Better advice for ‘Bothered’

Pen and paper

Credit: Dwayne Bent, Flickr

The deleted Ask Alice post offering advice to “Bothered,” a female postdoc whose male adviser “won’t stop looking down my shirt,” brought a torrent of critical responses. Many critiqued the original advice: “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.” 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.

In Forbes, philosopher Janet Stemwedel diagnoses a problem with the original advice, which said that the adviser’s behavior didn’t appear to meet the legal definition of sexual harassment: “It matters not a whit whether the behavior rises to the level of unlawful sexual harassment. It undermines professional interactions.” She argues that telling a woman to tolerate the behavior “leaves her stuck in a professional relationship where it may never be possible to engage the adviser’s scientific interest without concerns about engaging his carnal interest.”

Even so, Stemwedel and others agree that confronting such behavior can be risky, given the power structures of science. A first step is to draw the man’s attention to what he is doing and to the fact that it is unwelcome. Astronomer Christina Richey suggests addressing the issue “politely but boldly.” On the Women in Astronomy blog, she writes, “A simple ‘Hey, I’m up here,’ or ‘I’m sure you don’t mean to or didn’t even notice this was occurring (giving them the out for their behavior), but please stop staring at my chest while we talk,’ may be enough to stop the behavior altogether.”

If it doesn’t, the anonymous Wandering Scientist writes on her blog, “your best bet is to find someone with whom you can strategize. …Someone who understands the outsize influence advisers have on the career of early career scientists.”  She advises considering whether you can enlist a powerful ally who can advocate for you and whether you can turn to an alternative mentor. And Imogen Coe, science dean at Ryerson University in Toronto, emphasizes that universities have—or should have—resources woman can turn to: ombudsmen and advocates. In a letter posted on Twitter, she writes, “As a Dean of Faculty of Science, this is part of my role.” Anonymous blogger Dr. Isis adds that it’s important to protect your career in case things go badly. “Find other mentors at your university who you can establish a track record so that if one relationship goes to shit, you have a history with other people who might advocate for you. Your future should never be in one person’s hands.”

Finally, the onus shouldn’t be exclusively on women to deal with these issues, emphasizes astronomer and blogger Phil Plait in Slate. “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.”

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