Bad Science Careers Advice

Oh, WayBack machine. You were supposed to help us find old Geocities webpages, lost in the midst of time, and now you help us see terrible articles written in Science Careers magazine. How we love you.

Picture this. You’re a postdoc, you’ve just started a new job, and your supervisor keeps staring down your top. You write to Science Careers for help, and the reply is . . .

Well read some of it yourself.

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.

Jezebel responded by saying it sets the ‘Sexist Incidences in Science’ calendar back to zero. Science Careers quickly pulled the article. I’m not sure what editorial team let it go by to be honest. But then, I think we’ve established that I’m not really au fait with editors in the science world.

We can sit and snipe about this, making funny comments, but here’s the thing – the letter writer is still sitting in this office with someone peering at her tits. So I’m going to answer her as I would answer one of my students:

Dear Alice Fluffy,

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

Dear Bothered,

Let’s start with the obvious here, this behaviour is bothering you.  You have a choice. Either you adjust your expectations and expect to feel uncomfortable in your place of work, with someone you are supposed to be working collaboratively with. Alternatively, you can raise the issue and hope that both you and your advisor, who is apparently nice, can both behave in such a way that you will both feel comfortable together.

It’s really not for me to tell you which path to choose. I think every woman has to pick her battles. In my career I’ve faced sexual harassment a few times, and I haven’t always taken action against. The truth is that harassment is subjective, and it’s not always a clear cut case of “this is wrong”.

The problem, however, is when someone like you or I wants to speak up, but doesn’t because they’re afraid of the consequences to their career.

As a society, we need to learn how to hear the words “this makes me uncomfortable” and not immediately take huge umbrage. Some people will tell you to put up with this, to live in a work environment that makes you feel uncomfortable. And here’s the thing – if you would rather do that than risk the censure of openly wanting an equal work environment, no one has the right to judge you. You only take on the battles you want to in this life.

But let’s say you do want this fight (because it could well be a fight), here’s how to start.

Do you know what the first aider’s golden rule is?

1) Protect yourself.

Never put yourself in a situation where you feel vulnerable. Start documenting now. Even just a word file with times and dates of meetings, what happened, when, how did it make you feel. Nine times out of ten, no one will ever see this but you.

2) Contact your equality and diversity officer.

All universities should have an equality and diversity officer. They will be in charge of facilitating your institute’s duty of care towards you (and yes, your institute does have one toward you – why didn’t I tell you this earlier? Because it’s their responsibility, not yours. You need to make the decision to do this yourself). They will be able to point you in the direction of further advice, and they may be able to instigate some staff-wide training.

3) Be prepared to say ‘bygones’

So far, your supervisor has irritated you, but they haven’t behaved obscenely. When they learn that their behaviour has made you upset, they’re going to feel bad about it. People respond to this in different ways. People who are genuinely nice will apologise. Slightly less nice people will try to just push through it and change their behaviour. People who are more like me will probably go bitch to their friends and be cool towards you for a while (this is okay, we’re none of us the villain in our own tale). True dicks will try to make things worse for you, that’s when you bring out the documentation and start the whole process again.

The point is, once you have addressed the behaviour, you have to take it as a learning event. Some people learn their lesson, some people don’t. You have to re-evaluate the situation after you have given your input to it, which is, essentially: I am bothered.

Be bothered. You’re allowed to be bothered by this. You’re a scientist, and you should be valued for what that brings to the table.

Good luck, Bothered.

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The Fashionable Scientist

Science, being the awesome beast it is, recently landed a ten year old probe on a comet. My laptop is three years old and it’s already beginning to groan and whine.

But you’ve probably heard and seen the commotion over one of the scientist’s shirt, which was a gaudy, loud, and featured many half clad ladies on it. On Twitter, a wit said this:

 

And thus began a Twitter storm of epic proportions as ever. On the one side, those who (rightly) feel that the posit03ion of women in STEM fields is a tenuous one and needs direct action, the other those who (rightly) feel that what a scientist wears has little to do with their achievements or even their attitudes to other people.

I was asked by some of my friends what I felt about the issue being both a scientist and a dyed in the wool feminist.

Before I commit my words to the internet it’s important to recognise that my opinions on this are based on my own ethics, my own experiences and they might not necessarily reflect that of all feminists, all women or all scientists – but I also believe my opinion is the right one, hence the fact it’s mine (hey – this is pretty much exactly like animal welfare ethics!)

I think it’s a storm in a teacup. The guy wore a dumb shirt, a woman rolled her eyes, and suddenly we’re onto the death threats. Why is this the default position of the internet? I think it’s sad that the guy was reduced to tears in his apology, I think it’s horrific the tweeter’s life was threatened for pointing out a very real problem. It is frankly ridiculous to say that a shirt overshadowed the accomplishment of the human race. Humans are more than capable of carrying two or more issues in their heads at one time.

Really the only person who address this with any degree of clarity was my guiding light, Hadley Freeman. In her style column she says:

There are so many signifiers of sexism in the world and the science world that to attack a man for his shirt feels a little bit like fussing at a leaky tap when the whole house is under a tidal wave . . .  There is a difference – and I concede, the difference may be fuzzy in some cases – between enjoying the weird fantasy-world depiction of women, and seeing actual women as sex objects. Taylor has the right to wear whatever pig-ugly shirt he likes, and people have the right to be outraged by it. But when that outrage leads to a grown man weeping on TV, perhaps we all need to ask if this outrage is proportionate. My God, I’m a fashion bitch and even I don’t want to make anyone cry over my comments about their clothes.

 

But as it’s the run up to Christmas, there is a silver lining. My wonderful STEM field compatriot has her HauteDog Couture shop on Etsy. We’ve decided at our next meet up we’ll wear dresses made of that shirt material. HauteDog Couture is amazing. Check it out.