Scientist Encouraged to ‘Put Up With’ Adviser Who Looks Down Her Shirt

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Photo: Fox Photos

Earlier today, Science magazine published an “advice” column — scare quotes included because the columnist, virologist Alice Huang, offered some questionable solutions to the letter writer’s problem. After an outcry on Twitter, the magazine unpublished the column, but the editors at the blog Retraction Watch managed to find a cached version, reminding us all that the internet never forgets. 

The letter writer asks: 

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

And here’s Huang’s ever-so-helpful reply:

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.

The post was only up for a few hours before the magazine unpublished it and replaced it with an apology. Overall, the debacle is a small window into the egregious sexism women in science face on the regular.