#DontAskAlice for Help with Sexual Harassment

In case you missed it: Science Careers, from the journal Science, decided to publish some advice from Dr. Alice S. Huang, former president of AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose tagline is “Advancing Science, Serving Society”) and someone who, according to her bio, advocates for women in science. The piece, titled Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt!, was swiftly taken down but lives on in Interneternity thanks to PDF screengrabs and the Wayback Machine.

The tl;dr of the piece? “Suck it up, Buttercup.” The rest of it is some rather disturbing and gender-essentialist apologia for the sexual harassment of women in STEM.

Dr. Huang begins by counterarguing against an argument that literally no one makes, let alone the letter writer.

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.

Gender segregation isn’t the answer, got it. No one was making that argument in the first place, but good to know that her (uncontroversial, conventional, nigh-unchallenged in STEM) stance is clear. Also, the dry, leftover-from-last-Thanksgiving bone thrown to people who aren’t straight is cute, but it isn’t fooling anyone.

It’s true that, in principle, we’re all supposed to be asexual while working.

So, not harassing makes you asexual? I beg to differ. I’m pansexual despite the fact that I don’t actively leer at every person I find attractive, especially not in the workplace. I’m pansexual despite the fact that I am not currently in a relationship with a woman. Not acting on your desires in environments where it is inappropriate to do so does not change your orientation. PSA: Asexuals are asexual whether they are working or not, just as straight people are still straight even if they are celibate and bisexuals are still bisexual even if they aren’t in relationships with someone of every gender.

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.

Good Noodly Lord. This is disturbing. Is he in a position of power or authority? Is he being held accountable for the material of the seminar? That his attraction renders this man incapable of cognition points to a significant lack of maturity and professionalism. As a friend, you’d hope Dr. Huang would aid him in getting the help he needs rather than use him to excuse other instances of unprofessional behavior.

Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.

So the solution is to alert him to his lack of professionalism, right? Come on, Dr. Huang, you’re killing me here.

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.

Did she just Dear Muslima the letter writer? I think she just did. At least the writer is Bothered but isn’t getting raped, amirite?

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.

Yep, it’s simply hilarious when a man is so distracted by his own desires that he can’t behave like a grown adult in front of a woman whose breasts he finds attractive.

And when you thought Dr. Huang couldn’t get any more disingenuous:

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.

Her defense of this man includes bringing up a friend of hers whose libido is so strong that it renders him incapable of listening to the work of women he finds attractive. Yet, somehow, it’s on Bothered to wipe this man’s drool off her bosom and work harder than she would have had he not found her figure pleasing to him to get him to take her seriously? Dr. Huang puts the letter writer in quite the bind with this closing bit of “advice”. In her view, she thinks that it’s “forgivable” that men cannot be counted on to put their lust aside when around female colleagues, but also that women have to somehow get around that lust.

I prefer to think better of my fellow human beings. Call me naive, but I think that setting such low standards for male behavior discounts the wonderful things that men are capable of, even when working with and around women. Just as women are more than their looks, men are more than their libidos.

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#DontAskAlice for Help with Sexual Harassment
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12 thoughts on “#DontAskAlice for Help with Sexual Harassment

  1. 1

    Yeah, that anecdote about her friend and the visiting professor completely invalidates her entire (bad) argument.
    “It’s okay to text and drive. By the way, I had a friend once who once texted while driving, drove right into a school bus. Anyway, it’s okay to text and drive but school bus drivers need to watch out for that sort of thing.”

  2. 2

    The sympathetic treatment Dr. Huang is giving her anonymous academic colleague, at the expense of the writer’s comfort zone, sounds as if he’s cognitively disabled by his hormone flashes, and Diversity and Inclusion allowances should be made for him….and every other male academic authority who can’t focus on the actual job.

    The mythic fond exasperation of the ‘nurturing’ woman tutting ‘boys will be boys’ is strong with this one. Oddly, behavioural science itself has proven that such hot flashes of social bias can be alleviated with awareness training and psychological toolkits of critical thinking.

    Weird, that the Dr. wouldn’t suggest those learning opportunities to the colleague and other male academic staff suffering from such mind draining disabilities, instead telling the writer and all sexual Oglings out there to take on the dedicated role of patiently resolved caretaker nanny.

    I can only imagine what advice would be written if the sexes in the writer’s dynamic were reversed or same.

  3. 3

    I find this very disturbing. I worked in my masters with a female advisor, and didn’t have to deal with this. But then in my Ph.D., I worked with a male professor – and didn’t have to deal with this. If he found me attractive, he kept it (and his eyes, and his hands) to himself. I suspect he saw me appropriately, as a student and colleague, and a woman with a brain he could respect enough to sign on to work with me for five years. No, don’t suck it up. That’s the wrong answer. You deserve better.

    I know. I’ve been there (not with my advisor, thankfully). I was leered at, joked about, and sexually propositioned by a man in my office when I was 28 years old; I was told by the higher ups (a woman) that I should be flattered. Did she really believe that? Or did she just not want to rock the boat in a field dominated by men?

    For 28 years, my husband worked surrounded by women, in a field dominated by women. Some of them were quite attractive. He never found it necessary to act like an entitled sexist shithead. Men do have control of their emotions, just as much as women, if they choose to.

  4. 5

    I think ultimately, women eventually do realize their own physical prowess. If you are a woman, you are a sexual being, men are very visually oriented. Women more focused on communication, but they are also visually oriented the same. I think if you know you’re an attractive women, it would be in your best interest, especially professionally to make sure your dress attire does not over stimulate those who you’re around, especially in professional environments to do exactly what she was claiming to avoid. Becoming the center of focus and her boss objectifying her. I’m sure there are men out here, to women who are incredibly good looking. They have to also do the same thing, to exude professional attire to stand out less in physicality to everyone else. If she is dressing professionally, and not extremely stimulating visually, not wearing “skin-tight” clothing, not wearing semi-see-through fabrics, sticking with less bright colors. Focus possibly on a make over to eliminate that. There is a reason why it’s requested by women in the military to eliminate sexuality & fall in line via uniforms. Curves & beauty will forever be the driving force in joyful existence to others. Good thing is most people are average in beauty, and this is generally not a problem. If you’re smart & beautiful, set the stage for the outcome you seek. Take the engineering approach and figure out what you have to do visually to supress your own characteristics you want to conceal to gain the expected outcome. Humans, we are still generally animals, we share the same cerebral basics as all other animals, and when it comes to procreation. I’m not saying the men don’t break the law, but they do stair & gawk, and awk. But like she said, men are men. We are easily manipulated in the presence of beautiful women.

    1. 5.1

      How do you know that she wasn’t wearing 100% professional and appropriate dress? That’s a lot of words and very little in the way of line breaks to basically say “It’s on you, women, to not tempt men.” which is frankly Taliban-esque and not at all appropriate for American life.

    2. 5.4

      If she is dressing professionally, and not extremely stimulating visually, not wearing “skin-tight” clothing, not wearing semi-see-through fabrics, sticking with less bright colors.

      …You have a fetish for bright colors? I didn’t know this existed.

      Short version: speak for yourself. Don’t suggest public policy based on the assumption that everyone is exactly like you.

  5. 8

    “It’s okay to text and drive. By the way, I had a friend once who once texted while driving, drove right into a school bus. Anyway, it’s okay to text and drive but school bus drivers need to watch out for that sort of thing.”

    Thread won.

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