Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where's my cape?

Got some more good data yesterday. As usual, I tried 3 experiments, and 1 worked.

That's about as good as it ever gets.

It's quite typical though, because the one that worked was just kind of dumb luck.

Got the right thing from the right person (but I didn't know that until afterwards), and everything was more or less working like it's supposed to (no stupid technical problems with equipment or running out of reagents, for once).

So in some ways, I'm proudest of one experiment that didn't work.


So I'm hoping that next time I will get some actual information out of it.

But I got to have that little lightbulb moment.

Aha! I said. I get it now! Minor victory!

The third one didn't work the way I wanted it to. Part of the problem is lack of decent controls, so it's hard to say whether my hypothesis is wrong or if I'm just not doing it quite right.

Probably both.

And that's okay. Because I don't take that stuff personally. And I got data, so nyaah nyaah, stupid non-working experiment. I'll find a way around you yet! Although it might just be arguing that you're stupid!

Stupid non-working, uninterpretable experiment. Grr. Nobody has the right controls for you anyway! I just refuse to interpret experiments without them!


So the cape in the title of this post actually refers to my inborn desire to fix everything for everybody, especially women who are being abused at work.

Yes, I found out yesterday that one of my colleagues is being harassed by her advisor, but she doesn't want to file a complaint because she's afraid he's going to torpedo her still-lingering publications and/or write her bad recommendation letters.

The creepiest part of the story is that he apparently told her something to the effect of how this is the way of the world, and she should get used to it now, he's really doing her a favor...

Like something out of the fucking 1950s, I swear. What year is it???

I'm not supposed to know he's doing this to her, it's one of those concerned grapevine things, so I can't tell anybody anyway (except you, anonymous black hole of internet!).

But I'm pissed. And I hate feeling powerless.

The thing is, I have to wonder how much of this really goes on and how many women have to go along with it or around it.

I know because it has happened to me. And this is part of why I get labeled "bitch", because I won't go along with it. And they know it. Nothing worse than women you can't intimidate with your dick!

In this case, the advisor is also one of my colleagues, and I have to look him in the eye and not punch him in the [insert sucker punch location here]. Or let on that I even know about this, I guess.

And we know that, even if she filed a complaint, loser advisor guy wouldn't be fired on the spot anyway.

But if she did file a complaint now, and someone else filed a complaint later, that would be the end of him. (Seeya suckah! Try that again at some other university where they won't care why you got kicked out of here as long as you have lots of publications!)

Since generations upon generations of female postdocs don't, however, file complaints, or are told that without witnesses, or something incriminating in writing, there's nothing actionable anyway.

So we know that this same hell will most likely be visited upon someone else.

God help her, whomever she is, and god forgive us for not doing anything to protect Future Female Postdoc. She deserves better.


And now I'm going back to work, containing my rage, and scheming quietly how to make an anonymous website for abusive bosses.

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At 12:18 PM, Blogger ScientistMother said...

unfortunately it happens alot. I was going to file a complaint against MSc advisor, but the senior (male) students advised against. Although they agreed it was harassment, they felt I would get the brunt of the punishment. I was quite abit "younger" then and not as emotionally strong. If it happened now, I would file a complaint, but then again I also am difficult to get along with.

At 2:34 PM, Anonymous Gingerale said...

Hi. This kind of thing is problematic in part because of its pernicious ripple effects. The situation is creating a hostile work environment for more than just the currently harassed individual.

I'd like to offer, though, that it's possible there already is a complaint on file on this supervisor. And so, if the currently harassed individual files a complaint, maybe it'll be the first complaint -- but maybe hers will be the second one.

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, if she filed a complaint now, nothing would happen to him. It would be chalked up to a misunderstanding of HERS. If down the road, someone else filed a complaint, nothing would happen to him. It would be chalked up to a misunderstanding of HIM. he might get a wrist slap. If it happened again, THEN an investigation would be serious and sadly, he still might not get the boot. I know. I've been through it for sex harrassment. I was the whistle blower. Nothing happened to him. I was told I misunderstood (I think NOT!!). After talking with other women, turns out it was a pattern (big surprise, right) and I convinced them to come forward and file complaints. He got a wrist slap. It wasn't until he did it again (and it was clear as day to the blind that there's a big problem), that they started seriously investigating and only then, did the faculty come forward to stick up for the students. The faculty actually asked him to resign after sitting down with other students to see even bigger problems from past incidents which students were afraid to report.

I've personally seen that filing a complaint hurts the complainer more than the jerkwad. I've been through two other times recently where I should have filed complaints, but didn't. I just couldn't muster the energy to deal with being told "I was overreacting or misunderstanding." It COMPLETELY sucks to be powerless. My advice for your friend - unless there is mounting evidence that she's not the only one AND that she can convince the others to file complaints, she best keep her mouth shut until she gets out of there. I can't believe that's my advice, but I've been through the wringer and it's what I would do (and have done, sadly).

