I was not originally asked for my opinion in response to this question in Science Careers’ advice column, which is a shame because my advice would have made Alice’s look hella dumb (Archived here –Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt! _ Science Careers). A postdoc writes to Alice with the following problem:
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?
If you missed the response…Lord, help us all. It was a gem. Although it has since been taken down and a brief mea culpa issued by Science. Here it is…
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.
I will begin by reiterating something that caused a bit of a cool drizzle on Twitter a little bit ago. I do not agree with Alice’s response, but I am not surprised by it coming from a woman at her stage in her career. Women working in faculty positions is a historically recent phenomenon and the boys in the club have not been known for their best behavior. These women entered their fields when things were even worse than they are now. I have commonly encountered a “keep your head down” and “put up with it” attitude from women of this generation (Alice is 76) and it seems to be motivated by one of two attitudes…
1) This is how it is around here and this is the shit we have to deal with in order to succeed and be accepted by these dudes. I dealt with it and you will too. Get back to work.
2) There aren’t many of us around here. If you run your mouth, you’re going to lose your job. Be grateful you’re here and get back to work.
Either way, I have heard many women of this era advocate “putting up with it” because at least it isn’t worse…(until it is).
I reject Alice’s assertion that we’re all sexual beings and this is just how men are and the quoting of harassment law is pretty shitty and victim blaming. This is not something that all men do to all women non-discriminately, at all stages of their careers. No one’s oogling my boobs any more, and it’s not simply because I’m starting to develop what Jen Kirkman refers to as “cougar boobs.” They’re a little saggier and a little sun spotted, but they are generally still good boobs worthy of oogling. Men don’t leer at my titties like they used to because the consequences to them for doing it are greater and the consequences to me for reporting it are lower. Older men with permanent jobs harass younger women in temporary training positions because the risk of serious consequences is low. It’s not nature, it’s sleezy. These men do not respect these women as their colleagues. It most certainly *is* harassment and it likely reflects a pattern of behavior. The victim blaming in Alice’s column is disgraceful, especially given that the letter writer is a trainee. The trainee pool should never be a fuck buffet, even if the occasional person finds love in the arms of their postdoc advisor..
It’s not crazy to ask coworkers to behave like this isn’t a larger version of The Match Game.
So what does the letter writer do about it? That’s the catch-22. The relative positions of power of those involved make this a difficult situation for the leer-ee relative to the leer-er. Dealing with harassment in the workplace is always an exercise in cost reward and no one can weigh those except the person in the situation. I have certainly put up with more than I was proud of in the interest of feeding my family.
So, what are the options? The letter writer could take Alice’s advice and “deal with it because at least it’s not ‘real’ harassment.” The risk is that he continues to harass her, he escalates his harassment, or he harasses someone else.
In my university’s sexual harassment training, reporting a harasser was always the “right” answer and allegedly the university always works to protect the accuser. So, what are the risks of confronting or reporting? That these protections don’t come and the person loses her job or position.
What I don’t recommend is operating under the assumption that there is anything that a woman can do to “change” her harasser’s behavior. These behaviors come from a place of entitlement and privilege and I don’t believe that these are ever single occurrences. Alice suggests that this person focus on whether her advisor is helping her career, but these men never see their female trainees equal to their male trainees.
In the meantime, document everything that makes you uncomfortable. I send emails to myself noting key events in my professional life so that they are independently time stamped (UPDATE: from your work email to an external one that you control) and I send letters to myself to let the post office postmark things for me. This saved me during my recent human resources debacle.
The last part is most important. Alice’s advice is that she needs this person for his professional guidance and future recommendations. Start working to make that less true. 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.