In 2015, I was attending a conference in my field (cell biology) in Brazil when I noticed an uptick in Twitter traffic associated with an article in Science that had just been posted. The article in question was in the popular “Ask Alice” section, an advice column, where Dr. Alice Huang, former President of AAAS, and successful research scientist, would provide advice in response to questions sent in from members of the scientific community. One such anonymous request came from an anonymous source and asked to advice about how to deal with her male advisor who “won’t stop looking down my shirt..” Alice provided advice along the lines of “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.” This advice, not surprisingly, brought a torrent of critical responses. Many critiqued the original advice. Most criticized Science Careers for posting it. And some filled the gap they felt the original post left by offering their own advice to women scientists coping with unwanted attention from a man in a position of power. I read the advice from Dr. Alice Huang with dismay and fired off an email to the AAAS – which I subsequently shared on Twitter. That response, as they say, went viral and resulted in a number of articles and a revised response being posted to Ask Alice in Science.
Here is the email I submitted to AAAS in 2015.
The advice still stands. No-one should work in an environment that is anything less than respectful.
Imogen Coe <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dear AAAS Editor and Dr. Alice Huang
I am deeply disappointed by the advice you have provided in your popular Career Advice section published on June 1st, 2015.
Repeated attempts to “look down my shirt” by an individual in a supervisory role over a trainee constitutes unacceptable behaviour that should not be allowed to continue – particularly if it has been brought to the attention of the larger community (a department, division, insitution, etc.). Whether or not this behaviour crosses the boundary into illegal behaviour would presumably require a formal investigation which a qualified individual can assess. So your first advice should have been to send the trainee to talk to their institutional office that deals with this type of issue. Even if not illegal, this behaviour is presented to you as a “bother” requiring your advice, which I interpret as meaning it is unwelcome and therefore needs to be addressed. In general, this behaviour represents casual sexism. Suggesting that someone “live with” unwanted behaviour may, in some circumstances, be seen as being complicit in creating and maintaining an chilly or toxic climate for members of the community.
More helpful and practical advice to the trainee could be
1) acknowledging that this is unacceptable behaviour
2) acknowledging that this is making the trainee uncomfortable, is, indeed, a bother, and therefore needs to be addressed
3) finding a way to meet with the supervisor (perhaps with a more senior member of the department or similar) and, in a very clear and direct manner, explain the behaviour and how it makes the individual feel
4) explain that it must stop and
5) ensure that the trainee is fully supported (and possibly protected from retribution) and that the supervisor is kept accountable. None of these suggestions are necessarily easy or straightforward. Individuals inevitably may become uncomfortable or defensive. Junior members of the community may require advocates to help navigate the situation and/or insitutional representatives with experience in handling conflict and managing appropriate behaviours among community members. As a Dean of Faculty of Science, this is part of my role and if this request for advice came to me, I would certainly provide a different response to that presented in this Career Advice section.
Note that the supervisor may not be aware of the behaviour or of the way it makes the trainee feel. They may be mortified on finding out – or they may be defensive and dismissive. Ensuring that they are aware of it gives them the opportunity to change the behaviour while also being held accountable for future acceptable behaviour. There are no guarantees that things will change – but things will never change until we challenge unacceptable behaviours.
Perhaps an updated version of the advice could be presented that reflects a more enlightened approach which ensures that casual sexism is challenged in the workplace and that individuals are held accountable for behaviours that suggest anything less than the position that all members of the community are appreciated for their contributions as scientists.
Imogen R. Coe
Imogen R. Coe, Ph.D.
Dean, Faculty of Science Affiliate Scientist
Ryerson University Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute
350 Victoria St., Keenan Research Centre
Toronto, ON St. Michael’s Hospital
Canada, M5B 2K3
Follow me on Twitter @RySciDean
By: Science, AAAS