Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My response to ‘Bothered’ from the Science Magazine Career Advice Section

On June 1st, a postdoctoral fellow wrote in to Science Magazine’s Career Advice Editor to ask for help with an issue she is having in her lab. Her advisor has been looking down her shirt when she meets with him in his office, and she was upset by the behavior and wanted advice on what to do. The advice she received from ‘Ask Alice’ was upsetting to many, and resulted in the post being removed within a couple of hours of being posted and a fury of responses emailed to the editor (including one from myself), as well as on twitter and Facebook, and even in the national media.  The post was removed (I still have attached the archived version here), and Science posted an apology instead.


Instead of focusing on just how terrible the previous advice was, I’d like to give ‘Bothered’ or anyone experiencing a situation like described by ‘Bothered’ some advice myself, based off my work within our field on anti-harassment policies and procedures.  I welcome any and all to read the presentations I’ve given previously at the Division of Planetary Sciences Conference in 2012  or from the Susan Niebur event at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference event in 2014 as well as various other posts made to the Women in Astronomy Blog.  Both presentations on anti-harassment policies were conference-focused, but also included key definitions of harassment from institutions that are based primarily in planetary science (although all institutions policies should be readily available, and I highly recommend knowing the policy at your institution).

First and foremost, Bothered, you have every right to be upset and uncomfortable with your advisor’s behavior. His behavior is inappropriate and you should not be subjected to it. Given you reached out to Science Magazine, I’m sure you’re upset about the behavior, and this has been consuming precious energy and effort that should be going towards your science. Having that level of discomfort (the awareness that going in to a meeting in his office will result in such behavior) does not only lead to a hostile work environment (part of the definition of harassment), but also takes away from the trust you should expect from a mentor in your field, and detracts from the focus being on your science.  Your advisor should be focused on helping shape you into a successful scientist and your worth within your field has absolutely NOTHING to do with your chest.

Harassment that goes unaddressed is the primary way that the behavior can amplify. My first piece of advice for you would be to politely but boldly address the behavior with your advisor (see the slide from my presentations on the ‘not so serious moments’ from the DPS presentation, which also includes a detailed outline of what I said at that conference). He may not be aware the behavior is occurring (although I highly doubt he always ‘spaces out’ in conversations towards your chest).  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.

Tell someone you trust, even if it’s as basic as, ‘hey, this person really bothered me’. That same person could be bothering many, many people. One thing looked for in harassment issues is a chain of behavior. Also, trust your gut and remember to determine how you feel by your feelings. It’s not your fault if someone else is making you uncomfortable; remember that other people’s ‘social capabilities’ are not your problem. Finally, address the issue when necessary, even if it needs to take on a more serious tone. This can either stop it from getting serious, or you could help the next person in line.

In the event that addressing the issue does not work, or he retaliates (which is a worst-case scenario and completely illegal), you have an issue of harassment occurring. That is when documenting the issue, and the occurrences, becomes extremely important, and knowing the policies and procedures of your current institution. Know who to report to, know that no retaliation is legally allowed, and find someone you trust to talk to. Again, go back through the slides from my previous presentations, as they contain useful, but generalized advice on documentation and reporting. Even if you do not report the behavior, knowing you’re not alone in finding his behavior inappropriate is key, and having someone to talk to is vital. There are several organizations, like the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, who are available to assist you as you push through this difficult time.

Lastly, I’m sorry you have to deal with this at a time in your career when you should be focusing on progressing forward in science, and know that you’re not alone and none of this is your fault.  And I’m sorry the advice you received was not one of understanding and of the progress we hope to have in science.

A QUICK ADD ON: For 'Bothered' or those undergoing a similar situation, if you do feel like retaliation could occur from a 'not so serious' addressing of the issue, or you're uncomfortable with approaching the subject with your advisor, you should still find someone you trust to talk to, i.e. an ally, who is at equal footing with your advisor and could talk with them more directly (or even just hear what is happening).  This person may be able to also help with establishing if this is a known practice on your advisor's part.  Also, in the event you feel you have no one else to talk to, there are advocacy groups in almost every field of science, including in this field (Astronomy Allies, The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, The Women in Planetary Science Working Group, etc.)