Science Magazine "Ask Alice" Column Tells Sexual Harassment Victim That "Leering Is... Human," But Let's Stop Excusing It Already

When women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, they often don't have much recourse. If they complain to HR, it might get back to the harasser that they tattled; however, talking to the harassers themselves often yields few results because, well, if someone is harassing you, it's unlikely they care about your welfare enough to stop harassing you. Even so, though, to say that sexual harassment is just human nature is way, way our of line — especially when someone is coming to you for advice on how to deal with it.

The situation is even trickier if this person has power over you, as was the case for the anonymous post-doc who wrote to Science Magazine 's "Ask Alice" column:

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?

Columnist Alice Huang's response has since taken down, replaced by an editor's note and an apology stating, "Women in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace"; however, it's still available to read via the Wayback Machine. According to the archived page, the response reads, "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."

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Did you hear that, everyone? This is just the diversity Mother Nature has bestowed us with at play! Isn't it so wonderful that our beautiful Earth contains such a wide spectrum of people, including men who sexually harass women and women who lure them into this harassment? This crazy world has room for us all!

Huang goes on to explain that "in principle, we’re all supposed to be asexual while working. But the kind of behavior you mention is common in the workplace." In other words, we are sexual beings, and by preventing us from expressing our true selves by violating others' privacy, workplaces are confining us!

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OK, switching off sarcasm mode. Huang makes the popular fallacy that because a behavior is common, it is not a problem, when, in fact, its commonality is evidence of a problem. She also conflates the imperative to not harass people with an imperative to "to be asexual while working," which... what? Refraining from sexual harassment does not mean being asexual. It means being a decent human being.

However, Huang questions whether "trying to look down my shirt" constitutes harassment. She pulls up The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's definition of unlawful sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” That last category is pretty all-encompassing and is considered to include "leering."

But much of the response continues in the vein of all those things you should never say to victims of sexual misconduct: Huang reminds the letter writer that "certainly there are worse things" and advises her to "put up with it, with good humor if you can." Because your boss trying to look down your shirt can be kinda funny in a certain light, right?

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Huang deems the behavior illegal only if it is "repeated to the point where the workplace becomes inhospitable." But I would argue that even if it's not at that point yet, it seems like this situation could get there very quickly. Post-docs are in constant interaction with, and basically leave their fate in the hands of, their lab advisers. And while Huang suggests the writer "just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously," treating someone like an object and taking her science seriously just don't go together. Feeling like objects can discourage women from valuing what is in their minds, and the emotional distress of harassment impacts workplace productivity. An adviser looking out for a post-doc's best interests and professional growth is not one who imposes this stress upon her.

It's a relief that Science Magazine took down the column once attention was drawn to how problematic it was. The statement which currently stands in the place of the column reads:

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.

But the treatment of women researchers as decorations in laboratories contributes to a larger atmosphere of sexism in academia, particularly the sciences, that allows these other incidents to happen. Take these instances, for example.

1. A peer reviewer told two female biologists to "find one or two male biologists to work with" so that they don't drift "too far away from empirical evidence."

The reviewer went on to explain that "on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile race a bit faster than female doctoral students." Well, shucks, maybe that's because of delights like you who disfavor female doctoral students' work because of their gender!

This concept that women are less objective is intertwined with the belief that they themselves are the objects to be studied, spoken for, and leered at by men. Their observations are taken less seriously because their gender role is to be observed.

2. Women are less likely to enter fields that are said to require "brilliance."

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When people think of a philosopher, a computer scientist, or a physicist, they usually think of a man. What do these professions have in common? People consider innate brilliance, rather than hard work, to be the key to success in these fields. And the stereotypical image of a philosopher or scientist is usually an older white man, not a woman or a person of color. Sexual harassment serves to remind women that they are women and therefore supposedly not as smart, just as asking someone to check their race or gender on a form makes them perform worse on subsequent tests. Placing attention on women's appearances rather than abilities in the workplace encourages the belief that they don't have what it takes to succeed in fields considered difficult and teaches them that they will not be taken as seriously as men in their fields.

3. Women have been denied credit for their scientific research for centuries.

The view of women as assistants, sidekicks, and sources of enjoyment for male scientists had led to centuries of misattributing scientific breakthroughs to men, from Rosalind Franklin's stolen DNA research to Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of radio pulsars, which was awarded with a Nobel Prize... for her male thesis adviser. Permitting someone to look down a scientist's shirt while she is trying to do research doesn't just leave her uncomfortable and distracted; it also contributes to a view of women as sources of entertainment for their male colleagues rather than scientists in their own right. So, what should someone do in that situation? While it would be easy to say "report it to the university administration," many women may fear that this could backfire given all the politics in academia. I would love to see an advice columnist take on this issue in a way that treats it like an actual issue, sans victim-blaming. Because if it seems like sexual harassment is just "human," that's a sad testament to what humanity has become.Images: Ferran./Flickr; Giphy(3); Fiona Ingleby/Twitter; Trends In Biological Sciences Magazine