The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


"#EverydaySexism passed off as career advice?"

Submitted by syntaxfactory on June 2, 2015 - 8:29am


"'His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.'
With those words, Alice S. Huang, a senior faculty associate in biology at California Institute of Technology known for her pioneering research in molecular animal virology, and a regular columnist for Science, launched a wave of criticism Monday that resulted in the disappearance and subsequent retraction of her advice piece. Questions about the journal’s editorial process also linger, along with commentary on what some have described as a 'one step forward, two steps back' path to gender equity in the sciences."

So the gist of the story is, a doctoral student in the sciences believes that her advisor frequently tries to look down her blouse. She writes to an advice columnist asking what her options are, and the columnist says, basically, tolerate it for the sake of your career. The columnist is excoriated.

But I have to admit, I see her point. In 1997, I changed advisors from Ann Hill Duin (one of the best researchers in technical communication I have ever known) to Arthur Walzer (the man most responsible for who I am as a professional today). It was amicable, largely, it was entirely appropriate given my intellectual interests, and I was still scared.

I can only imagine the situation is worse in the sciences, where switching advisors is not just switching a dissertation topic; it is switching labs (with all the grant-funded infrastructure that follows from that). And it is switching research trajectories in what is typically a single-blind peer review field. (The reviewers know the authors but the authors do not know the reviewers.)

Accuse someone of leering in a way which makes an enemy, and I wonder how badly you have damaged the next decade of your career. Advice that the student should seek a university ombudsman seems like advice that negotiates leaving the leering advisor but does little or nothing to mitigate the subsequent damage.

The number of times I have stood on a principle, in my career, and found later retaliation for that stand on principle, is not small. Under none of those circumstances have I had legal justification, so maybe this is different. Professional principles, not legal principles.

But I don't know how to feel about people who give advice that seems only to care that the advice seeker establish what is right, legal, ethical in this moment. I wonder -- how does one navigate the future for this advice seeker's career?

There must be some members of the Blogora who can help me think this through -- who have maybe thought it through for themselves? Help please?

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