"I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can"

#1

Appalling advice from a woman to a fellow female scientist, about her advisor who keeps trying to sneak a peek down her top. Utterly blood-boiling and published by the AAAS.

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2015_06_01/caredit.a1500140

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?

A: […]

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.

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#2

It seems that Science Careers pulled the piece after massive outcry online. You can still read it here though:

Seriously, this stuff just makes me despair.

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#3

I just saw this posted on a blog (can’t remember which one) and was outraged. Just wtf was the respondent or Science thinking? What sort of advice is that and did Science not realise how completely inappropriate, useless, and downright offensive the ‘advice’ was?

I’m really glad that this sort of crap generates sufficient outrage to force publishers into action but, bloody hell, can we get to the point where this sort of stuff isn’t published in the first place?

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#4

This. I’ve see a lot of people saying the same thing on Twitter and totally agree.

What’s not clear to me is how this ended up on the website. Dr Alice Huang is apparently 76, and an ex-president of the AAAS, so one has to wonder about whether she got a free pass to post whatever she wanted because of her previous position, or whether she has access to their content management system and can publish things without going through an editor.

But unless you’re running something that is clearly a set of blogs where contributors post whatever you want, then there’s a duty to at least read stuff over for suitability and typos.

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#5

I wonder if as an ex-president of the AAAS, it wasn’t so much that she gets a free pass but that no-one thought that she, of all people, would need vetting.

Retraction Watch had something up but nothing beyond the known story so far. If they have anything more interesting I’ll link to it. They’ve asked for comments from people and are waiting for replies.

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#6

I guess the bottom line is: Was it read and accepted as is, or did it get put up without any editorial oversight? The latter is bad, but the former is terrible.

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#7

I just had a thought, a sort of ‘evil genius’ level play of this whole thing. I’m seeing this grab a lot of attention, people talking about how inappropriate the advice was and how women shouldn’t have to put up with being objectified by their superiors and colleagues. And I thought. What if this was the plan? If the answer had been all the standard advice then I doubt it would have got a tenth of the publicity it’s getting now. What if the answer was knowingly awful, maybe some advice Dr Huang had received when she was younger and went ‘really?! this sort of shit is still going on?!’ and thought that if she gave a really ridiculous reply it might generate some discussion.

Another alternative if someone who’s been given this sort of advice that she’s become so used to it she doesn’t realise it’s out of date and can’t really understand the outcry. . .

But I like my first idea better!

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#8

Sadly, AAAS’s Science Careers site apparently has a history of sexism, so I fear it’s more likely that they just don’t understand what the fuss was about.

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#9

After the article that started this thread and a more recent one where a scientist credits his success to having a wife to do all the domestic chores a group of scientists have had enough. They are writing an open (well, semi - you have to know someone to get on it to prevent trolling) letter to Science and the AAAS to tell them that they really aren’t helping.

According to Retraction Watch, the first person to co-sign was Janet Stemwedel, fast becoming my favourite person. She is quoted as saying,

My big issue with the Science Careers career advice/exemplars of people succeeding that are clearly meant to convey something advice-like is how mired they are in a status quo that many of us have been trying to dismantle for (what feels like) forever. Advisor who views you as a pair of boobs rather than a fully human future colleague? Grin and bear it! Need to make an impression to get noticed in your field? Work an unhealthy number of hours day and foist the (unpaid/undervalued) domestic and emotional work on your wife! Tips on how to make it assume that nothing’s going to get better — and indeed, they give people following them no reason to work to change the system to make it any better.

What’s especially disheartening is that Science Careers is representing AAAS here, and the picture of Science being Advanced is not one that’s welcoming to women, to underrepresented minorities, to disabled scientists, to single parents or people who need to care for aging parents — really, to anyone who’s not a white guy with the resources (financial or human) to be able to focus only on the science, or to people who aren’t white guys who are prepared to swallow interminable microagressions.

I can’t highlight my favourite part because it’s all my favourite part! I really look forward to seeing this letter when it’s published but I have to say I’m not hopeful it will have a major impact (at least initially). The reactions of Science to its previous messes are tone-deaf to say the least.

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#10

That’s a great quote!

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#11

This is a bit of a tangent, but I think it’s relevant. Within disability theory there are two models: the medical model and the social model. The medical model says that disability is caused by a medical impairment, for example being unable to walk, for example, makes you disabled because you are less mobile than someone who can walk. The social model says that it’s not that you can’t walk that’s the problem, it’s that we’ve designed our society to only be accessible to those who can walk.

This piece gives a really clear explanation of the model.

While the model is obviously about disability, I really think its arguments have relevance to the efforts people and organisations like Ada Lovelace Day are making to try and increase diversity in areas like STEM which are traditionally very monocultural.

A problem I’ve had with the focus on work-life balance - as one example - is that it focuses on women as mothers. I can see why - it’s an ‘easy’ target, it’s hard to object to wanting women to be given time to care for their children and it’s something where a win would make a big difference to a lot of people. However, just because you don’t have kids doesn’t mean you don’t want to have a work-life balance and by framing it as something that only those ‘deserving’ of it’ means that there are then people ‘undeserving’ of it.

The social model of disability focuses on integrating the needs of people with disabilities into the society. So, putting ramps in place for those with wheelchairs, using stop announcements on buses for blind people, and so on. Some people will argue that this is giving disabled people special treatment, but it’s not. For one thing, it’s creating a level playing field, not advantaging disabled people over non-disabled people, and for another (and this is the key point for my argument), these adaptations help more than just the disabled people. Those ramps help people with pushchairs or suitcases or anything on wheels, and they help those who simply struggle with steps. Those bus announcements help not only blind people but people new to the area who aren’t sure where there stop is, people who get anxious using public transport and so on. In other words, by changing the way society works it not just benefits those who the adaptations are aimed at but helps many others too.

Why am I putting this here? Well, it’s the “I suggest you put up with it” aspect. We ask people to put up with things instead of asking if they might not be better being changed. We don’t notice all the unnecessary steps until our mobility is reduced, and we don’t notice the number of people staring at women’s breasts until they stare at ours. Instead of saying ‘put up with it’ we should be asking why we need those steps, why we need those pervs?

I know that societal change is difficult and small steps are often more achievable than giant leaps but I wanted to put the idea out there that learning from the social model and its implications might be a good idea. We can fight for women to have flexible working hours to be able to look after their kids, but we would all benefit from that flexibility and maybe by highlighting the benefits to all we’d get more support from more quarters than we currently do.

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