Athena Swan

Athena Swan promotes and supports the careers of women in Science, Engineering and Technology (STEM), and aims to address gender inequalities and imbalance in these disciplines and, in particular, the under-representation of women in senior roles.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

In the news - Better advice for ‘Bothered’

Avid readers of the blog or those active on Twitter will remember the Ask Alice advice column last week which suggested unwanted sexual attention from superiors should be ignored unless it 'moves on to other advances.' This column was promptly taken down again after complaints on all social media platforms (part of the column is in our blog post here). Since then, an official apology was issued, followed today by a summary of advice readers have provided to deal with the issue. While the Ask Alice advice clearly wasn't the wisest option, these situations can be highly nuanced and need to be handled carefully to avoid making a bad situation worse, particularly when there is a power imbalance. Hopefully those finding themselves in these situations can use this new advice to find a way out, while the discussion started by Science Careers will continue until real change is observed in workplaces that still tolerate such behaviour.

The deleted Ask Alice post offering advice to “Bothered,” a female postdoc whose male adviser “won’t stop looking down my shirt,” brought a torrent of critical responses. Many critiqued the original advice: “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.” Most criticized Science Careers for posting it. And some filled the gap they felt the original post left by offering their own advice to women scientists coping with unwanted attention from a man in a position of power.
In Forbes, philosopher Janet Stemwedel diagnoses a problem with the original advice, which said that the adviser’s behavior didn’t appear to meet the legal definition of sexual harassment: “It matters not a whit whether the behavior rises to the level of unlawful sexual harassment. It undermines professional interactions.” She argues that telling a woman to tolerate the behavior “leaves her stuck in a professional relationship where it may never be possible to engage the adviser’s scientific interest without concerns about engaging his carnal interest.”
Even so, Stemwedel and others agree that confronting such behavior can be risky, given the power structures of science. A first step is to draw the man’s attention to what he is doing and to the fact that it is unwelcome. Astronomer Christina Richey suggests addressing the issue “politely but boldly.” On the Women in Astronomy blog, she writes, “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.”

Read more here.

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