At 6:50 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

gingerale writes:

"it's possible there already is a complaint on file on this supervisor. And so, if the currently harassed individual files a complaint, maybe it'll be the first complaint -- but maybe hers will be the second one."

This is entirely logical, but in this case the advisor has not been at this university for that long, and she's the only woman in the lab, so if there were other complaints, they would have been at his previous institution.

(The previous institution is apparently even worse than ours in their tendency to disregard anything unethical, so they probably didn't even make a record of it if there were any previous complaints.)

Anyway, small comfort that she's doing the right thing for herself, especially given the ripple effect. I hadn't even thought about that in this case, but it's always true that it doesn't only affect the local environment.

Anon 4:23,

I guess the silver lining is they did eventually get rid of this guy? And hopefully all of the faculty involved learned a valuable lesson?


Those guys you worked with were losers. They should have gone with you and acted as witnesses. They were just acting in their own best interests, not really thinking about yours at all!

At 6:57 PM, Blogger ScientistMother said...

As much as it pains me to admit, I think you're right. I respect those two individuals for their scientific integrity and intelligence, but it definitely wouldn't have been a good lab to be coming from, had I caused some ripples. It would've been nice to have someone like you around back then.

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous Scott said...

You'd be surprised. my graduate work was with a strong, prominent PI and department chair, and he had a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. sure, there would be an investigation, but it was one strike and you're out.

I think that there is a certain amount of flirting/innuendo around most labs. Of course the definition of harassment is unwanted attention as defined by the victim. My current wife jumped on my lap one night after a lab meeting. Was that sexual harassment or just the beginning of a beautiful relationship? Many trainees have huge crushes on their advisors, and this sometimes leads to more. Obviously fellow scientists are constantly hooking up, even getting married.

So it's difficult. We usually have a sexual harassment talk as part of our ethics training every year.

only she knows if he's crossed the line. I'd recommend she tell a chair or dean (we had a female dean). they're used to handling these situations delicately, that's their job.

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those of you who have experienced/had friends who have experienced harassment, my question is what exactly was done? Did the boss ask you out? Try to make out with you? Grab your ass? Wink at you? I'm just curious because the label "harassment" is fairly broad, and, not to defend creeps, there can be misunderstandings. I'm clueless as I've never been involved in anything like this (at least I don't think I have, nobody has ever accused me of harassing them). I do remember a story about my previous department chair "consoling" one of our cute young grad students after the Christmas party, and asking if he could kiss her. That seems pretty bad, although I don't know if it is true as I only heard through the grapevine.

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Helen said...

The creepiest part of the story is that he apparently told her something to the effect of how this is the way of the world, and she should get used to it now, he's really doing her a favor...

My sister has been using that line for over 20 years now for why I should not only put up with, but thank her for her insane rages.

Instead she goes around muttering about what an ungrateful mean bitch I am for walking out on her when she loses it. Sheesh. I didn't buy that argument when I was a kid, so why would I start now?

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Like I said. If I had a cape!


That's great.

It's good that you get the definition: unwanted.


The point is that flirtation is something else entirely. We're talking about trying to maintain a professional working environment. Ever heard of one of those?

It's funny to me that women (by the time they're postdocs) usually understand this, and men all seem to want to think it's a fuzzy definition.

It's not fuzzy. At all.

I'll give you a great example. I posted previously about a salesguy who came by very early one morning, before most people had arrived, and intimidated a rather fragile tech who was alone with him in the lab.

He got in her personal space, said a few things to emphasize that he noticed her femininity and appearance, and generally made her realize that if he decided to attack her right then and there, she's have a hard time defending herself. She was terrified.

A more subtle example was my experience of working with someone who perpetually made disparaging remarks about women in general, and claimed he was "just joking." That's harassment, too.

In this case, I've witnessed the guy make inappropriate remarks and most everyone seems to just ignore that, so I have to assume it was something physical or a demand for services, some kind of tit-for-tat threat. Like I said, I don't know all the details.

And advisors hooking up with the people they supervise? That's a hostile work environment. ILLEGAL.
There should be zero tolerance for that.

But everyone is very tolerant in academia, and sure it's their business and they should be allowed to fall in love or sleep around or whatever... except when you realize what it does to everyone else in the lab, department, and visiting grad students...


Yeah. It's a fucked up rationalization no matter who tries to use it.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger ScientistMother said...

anon - the definition has been stated but here are some more examples. My Msc PI commented on how I had nice cleavage, commented on my "hooker" boots, asked what I was giving my husband for "dessert" when he overhead me discussing making dinner, that was just in the first few months

At 11:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This isn't a solution for your friend or anyone's problem here really, but I wish I had read this book a few years ago when there was a postdoc in my lab being a jerk to me (a student). he saved his more sexual harssment for other women in the lab (guess i wasn't his type), but in the end, it was all intimidation. It's "The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't" by Robert Sutton. Maybe you've talked about it before -- I've only been reading your blog for a few months. There's nothing revolutionary in the book, but for me it gave me the language to talk about the 'uncivility' of my lab.

