Women in science: whom to ask for advice?

Through copse and spinney marched Bear; down open slopes of gorse and heather, over rocky beds of streams, up steep banks of sandstone into the heather again; and so at last, tired and hungry, to the Hundred Acre Wood. For it was in the Hundred Acre Wood that Owl lived.
“And if anyone knows anything about anything,” said Bear to himself, “it’s Owl who knows something about something,” he said, “or my name’s not Winnie-the-Pooh,” he said. “Which it is,” he added. “So there you are.”
Owl lived at The Chesnuts, an old-world residence of great charm, which was grander than anybody else’s, or seemed so to Bear, because it had both a knocker and a bell-pull.
From Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

Why did Winnie-the-Pooh go through all this trouble? Because his friend Eeyore lost his tail, and he was “Moping about it”. Pooh is keen to help, but he doesn’t know what to do. So he seeks the advice of Owl, whom he considers as a great authority.

Rereading Milne’s children’s classics, one might smile at Pooh’s naivete about asking the Owl, who is “using longer and longer words” but isn’t a bit helpful. However, once we leave the fictional world to consider modern academia, both Pooh’s expectations and Owl’s response stop being funny.

For those who haven’t heard the uproar over Science Magazine’s career-advice (for example, see the post on TenureSheWrote or the Washington Post article), here is a brief summary (from insidehighered.com).

Dr. Alice S. Huang (short bio here) is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who offers regular career advice to young scientists on AAAS’s Science Careers website. A young female researcher asked her advice:

Dear Alice,
I 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

By the time I saw the post on TenureSheWrote, Science removed Dr. Huang’s answer (the original, with red annotations can be read at ‘let-me-fix-that-for-you-alice-huang‘). Instead there was an Editor’s note:

The Ask Alice article, “Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt,” on this website has been removed by Science because it did not meet our editorial standards, was inconsistent with our extensive institutional efforts to promote the role of women in science, and had not been reviewed by experts knowledgeable about laws regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. We regret that the article had not undergone proper editorial review prior to posting. Women in science, or any other field, should never be expected to tolerate unwanted sexual attention in the workplace.

Lesson learned: Influential bloggers and hashtags, like #dontaskalice on twitter, successfully conveyed what Science’s readers (and their readers’ readers) were thinking about Alice’s advice. The prestigious journal quickly posted “Better advice for ‘Bothered”, that relies on responses to the original article.

If one wants to end the story on a positive note, this is a good place to stop reading. I had previously blogged about why I don’t believe in fiction that “empowers” women in STEM by showing a sugar-coated, politically-correct version of reality. Now, I’m going to address why scientific journals should not give sugar-coated, politically-correct advice to young researchers.

I don’t know Bothered nor her ogling adviser. Her letter says that she is in the beginning of her second post-doc, which usually means that she’s in her late twenties (might be a few years older/younger). Since she has been in an academic environment for at least a decade, I assume that during this period Bothered got to know researchers both in her position and in higher levels on academic rungs. It seems plausible to assume that she knows a few female assistants and associate professors, with whom she might discreetly talk about the delicate situation in her new lab. She might have done so. And even if she didn’t, there are many excellent blogs where she could’ve asked anonymously for an advice. Maybe she did, but I can only guess what kind of advice she got. The only information I have is that she asked the advice of a renowned virologist, former Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Harvard Medical School, former Dean for Science at New York University, former President of AAAS, and also a recipient of various awards in her field. Why she did do so? Is it likely that she expected from the 76-years-old Huang to offer fresh insights about modern postdoc’s career choices?

I don’t think so. It’s a speculation, but my 2 cents is that Bothered sought Alice’s career-advice because the author has had remarkable achievements to back up whatever her advice would be. Here is a part of Huang’s answer:

No one should ever use a position of authority to take sexual advantage of another.
 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.

Appalling? You bet.

Realistic? Practical.

In an interview, Huang said she’d witnessed, either directly or indirectly, just about “every” kind of sexism that exists in the sciences, and that harassment is a serious offense that can greatly impact a young scientist’s life. Ultimately, Huang said, “What I try to do is give advice from experience, and to give the advice that would serve the writer well into the long-term future. I’m taking their best interests to heart rather than being in one camp or another camp or trying to push my own political agendas.”

Since the ogling-harrasment stuff stinks, Science, a prominent scientific journal, dumped Alice’ advice. Will that teach scientists to be more guarded about the conclusions they draw from observations, and about how they pass what they have learned? Personally, I would not want to see scientists compromize their integrity, even when their conclusions are unpleasant or inconvenient or do not sound tidy.

Another point is that “better advice” might not be what Bothered, and other women in the beginning of their academic careers in STEM want to get from Science. The new advice sounds way better, but what if it will backfire? Well, advice-givers aren’t responsible for fellowships not renewed, for lukewarm recommendations, nor for whatever else an adviser can legally do to kill his postdoc’s academic career. Unlike the The Ask Alice column, Bothered is unknown, and her possible career-failure is unlikely to stir the community.

OK, rant is over, and I’m going back to the fictional world of Hundred Acre Wood. It’s lucky for Eeyore that Pooh chose to seek advice from Owl, because the Bear leaves Owl’s residence with Eeyore’s tail.

And when Christopher Robin had nailed it on in its right place again, Eeyore frisked about the forest, waving his tail so happily that Winnie-the-Pooh came over all funny, and had to hurry home for a little snack of something to sustain him.

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