On Boobs and Battleaxes

Was the Science Careers website right to pull That Advice? Morag says yes. (Jane says no).



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.

So basically this woman is all “My supervisor keeps trying to look down my shirt.” Her pseudonym is ‘Bothered’, so let’s assume this is bothering her.

My completely 100% fair and unbiased summary of the response, in short, easy-to-digest chunks:

  1. Imagine what life would be like without people you fancy in the world. IMAGINE. NOBODY YOU FANCY. This is a relevant observation for reasons that… well, if you don’t know then I can’t help you.
  2. Fun anecdote: I had a friend who was reduced to a state of lust-induced catatonia by a nice straight nylon seam, poor boy.
  3. Sexual harassment law is for proper stuff like assaults and threats and grades-for-sex, so…
  4. Though I guess if you were really bothered by it that would count. Are you really bothered by it? Like I know you signed this letter ‘Bothered’, but really? REALLY?
  5. Basically, you need this guy to get through your PhD, so do you actually want to rock the boat on this? Thought not. Run along, there’s a good girl. Jesus, kids these days…

Yeh, it’s not a good letter.

The fact is, many women have had their moments where they’ve been leered at a bit, whether consciously or unconsciously on the part of the leer…er, and have decided it wasn’t a big deal and just ignored it and moved on. This girl was troubled enough to write for advice about it. Once you’re that bothered, we are out of the ‘just ignore it’ territory.

So far, so predictable humourless feminist harpy response, and to be honest I could end this article here, but I want to make a tangential point that I think is relevant here so don’t leave yet HEY SIT DOWN I SAID.

A few of the folk have talked about the fact that this woman is probably a million years old, grew up in a different era and is being called upon to give advice to today’s aspiring young women, and basically I think the take-home lesson here is pretty simple:

Women: Do not listen to your elders.


A science-y drawing.

Not about this sort of stuff, anyway. I’ve run into this before, where I was at a ‘Women In Science’ panel discussion where the panellists – all older women revered in their field and all folk who I think are totally amazing by the way – talked about how they’d had no trouble really, they just worked with great men who didn’t care, they just didn’t give up, they just did their thing and ‘everything just went right for them’ (one properly famous Woman In Science actually said this).

Another prominent female scientist of my wider acquaintance was heard to say that: “it’s easy to balance work and home as a woman in science: you just make sure you find a man who’ll do the childcare.” Simples (particularly for us lezzers).

Most of these women, these awesome, remarkable, scary women, are not going to tell you anything useful about being a Woman In STEM unless you are already one of the types who are ‘robust’ enough to succeed anyway. All they can tell you is: “Be a ballbreaker.” What if you’re not a ballbreaker? All they can tell you is: “Be lucky.” What if you’re not lucky? All they can tell you is: “Ignore him, and make sure he’s paying attention to your work.” What if you can’t ignore him? What if you’re not sure whether he’s paying attention to your work or has been reduced to a quivering wreck by your décolletage, and are too intimidated to ask?

In short: What if you’re just a smart, dedicated, hardworking scientist or techy who wants to get on with her job, not blaze an Amazonian trail leaving the corpses of lesser warriors strewn in your wake? Sure, STEM is competitive, but if you’ve worked in the field for any length of time you’ll know that there’s no shortage of guys who can barely string a coherent sentence together without collapsing in a nervous mess who are nevertheless powerful and respected on the merit of their work, and yet the women have to be fucking Xena crossed with Hillary Clinton crossed with Mother Theresa just to get by? How is that fair?


Women scientists on their way to a conference.

Okay that was a rhetorical question; clearly it’s not fair, but what’s worse is your Matriarchs of STEM have nothing useful to tell you about how to get by as one of these non-Valkyrie women, because they’re all Valkyries. Very few of the shy ones who didn’t enjoy being ogled made it, and the ones who did are all hiding, not appearing on panels or writing advice columns.

This actually goes for younger women who say that same stuff too. Like, no one would dare ogle me but if they did I wouldn’t care, but my response to women who are not like me is not “Be more like me. Cease to care. Just… don’t be bothered.” If not being bothered just isn’t an option then what? A career in science isn’t for her because she can’t ignore a dude looking at her boobs to the point where it perturbs her?

So basically, this is shitty advice, withdrawing the article was totally the right thing to do on the part of the Science Careers website, and these women need to learn that just because they had to be terrifying and indomitable and immune to creepers as well as brilliant to get by in STEM doesn’t mean the next generation should have to be the same. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just be brilliant?

And y’know, not have to put up with some dude staring down our top to get Science done?


Addendum, 03/06/2015: It’s been dawn to my attention that this phenomenon is actually an example of survival bias. I was aware that what I was describing was a type of selection bias, but it (stupidly!) didn’t occur to me that it was actually its own subtype. YAY LEARNING!

4 other pages linked to this post.

  • EdinburghEye

    I worked for quite a few years as a technical writer, usually in departments or teams where I’d be the only (or one of the few) tech women working there.

    In my first job, the other men used to tell ridiculously horrible jokes at meetings. (They’d tell these jokes in their social time, too, but there I didn’t need to sit there and listen to them.) I didn’t know what to do. It was my first job and I was completely unused to a situation where I was the only woman in the room and all the men in the room were telling awful “jokes”.

