Monday, June 01, 2015

Playing a Game Rigged Against You

Those of you who are on science/academia Twitter are probably already aware of the uproar this morning over a Science Careers advice post from Alice Huang that was at best tone deaf. It has been taken down (here's the apology) but is archived.

In short: a postdoc wrote in saying that she thinks her new adviser is trying to look down her shirt. Dr. Huang's advice was basically to suck it up.

The furor was all over Twitter, and the post was down before I had a chance to read it. (I've since read the archive). 

I agree that Dr. Huang's advice wasn't great. But a lot of the reactions didn't offer good advice, either, if you ask me. 

Here's the thing: once you've been harassed, you're out of the realm of needing advice, and into the realm of needing a strategy. This is doubly true if you work in a "small world" field like science, and quadruply true if you are early in your career and need your adviser's letter of recommendation to have a shot at moving to the next step.

This is not fair. This sucks. But it is true.

Here's what I had to say on Twitter.

Let me expand on that a bit. I should also say: I am a woman who has spent more than 20 years in very male-dominated corners of science and tech. I have experienced harassment and other problems I'll call "gender-related" on more than one occasion. I have never brought a formal complaint, although I have on occasion raised the issue with supervisors, with mixed results. I have managed to have a successful career in my chosen field, but this has not come without costs. I am still working to understand the full extent of the costs. I am happy to discuss specifics one on one, but won't be posting more here right now. There would be costs to doing that, too, and as you'll probably gather from what follows, I think my first responsibility is to myself. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I can honestly say I am speaking from the position of having had to make some of these hard decisions.

OK, so back to expanding on my tweets.

Handling harassment is not at all a straightforward thing. There is no "right" response. Basically, you just rolled a really crappy roll in a game that is rigged against you. You're going to take some damage. You unfortunately cannot avoid that. Your best bet is to figure out how to minimize the damage, and direct it to your strongest areas. 

I'm sorry. It isn't fair that this is true, but in my experience and in what I have observed happen to other women, it is true. 

So, having rolled this crappy roll, what do you do? I think your best bet is to find someone with whom you can strategize. I think this because you need to come up with a response that is tailored to your specific situation. Factors to consider include:
  • What are your long term career goals?
  • How small is your specific field?
  • Does the person who is harassing you have past form, and if so, is that past form well known in the field?
  • What sort of psychic damage is the harassment doing?
  • What sort of support can you access to help you deal with the psychic damage?
  • Can you make a lateral move that will help resolve the situation?
  • Do you have any high power allies?
There are probably additional factors, too.

Your ideal strategizing partner is senior enough to have a wide view of your field and related fields, and savvy enough to understand the likely career ramifications of an action like filing a formal complaint.

At a minimum, you need someone who understands the outsize influence advisers have on the career of early career scientists. A lot of the people I've seen on Twitter advocating for a robust "haul him in front of the institution's disciplinary board" sort of response are not scientists. They do not know what this would do the the woman's career. Getting your next position without a glowing recommendation from your adviser can be done, but it is difficult. If you don't get the letter from him and explain why not, people will tend to assume that there are "two sides to every story" and whatnot, and you'll have to overcome that. If you do get a letter from him, chances are high that it will be full of coded garbage like "difficult to work with" and "not a team player." This will also hurt your career prospects.

I'm sorry. This sucks. It is not fair. But it is true. You need to develop your strategy based on how the world truly is, not how it should be. 

Therefore, treat anyone who seems eager for an extremely robust response with suspicion. This sort of response WILL come back and cause you some damage. I am sorry. It is not fair. It is wrong. But it is, from what I have observed, almost universally true. That doesn't mean you shouldn't sue the jerk. It just means that you should only choose to do so after thinking about it carefully and deciding that is what best serves YOUR interests. 

Whatever you do, you and only you will be in charge of picking up the pieces of your career and your mental health and moving on. 

And yes, I know, how will this ever change if we don't fight it? I don't really know. I know that some people will fight it and some people will try to sidestep it, and some people will do exactly what Dr. Huang suggested and suck it up and wear big, baggy clothes. I support all of those people. I like to think that if enough of us make it through to the point where we have the power, money, and influence to set our own rules, we'll eventually rewrite the rules of the game. Maybe that is wrong, and maybe I should have "gone nuclear" at one or more points earlier in my career. The thing is, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have the same career I have now if I had done so. The people advocating for us to blow up the game don't always understand the costs to the people at the center of the conflagration.

I will always support someone who decides to take on those costs, but I'll never judge someone who looks at them and decides she is not up to that particular battle.

So, to the anonymous postdoc who wrote to Science, I say: find someone at your institution or nearby who you can trust and who has enough experience to understand how various options are likely to play out. Do some soul-searching about what matters to you and which of the various forms of damage you now face you can best survive. And good luck.

