A story on how borderline sexual harassment in the form of “aesthetic appreciation” can drive young female researchers out of the lab –
Day 1: A new male grad student comments on a young female sophomore undergrad in the lab about the sweet smell of her perfume.
Undergrad feels awkward but ignores the comment at first. Of course, telling something that they smell good is not creepy. It is the connotations that changes everything. Especially if it is the older male grad student telling a young, naive female undergrad with no other lab members around. This is about the power dynamics that come into play and the context of the comment. A person’s smell has been associated with attraction and intimacy.
Several days later: Male grad student inquires why the undergrad isn’t wearing her typical sweet perfume that day.
Undergrad feels uncomfortable but lets go for the second time. She is shy and soft spoken. She is only a teenager in a lab full of older grad students and post docs. She is the only female working in a lab surrounded by male colleagues.
Days in the future: The male grad student starts commenting on the undergrad’s perfume, the way her hair was tied up the previous day but is left out today, her red top worn last week and other clothing choices.
Undergrad decides not to continue pursuing research in the lab due to her feeling constantly uncomfortable in the workplace. No one else in the lab has any idea about what transpired.
The act of “aesthetic appreciation” (from Cooper’s 6 Levels of Harassment) can be considered as borderline sexual harassment. Context is always important and so is the power dynamics in play. If the receiver of the compliment feels uncomfortable, then it is most certainly NOT OK! One may never know the true intentions of the male grad student but seems like he is quite ignorant of the general social cues that are acceptable and those that are not acceptable.
Young female undergrads need to realize and understand that situations like these are serious and can become more and more aggressive over time if the “complimenters” are not called out for their unwanted appreciation. Young female researchers need to seek out mentors in and outside the lab that they can trust and confide in. More importantly, if and when they feel like their personal space is being invaded, they need to call out other people’s bullshit when they encounter them. At the end of the day, a laboratory is a professional workplace and should follow the same rules and policies as enforced by many non-academic workplaces.
The role of the principle investigators (PIs) and advisors in such situations is complex but very important. PIs need to instill strict rules about sexual harassment and the dominant male patriarchal practices in the lab. Unfortunately, many PIs believe that science is greater than the scientist i.e., many sexual and racial microaggressions and other similar practices get pushed under the rug because “science is the universal truth and nothing else matters“. Unfortunately, science is done by humans and one shitty scientist can cause a ripple effect and eliminate many young, promising scientists – especially women from even entering the turf.