Science pulls advice post suggesting student “put up with” advisor looking down her shirt

scienceThe careers site of Science magazine has pulled an advice column posted today from virologist Alice Huang, who suggested a postdoc tolerate an advisor’s roving eye.

In the retraction note, Science Careers apologizes for publishing the post, even if it was for just a few hours. “We regret that the article had not undergone proper editorial review prior to posting.”

Luckily, we found a web archive, courtesy of Kelly Hills (@rocza).

Here’s the question, from a reader whom we presume to be female:

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?


It’s the answer that appears to have caused an uproar. Huang provides the definition of sexual harassment under U.S. law, and tells the writer the advisor’s leering doesn’t seem “unlawful” yet:

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.

Hours later, the site pulled the post, with this retraction note:

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.

We’ve emailed Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, and called Huang, and will update if they respond.

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14 thoughts on “Science pulls advice post suggesting student “put up with” advisor looking down her shirt”

  1. Here is some actual good advice for her:

    1. Get a record of what he is doing, even if it’s just emailing notes to yourself. Send it to yourself, send it to a friend, but just get a timestamp on it. At the same time, try to get some emails from him showing good progress on your part with similar timestamps so that he cannot claim after the fact that you made it up because you were struggling in your job.

    2. When he looks down your shirt, so do you, as if to ask “is there something on my shirt?” Maybe he isn’t aware of what he is doing, and you force him to deal with it that way.

    3. If #2 doesn’t work, and you still have to be his postdoc for a while, just wear turtlenecks and such. Note that this doesn’t assign any blame to you over what you were wearing before, but you can pretty much make it impossible for him to get a look at anything.

    4. If you do #2 or #3 and get some retaliation over it, this is where #1 comes in.

    1. Actually, this happened to me (as the unintentional stare-er). I wasn’t a supervisor or in any way senior to the woman and it was totally subconscious but it still made her uncomfortable. She pointed it out to me very politely (very similar to #2) and I made an effort to stop. I think I was successful because I never heard about it again (from her, my supervisor, HR or anybody else). We maintained a good working relationship until I departed for greener pastures.

  2. Women in computer science have to deal with this a lot (even from peers and not from advisers). We tend to have an engineering approach to the solution. Just google “T-Shirt These are not my eyes” and choose from the selection. They come in many colors and in-your-face-ness. The documentation advice in #1 above is, however, excellent. And if your lab has an equal opportunity officer, you can approach them and they can speak with the adviser without divulging names.

    1. Debora, I think the main problem discussed here starts when such behaviour goes unsanctioned, by the lab head or the institution. It certainly doesn’t make things better if it is the boss himself who leers at his female employees.

    2. The documentation advice in #1 above is, however, excellent.

      And it is excellent advice in all cases of harassment (whether or not sexual) and, more generally, all cases of unprofessional treatment by others (at whatever relative rank, but especially superiors) in the workplace. I spent 7 years as a department chair and in several cases (involving various different people) having such contemporaneous documentation made a huge (positive) difference in outcomes.

    1. No, you shouldn’t have to. It depends on what you want to achieve. If you believe that you have the power to change his mind, then not wearing turtlenecks would make sense. If you just want him to stop leching at you, then wearing a turtleneck makes sense (particularly after following the previous options).

      The problem with the advice isn’t that it wasn’t correct for the situation described, but that it was correct. The rules of civilized behavior don’t apply in the land of lords and serfs. In a land where laws and rules protect lots of people, they seem to do little here, and so there isn’t much to restrain people from doing things they shouldn’t. The well-being of postdocs and graduate students seems to matter little (despite training being an explicit point of the university system, and the reason why they are paid little for their level of education), even to the point of neglecting safety (*cough*UCLA*cough*). The fitness of the research produced doesn’t even matter – if people in the lab try to correct fraud, it’s conceivable (maybe likely) that they will get cashiered for their efforts (e.g. Columbia with Sames/Sezen). Given that big substantive issues are ignored (for power, or grant money, or because it’s what they have, or something else), it’s hard to think that external authorities will care about an advisor ogling his students for prurient pleasures.

    2. Is it better to run the risk of damaging your career by complaining or continue to put up with discomfort? Those are some of the realities she faces if he doesn’t get a clue.

  3. The real answer is actually to confront him and shame him. Say: “Look, I think I have a lot to learn here and I want you to be my advisor. You need to stop looking at my body, and stop it now. Your behavior is not appropriate for the lab. Look at my eyes when you talk to me.”

    If you are unable to speak up, you can look forward to a life of feeling uncomfortable under people’s stares, or drop out of a male-dominated field.

    SPEAK UP! Tell people off firmly and reasonably, without anger. If they do it again remind them. “I really mean it. Stop looking at my breasts or I will report your inappropriate behavior to your boss.” That should scare the sh$% out of him. He likes his job, I assume.

    1. I know, I am not a woman, but is this really how life really works? Do you know of cases where, after boundaries were drawn as you suggest, a productive collaboration between the boss and the objectified subordinate ensued?
      Whom is the faculty going to believe, the junior or the PI? (this is where the time-stamped notes to oneself, discussed above, can offer some help)
      We all have to learn eventually that life is not a Hollywood film. I found this blog post much closer to reality:
      IMO, best way for the woman in question would be to switch the lab, right away if possible, or seek outside help to finish her research project. Generally, initial small conflicts with the PI tend to exacerbate with time and never to ameliorate.

      1. Why should she quit if she seems to be happy otherwise? The most reasonable thing to do is to tell him in a one-to-one conversation that his behavior makes her feel uncomfortable. Be polite but not aggressive. Since he’s characterized as a “nice guy”, chances are very high that he’ll just stop with it.

    2. That is how you deal with a peer. Dealing with a boss that way is dangerous. At the minimum, she needs to get some documentation in place before she says anything that blunt to him.

      Regarding Leonid’s insightful comment, data fabrication situations aren’t the only dirty secrets that universities try to cover up. I know of cases where powerful professors got away with misconduct that should have gotten them fired. However, I disagree with his advice that she needs to give up her job. I have dealt with worse situations than what she is describing without having to give up my job or worse.

      The most important thing is that she covers her duff before doing anything confrontational. It doesn’t matter if she’s right if her career gets ruined. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she has to put up with what he’s doing. She just needs to be careful in how she addresses it.

      1. thanks for you comment. Indeed, “How life really works” advice can only work out for a colleague, not the PI. I will clarify that I meant leaving that temporary job right away is only an option at the beginning (but staying anyway might lead to disaster). Otherwise, she should find a way (maybe with outside help) to consolidate and finish her research project most efficiently, publish it and leave right after this. Her career perspectives will not improve if she sticks out with such boss afterwards.

  4. Let’s stop discussing workplace harassment in general, as in “What can you do? what should you do?” and get back to the retraction. Was Science Magazine’s retraction of Prof Alice Huang’s advice a good thing? Was it justified? Is it the right thing? Hey, I don’t know, I”m just a simple biochemsit; but I can tell you this — what got pulled was what Alice said. The Editor and everybody else can chime in and say how retro or ill advised her advice is, but that was her advice, to grin and bear it. Maybe Dr Oransky or Dr Marcus can say something here, on the subject of retractions in general whether this Science retraction is right on the cusp of censorship; or at the least, muzzling. You know, if you read the whole thing, Alice laid out chapter and verse of all the law and custom of what a harassed person can do and is entitled to et seq and THEN in a considered way laid out the cold hard facts of life. Thats how I read it. Then they retracted it. Praise Ma Nature for her Wayback Machine, eh?

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