Help, My Supervisor Keeps Looking Down My Top!

There has been a bit of an online storm because of an awfully bad advice column in which a post-doc who was getting fed up with her supervisor ogling her chest was basically told that sexual attraction is part of life, and ogling is not legally considered sexual harassment. Ergo, she had no choice really but put up with it. Good luck, honey.

As you might expect the interwebs exploded, and Science careers took the advice column down, offering a politically correct statement instead. I would have far preferred them offering a new advice column with actual advice on this thorny issue! I can see why they didn’t: it is thorny indeed, with power and dependency issues involved, as well as bringing up the topic of sexuality…eeeeek!

So, I am going to give it a go.

What to do when your supervisor’s eyes keep wandering:

Scenario 1. The supervisor in question knows he shouldn’t be looking at your boobs, but somehow he can’t help himself. He is probably in denial, or maybe he thinks he can get away with it.

Suggestions to deal with it:

The death-stare, the subtle ahem: Catch his eye while (or, you know, right after) he is looking at your chest, or scrape your throat. Any subtle hint to get his attention to let him know he is caught in the act! A well-placed ahem is probably more than enough to scare and embarrass him into never ever looking anywhere below your chin ever again!

‘Would you stop staring at my chest? I can’t concentrate on my work!’ If that fails, you could bring up the subject in a straight, no-nonsense manner. Perhaps try to be a bit more diplomatic than my suggestion, but bottom line: his behaviour is unprofessional, and you have every right to make him aware of it. Be matter-of-fact. Let him know his behaviour is making you uncomfortable. More likely than not, problem solved.

The email: Write him an email confronting him with his behaviour. If his reply is disrespectful/ ignores your boundaries once again you could forward the exchange to the head of department or dean.

There are cases when approaching the matter is more problematic. If you find yourself in a more hostile situation, I am so sorry:

Scenario 2. The supervisor in question is well aware of what he is doing, but doesn’t care, as he knows you are in the weaker position. To top it off you may work in an organisation that doesn’t care so much about your rights and well-being.

If you are in this position you need to be clear about what you want to achieve, and be strategic about how to do so. To start you’ll need to ask yourself whether you want to continue working with him, at all. Being victimised by your supervisor can’t be the basis of a healthy professional relationship. There are still too many stories of this type, and my personal opinion is that life is too short. Get out. Being in an abusive relationship of any type isn’t worth your time. That, and, from a career perspective: it is incredibly important to build an academic network, and your supervisor is a key figure in facilitating access. Is he helping you with this, or is he too busy looking at your cleavage? If there is another supervisor/ network/ department/ group to join, definitely consider it.

If you do decide you want to continue to work with him, I see three options:

1. Get his boss/ head of department or the dean/ ombudsman involved: Authority and empathy, those are the two key variables you should consider. Who is officially in charge of keeping him in line, and who will indeed help you? The question of who to confide in can be a tricky one. University politics…it shouldn’t be something you have to worry about, but unfortunately in sensitive situations and in less sympathetic environments it is! Find out who has authority over your supervisor, and ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable talking to them. Trust your gut here. If for whatever reason it doesn’t feel right to confide, don’t. Having an authority figure talk to him may help. Some people become surprisingly sensitive once their immediate boss has had a word, especially if they are in a struggle for promotion. Also make sure you document, document, document. See the ’email’ advice above. Having evidence in writing gives you a much stronger case.

2. Confront him: As above – ask him matter-of-factly to stop looking at your chest. This is a gamble. He may not be too pleased, in which case the question of whether you can and are willing to continue to work with him becomes acute. On the other hand, you may actually get the respect you deserve. A confrontational style, standing up for yourself, can be helpful to address bullies. Hit back and you may startle him into behaving.

3. Ignore it: Keep your chin up, ignore his behaviour and focus on work. (What the original commentary advised, basically.) This may be worth it, especially if you are already far into your PhD/ project, have little hope the department will support you and are sure you want to finish it in the current setting.

Advising people to go see the dean actually makes me chuckle a very sad chuckle – when I was sexually assaulted during my PhD it was by someone who later became the dean at his institution. In what was supposed to be a meeting to discuss my work he cornered and forcibly kissed me, and it was the scariest situation precisely because it was so unexpected. That evening I asked someone for advice on what to do and I was advised to ‘better forget about it as quickly as possible.’ Right. I disregarded that, and wrote him an email demanding an apology by phone. He called, with a bunch of feeble and pathetic excuses (‘You are an attractive woman’, ‘I am not very good with women,’ ‘I am from the countryside’) although in the end he apologised, repeatedly. Somehow he must have sensed I wouldn’t let him off the hook, despite him being a poor country lad! I left it at that.

Sometimes, now, I think I should have called his boss, to make him accountable not only for what happened between us, as two individuals, but also for abuse in the workplace. I didn’t, because I was upset, scared of him, didn’t know anyone in his organisation, and didn’t expect to see any immediate good coming from it. Too much hassle! With power, fear and taboo involved, I wanted to move on as quickly as possible. Sadly, that is precisely why the perps get away with it. (Not saying that to imply guilt, only as an observation.)

If you find yourself in such a situation: please take care to select the right people to confide in and talk to. The most important thing is that you are heard and taken seriously, and that your complaint is addressed in such a way it doesn’t burden you further. That said, if you are working with a regular guy who cannot keep his eyes off your bosom, scrape your throat a couple of times and let your eyes shoot daggers. Should do the trick.

Have you had to deal with unwanted sexual attention at work? What happened? How did you deal with it? Did you deal with it privately (like I did) or did you get anyone else in the organisation involved? How did it turn out? It would be good to share experiences. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!