I breathed a sigh of relief when that guy moved on from the lab, but I've realized since then that he wasn't the main problem, that it was the fact that my "lab culture" allows and even encourages people to be "assholes." Hazing is the norm, whether it's a joke or it's on the basis of seniority. You just wait and wait until you're not at the bottom anymore... I hate how the environment has changed me, how mean I feel. I wish I had left way back when.

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous Scott said...

I had three examples from my old department.

1. Female grad student was on a ladder reaching up to grab some books and committee member comes by and slaps her on the butt. Clear violation. This is not harassment per se but actually a type of sexual assault. She did nothing, since he was on her committee.

2. One night at a bar, after a few drinks, unattractive male postdoc asks attractive female postdoc what her favorite sexual position was (in a joking kind of way). This is where the gray zone is, especially since it was outside the lab. Also, if she would have been more attracted to him, she might have allowed the conversation to go on. This is where some guys have a hard time reading women and knowing what's too far. Most guys understand that physical contact or quid pro quo situations are too far, but flirting is more of a gray zone.

3. Then there's the night in the lab when a female lab manager jumped in the lap of a first year male grad student and stuck her tongue down his throat. We married a few years later.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Arlenna said...

I think most universities have EOE/AA committees who are responsible for dealing with these kinds of issues. We just learned about it at my new institution. They allow for confidential reporting of harassment and inappropriate behavior and allow you to go above the head of the department right away if that is necessary. I would think most department heads would want to know about this right away, and if hers is someone to be trusted they would be the best first line.

But the problem here is getting us women over the shame factor of dealing with this kind of shit. It is such an uncomfortable situation that it is embarrassing and sickening to even talk about it with anyone else. She HAS to push her way through it if she is going to solve her problem. It doesn't mean it won't be difficult, but personally I think it is everyone's responsibility to do what they can to prevent this kind of thing from continuing, no matter how painful it is.

At 1:25 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

There is a professor in the department in which I did my PhD, who is known for not respecting the personal space of attractive females. To my knowledge, he's never laid a hand on anyone (at least in recent years), but he's notorious for leering too close to young women under the cover of a social event where alcohol is served so that his explanation (should it ever come up) is that he'd had a bit to drink and wasn't certain of himself. Senior grad students were used to keeping an eye on him in case we needed to rescue one of the first years...

I believe he'd married two of his former grad students (sequentially :), so I guess some of his advances weren't unwanted. Otherwise... we didn't really think there was much to do about it, since it was widely accepted that he was a bit forward when he'd been drinking. And he had tenure. And he never actually *touched* anyone. We think. :/

(this comment has no purpose other than to say "yeah, this is bad and I don't know how to deal with it")

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work with a woman who is very agressive, professionally and personally. She regularly slaps me in the ass as I walk by (I'm a guy). She does this to other people (guys and women). Sexual harassment?

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Flirting in a bar is definitely a gray zone. It's a major problem for women, because our options are:

a) Avoid drinking with colleagues, to avoid being harrassed, but the flip side is that we're left out of a lot of 'networking' and work-related conversations that happen outside of work;

b) Drink with colleagues, network, and risk having to fend off attacks.

It's wonderful.


Confidential? I'm sorry, but how many people are in your lab? This might be useful if you're in a gigantic lab with 20+ people and half are women, but confidentiality is a joke in smaller labs.

In this case, the department head is not the sort who would be sympathetic.

I tried to talk to the boss of one of the people who was displaying signs of subtle discrimination against me, and he just shut me down, said he didn't want to hear about it. Technically, that's illegal. In practice, it takes that much more nerve to push forward and make your statement.

And you have no idea about the kind of retaliation that goes on.

I agree that it's everyone's responsibility, in principle. In practice, it's a lot more complicated than that.


See my comment above to Scott, but yeah this is why drinking at 'professional' events is a slippery slope (so to speak). It's great that you were all looking out for each other. But I agree that inappropriate comments can be just as bad as physical contact, because it's a way of exerting power and intimidation.

Anon 8:20,

That's inappropriate, sexual or otherwise, and what the hell is that, anyway? You're not playing sports, you're working in a lab.

You should all tell her it makes you uncomfortable. I bet she'll stop.

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Arlenna said...

Confidential with respect to the whistleblower's identity. Of course the parties involved will become all too clear when any administrative shit goes down. Which is what makes it so murky and difficult and painful. I do indeed know about the kind of retaliation that can go on, and it is awful and horrific and wrong that anyone has to worry about that in this kind of situation.

BUT, nothing will ever change if everyone just hides behind the fear and shame and avoids making a stand about it. So the choice is: do nothing and feel shitty and have a shitty time, or do SOMETHING and feel shitty and have a shitty time and MAYBE have a chance to prevent it happening to someone else. Even that little bit of a chance is worth it if the institution is somewhere that might do something about it. If it isn't, then I can see why she wouldn't want to be the pointless martyr. But isn't she either way no matter what?


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