Updated to add: it has been pointed out that finding your strategy partner is itself fraught. I agree! I have no great insight on how to do this, other than this: if you are at a company, know that any supervisor at that company is probably legally required to report any harassment that he or she becomes aware of. They cannot guarantee you confidentiality. If you are not yet sure you want to report this, find a strategy partner at a different company. I don't know what the reporting rules are in academia. I suspect it depends on your contract type. So tread carefully. I would look for a senior woman who seems to have a clue about these sorts of issues. Perhaps ask around with a few junior women you trust to keep their mouths shut first.


  1. Anonymous4:37 PM

    Ugh, I remember consciously wearing baggy clothing to specific classes, even though I had plenty of cute feminine clothing that showed off my figure for days when I didn't have to deal with sketchy professors. And I was lucky enough to be warned off a couple of super-sketchy professors, but of course that meant it was harder to get my schedule figured out. It's so unfair and awful.

  2. Yeah. I caught my PhD advisor look down my cleavage once, it wasn't a regular thing; I was weird and uncomfortable. Honestly, I don't think that there is any scenario in which any people looking down my cleavage would't be weird or uncomfortable, unless I am attracted to the guy and specifically want him to pay attention to the cleavage. There'a a collaborator who occasionally seems to look at my boobs, cleavage or no cleavage, but never made any comments or treated me badly in any way; he's kinda weird anyway, so I try to ignore it. It sucks, and I cannot imagine looking so directly at a colleague's crotch or butt (although there were a couple of specimens that I thought were really very attractive, so I understand the urge).

    I personally would advise the woman to suck it up if she can and wear baggy clothes if she is uncomfortable. Sadly, the level of creepy she is experiencing is very mild in the grand scheme of things and I bet he probably thinks she hasn't even noticed. It's one of those situations where it's probably much better for her to try and mitigate the discomfort as best she can on her end without direct confrontation.

    I am also going to be cynical and say that the fact he finds her attractive is not a bad thing going for her when recommendation letter time comes around. Research shows that people who are viewed as attractive get assigned additional "perceived competence points."

    In an ideal world, bosses don't creep. In this world, she got dealt a mildly creepy boss. It's not fair but, honestly, it could have been much worse. Her advisor seems to be supportive overall and she liked the project. She could have gotten one of my colleagues from across the hallway; he's a slave-driver who's on his students' case 24/7. He doesn't creep for that would require viewing his trainees as people.

    1. I admit I am quite cynical, and I am constitutionally unable to do things (i.e. sacrifice my own life/career/etc) for the greater good or whatever. To someone younger and more starry-eyed, all that happened to that young female postdoc probably feels much more acutely awful and unfair. My attitude is that it is what it is, it could sadly be much worse, and she should try to minimize the damage to herself and her career.

    2. I think it depends on how hard she is finding it to handle the harassment. I would never tell someone to take on a battle for the larger good if she didn't want the battle, but some women might find it necessary to stand up against this harassment, just for their own mental health, even if it would not be particularly hard for other women to just work around it. We all have different breaking points.

    3. physphilmusic10:13 PM

      If I were her, I would use the fact that my adviser is attracted to me (and is yet only bold enough to take peeks at my cleavage, not doing something that rises to actual sexual harassment) to my advantage. For example, on bad days where I have to report a bad result, I would just show off more of my cleavage. It's important to know that in sexual matters, women don't have to always view themselves as the victim, the passive receptor, the one being pursued. Take charge of your sexuality! Sex can be used to control powerful men as much as it can be used to harass you. And socially inept, clueless academics are the easiest to turn the tables on.

    4. physphilmusic, if you're serious and not trolling: this is a terrible idea. In general, sexuality has no place in your career. If you are seen to be using sexuality to advance, bystanders will judge you for it, and your career will probably suffer for it.

      And that's not even considering what it does to other women, who often face accusations of having slept their way to their positions.

  3. Anonymous6:37 PM

    I don't think the advice was completely "wrong". Sometimes its better to just take the injustice. For example, what if there was a scenario where a police officer was being blatantly racist while making an arrest. If the person being arrested spoke up for themselves, they would probably make the situation a lot worse for themselves.

  4. Anonymous1:38 PM

    I just noticed they included your advice in an update to make up for the poor article!

  5. Anonymous8:14 PM

    Thanks for this post. I'm not a woman so I don't fully understand what some of these people have experienced. Overall though, I think the thing that gets to me is the power that advisors hold over your future and career, and that scares me the most. I recently left a graduate program for another because it was not a good fit, and did my best to not burn bridges. However, I still wonder if some of the decisions I made (or didn't make because of my indecisiveness) left a bad impression on others, and that could potentially burn me in the future when I go out there looking for a job in the future.

    In any case, networking can be a powerful thing to advance your career, or it can burn you and demolish your chances of ever landing a job within a specific field especially if you're in a field where everybody knows each other. I still struggle with figuring out when it's the right time to speak up and disagree with something you know is wrong and when it's the time to just bite the bullet and let whatever "injustice" just happen. Sometimes, it's just better off to bite the bullet to just save your career prospects.


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