    Second job and third job, there was always at least one other outspoken feminist on the team, so we could tag-team on “that’s not funny” comments, which makes doing that so much easier. Fourth job I was back on being the lone woman on the team and the first time someone made an awful “joke” at a meeting, I glared at him with a steely feminist eye and said “that’s not funny” and got a gobsmacked look back…. and got made redundant 18 months later, which was probably not connected.

    The last time someone told a ridiculously horrible “joke” in front of me was a departing staff member at their last staff lunch, and there was dead silence from everyone at the table, and I realised: these really are hostile acts: the departing staff didn’t think we’d laugh, they wanted to make us feel uncomfortable.

  • Lilith

    I had a discussion with a similar “properly famous Woman In Science” who said that it was damaging to say that women get talked over in meetings and called bossy because it had never happened to her and maybe you just weren’t talking up enough. It was at an event for the supporting of women in science.

    I was agog.

  • dorabella

    Thank you for this article, it helped me understand where I go wrong when I talk to young women in general.
    As a Valkyrie (I guess), I find myself wondering: what “other” advice could I ever give, other than “be a Valkyrie”? That was my way to success, so that’s the only thing I can say.
    What would a better piece of advice be? (this is not a rethorical question, I really would like to understand this)

    • Erin

      The best thing you can say to a young woman in this situation is “you should not have to feel uncomfortable at work, and especially not because your supervisor is objectifying you. He is acting inappropriately and you are not making things up or blowing them out of proportion. I believe you.” That ‘I believe you’ can mean a lot, especially as women are often dismissed or told they’re imagining worse offenses than are being committed – how better than to excuse bad behaviour than to downplay it, after all?

      The thing is, it’s not the young women that need to change in this scenario. It’s the rest of the system. So to support women moving through it you need to use your Valkryie-ness to push back at the things that are holding them back.

      If you witness a man interrupting or speaking over a woman, speak up. Say “I don’t think X was quite done making her point, and I’d like to hear what she has to say.”

      If you hear reports about a male supervisor ogling female subordinates, do something. Speak to *his* supervisor, or him, if you think he’ll listen to what you have to say.

      Find out what your hiring and promotion practises are. Are applicants put forward with identifying gender characteristics (which have been shown to affect the panel’s judgement) or are they assessed blind?

      Learn about the Athena SWAN charter (http://www.ecu.ac.uk/equality-charters/athena-swan/) and the requirements they have for supporting women in the workplace.

      But most importantly, listen to young women and believe them when they report problems or issues. Figure out how to address those problems or issues rather than advising them to change their behaviour. You obviously care and that’s fantastic; the world needs more women working together to effect this change. I’m sure you’re already most of the way there – but it’s always worth trying to do better because we lose so much when we lose women due to this type of bad thinking and advice.

      • dorabella

        Thank you so much for your reply. I think there are 2 different issues here:
        1. the “activisim” issue: Valkyries should help change the world, calling out sexists everywhere, and helping create a better working environment for women. I agree 100%, and I am doing my share, I think.
        2. the actual advice to the particular woman who is in trouble. “Believe her and support her emotionally” is a great suggestion, and I also think that I have done my best here, whenever I was in that position, I have never questioned the feelings or the experiences of a woman in distress. It’s the next step that is still a little vague to me: after I believe her, what else can I suggest her to do, if not to somehow change her own behaviour? (ok, maybe to report to authorities, but I don’t think this is always the best possible thing to do, in all situations, unfortunately). This applies also to other situations: how do we teach our daughters that the right thing to do is to run like the wind from an abusive partner, without blaming the victims who don’t? I don’t have an answer. Or rather, I do: I do tell them to run like the wind, loud and clear, and then I get called out for victim blaming. I don’t know how to get out of this conundrum. Maybe your answer would be “you don’t need to tell other people what to do”. Not even if the explicitly ask for my advice? I’m confused.

        But it helps me to talk about it, so thank you very much for your words. I’m trying here (can’t follow your link to the Athena SWAN, but I will search on their website).

        • Erin

          To be honest, it’s a very pertinent question you brought up: how do we balance the slow crawl of institutional change with the immediates of personal change in addressing a situation like this? When it comes to that woman right now, sure, it’s going to be far more effective for her to change her behaviour/take precautions than it is to wait for everyone else to catch up, but it also sends the message that it’s on the victim to fix it, not the perpetrator.

          As for an answer… I honestly don’t know. The only thing I cling to is the idea of trying to effect institutional change through outspokenness and activism while at the same time acknowledging that for the individual they need to take the steps necessary to keep themselves safe. It’s a very very fine line to walk, and yes, often it will blow back on us because every time we tell an individual to change what she’s doing it sets the overall progress back just that little bit more. But we can’t ask women to suffer through discomfort, unprofessionalism or outright threat just so the rest of us might have it a little easier down the line – can we?

          I feel your frustration and confusion and I wish I had a better answer for you. As it is, I can only say that by thinking about and talking about these issues you’re doing a lot, and that it’s a long, muddy, uphill battle we’re fighting here. But we’ll get there, and all the sooner for people like you being involved.

          • dorabella

            Thank you so much for your words, I think I understand what you are saying, and I couldn’t agree more. We keep fighting, the best we can 🙂

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