Boobs and Botheration

Was the Science Careers website right to pull That Advice off its website?  Morag and Jane both give their opinions, in this post, Jane thinks not.

Yesterday (June 1st) the Science careers website had a blink-and-you-missed it advice column that caused a wee bit of a stooshie over some rather controversial advice given by Dr Alice Huang, noted virologist. The column was quickly removed by the website, but because Nothing Ever Truly Dies on the internet, let’s talk about it anyway.

Thanks to the wonder that is the internet archive, we can actually dig out the exact question and answer as they were before they were removed.

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?

– Bothered

Now to my eye, the poster doesn’t seem particularly upset. Upset enough to ask someone what to do, yes, but none of the language in the question, to me, seems like this is something which is weighing heavily on her. She doesn’t say “all he does it look at my chest” or “he leers at me”. Just that she catches him looking down her shirt.

The response given by Dr Huang is quite long so I’m not going to put it all here, just the important bits. Dr Huang opens with a bit of a joke and then an anecdote about how…

a friend told me (Dr Huang) 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.”

Slightly dismissive but could be true,he might be staring without being actually aware he’s doing it (or for how long) or he might be staring into space in the general direction of her chest.

There’s then about two paragraphs describing US Sexual Harassment Law including that….

Some definitions of sexual harassment do include inappropriate looking or staring, especially when it’s repeated to the point where the workplace becomes inhospitable.

Dr Huang then asks the OP if it has reached that point (since I’m assuming Dr Huang is thinking the same way I am that the OP doesn’t actually seem that irritated). She continues that she finds this behaviour “forgivable”. She does also state that…

I don’t mean to suggest that leering is appropriate workplace behavior—it isn’t.

Since the OP doesn’t mention anything about “leering” in the question (or anything with similar connotations), its quite hard to discern what the supervisor is actually doing. The OP doesn’t even mention how the supervisor looking at her chest made her feel. Did it make her feel uncomfortable? Pressured? Like she was only there for her chest? Like he wasn’t listening? That’s all quite important information for someone answering this question to know.

Considering the original question, I would give exactly the same advice to someone if they had asked me what Dr Huang was asked. Something along the lines of “if it’s nothing more than just glancing, then I would just ignore it. If it’s really bothering you then maybe mention it to HR or his supervisor? Or depending on how the relationship between you two is mention it to him?”

Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously

If that’s not happening then take it further, go to HR, your supervisor’s supervisor etc. But based on the way the question was worded, I find it hard to think that its more than just a guy finding it hard not to look at boobs. Is it professional? No. Would it bother me? Not really.

I don’t think Science Careers should have pulled the post. It’s just one person’s way of dealing with the question that was asked. They could have posted more answers including ones which could have suggested the OP mention something or everytime she catches him glancing for her to cough. That way he might notice he’s staring (assuming he’s not quite aware).

Pulling the post makes it look like Dr Huang’s opinion is wrong. I don’t think it is. Neither did a lot of women I spoke to about it. Could Dr Huang’s answer have been better worded? Yes. There are parts which are slightly dismissive of the OP and there are parts which I don’t exactly agree with. I don’t like this line…

His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.

While yes it’s true that the OP does need the supervisor, the way this is worded makes it seem like she’s saying “put up with the looking because it’s the only way you’re going to get the advice.” Since I don’t think that’s what Dr Huang is going for, that could probably do with an edit.

For anyone interested, here’s the archive of the article in question.

For Morag’s opposing view, visit this post here.



Just found a note that Science Careers used to replace the article in question.

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

Ok so they’re saying it should never be published because it didn’t go through an editor and doesn’t fit in with what they’re trying to promote in terms of women in science. Fair enough but its still exactly what I would have told someone if they had sent the original question to me.


*End Note*

Ended up writing “bothered” so much in the first draft of this that all I could think of all night was this lady.


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