On Monday, Science magazine removed an advice column from its website that counseled a female scientist to suppress her discomfort about a male colleague who was ogling her.
In the column, titled "Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt!" an anonymous woman asks what to do about her academic adviser gawking at her chest. "Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt," says the woman, "Bothered." The response, from Alice Huang, a molecular biologist: "I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can."
An editor's note posted Monday on Science's website on Monday said the article had been removed "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." Science did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
In the original column, Huang advised: "His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice." Huang is on faculty at the California Institute of Technology and has worked at Harvard Medical School and New York University, according to Caltech's website. "Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science," reads her biography on Science's website.
In the column, Huang argued that an adviser staring at a woman's breasts "doesn’t seem unlawful" and probably is not covered by federal discrimination protections. "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," Huang wrote. She also recounted an anecdote about her friend, who "told me that he was so distracted by an attractive visiting professor that he could not concentrate on a word of her seminar." The adviser, she said, may not even know that he is leering at his advisee.
"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," wrote Huang. For a full explanation of this particular part of life, the entire column, from a cached version of the website, is below.
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: 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.
It’s true that, in principle, we’re all supposed to be asexual while working. But the kind of behavior you mention is common in the workplace. Once, a friend told me that he was so distracted by an attractive visiting professor that he could not concentrate on a word of her seminar. Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines unlawful sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” It goes on to say that “harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).” I’m not an attorney, but to me the behavior you’re describing doesn’t seem unlawful by this standard.
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.