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A science magazine just gave the worst advice about how women should deal with sexual harassment

It's 2015, people!


Cynthia McKelvey

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 1, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 5:03 pm CDT

It’s June 1, 2015, which means we’re well into the 21st century. But we’re still dealing with unbelievably sexist crap like this “ask Alice” advice article on Science Magazine’s online career section, which says that if women are sexually harassed, they should ignore the harassment instead of reporting it.

In the article, an anonymous post-doctoral lab worker complains that her male laboratory advisor keeps staring down her shirt. “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,” she writes. Her question is simple: How do I get him to stop?

“Alice” writes back with a few paragraphs of advice so mind-bogglingly sexist that it sounds like something Roger Sterling would have told a secretary on Mad Men.

“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,” Alice replies.

Alice continues by explaining that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as illegal when it results in the unfair treatment (i.e., demotion or firing) of an employee and creates a hostile work environment. The author concludes that this skeevy professor’s actions didn’t constitute harassment. 

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.

Twitter immediately exploded with righteous rage over the article, prompting Science to remove the piece without explanation.

Within a few hours, Science posted a short statement regarding the article:

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.

It’s not clear if Science Magazine will follow up with another article with actual advice for the post-doc in question (or for any other women dealing with similar behavior). But the piece has inspired a valuable discussion on Twitter about the politics of sexual harassment.

University of Minnesota biologist PZ Myers also had some advice on his blog, Pharyngula:

My advice — and it’s easier said than done when dealing with an authority having power over your career — would be to tell the man privately that his wandering eye is a problem in your work relationship. If it then continues to be a problem, take it to the department chair, and if he retaliates (showing that he’s not such a nice guy after all), change advisors, if possible. These people are not going to ever change if no one confronts them.

Sexism in STEM fields is a major problem and its roots run deep. Women only account for 24 percent of the STEM workforce and are constantly harassed and assaulted by their colleagues. Even those who aren’t victims of harassment find themselves struggling to be heard and recognized for their work.

According to a 2008 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 52 percent of women aged 35 to 44 drop out of STEM careers in the private sector, citing reasons like “hostile macho cultures” and “extreme work pressures.” Women are also less likely to be hired into labs than their male counterparts, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Moreover, women who speak up about inadequacies and inequalities at work may get punished for doing so. The website catalogs such tales of sexual discrimination and harassment in the STEM workplace.

Despite the many studies of sexism in STEM, few men are convinced of its existence—even when confronted with the studies.

Part of the problem is not only the “boys club” culture of STEM, but also the culture of science as a discipline, says Kate Clancy, a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois. She took to Twitter to respond to the Science Magazine piece:

Screengrab via jazbeck/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 1, 2015, 6:15 pm CDT