughts.

My advice is simple. Men: Don’t do this.

The keyword in “unwanted sexual attention” is “unwanted”. This whole thing could have been easily avoided if her adviser hadn’t done this in the first place.

And if a woman does ask you to stop doing something because it makes her uncomfortable, apologize and stop doing it. Don’t make excuses, don’t rationalize it. Just apologize, and stop. Listening to what she’s saying is critical. She knows what makes her uncomfortable, and you need to respect that.

Not to oversimplify, but a lot of this comes down to just that: simple respect. This idea applies to so much: sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, more generic xenophobia… there are a lot of issues plaguing us. A little compassion, a little respect; those lead to listening, and that leads to understanding. And that can go a long, long way toward making this a far better world.

Update, June 5, 2015: Science magazine put up an article linking to "better advice", including this article. Good on them for doing that.

Edited to add: My thanks to Amy Roth for some solid editing advice while I was drafting this. She is a staunch fighter against sexism and misogyny, a good friend, and makes cool jewelry.

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