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Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

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Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby Dave Jensen » Wed Nov 04, 2015 3:15 pm

See the article about young astronomy professionals and their experiences, from CNN. I'd love to know if this exists in the life sciences. Comments?

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http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/04/living/geoff-marcy-astronomy-harassment-feat/index.html
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby Dick Woodward » Wed Nov 04, 2015 5:29 pm

During my time in academia, I heard rumors that there was a well-known prof who was known to be available to "discuss data" at conferences. The rumor went on to say that the invitations to these "data discussions" usually took place in the evening and were held in his room, and were generally extended only to comely grad students and post-docs of the female persuasion.

Obviously, I have no direct knowledge of this (couldn't pass the physical), but rumors generally do not invent themselves - there is usually a basis in fact.

I think that the article that you cited probably holds true in all of the sciences, as well as other environments where there can be an abuse of positions of power. We touched on this in an earlier thread (http://scforum.sciencecareers.org/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=10659) - all that I can say is that there are some people who cannot behave toward the opposite gender, proving that Neanderthals still exist.

One man's opinion...

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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby Parker » Thu Nov 05, 2015 12:06 am

I don't think there is a Bill Cosby lurking, but there is no shortage of male professors who take advantage of their position and authority to get younger females. Some of them feel very entitled and turn angry if the female is not receptive to their advances. It's not uncommon in academic life sciences. It may not be as common in industry because of HR and corporate oversight, but professors have a lot of power in academia and there isn't a whole lot of oversight. I did not experience sexual harassment first-hand but I witnessed it and heard about it.

1) Mid way through my PhD, I started asking around about which labs I should target for postdocs. Right off the bat, I got warned from peers who were a few years ahead of me to stay away from certain labs because the advisor has a history of harassing females and things would turn sour if you didn't play along.

2) I can count three separate instances (that I know of) where female graduate students were sleeping with much older male professors (two were their own advisor and one was a professor they met at a conference). The students were not forced into it but there was definitely an element of power involved. In two cases, the professor instigated the relationship and the graduate student saw it as an opportunity to get ahead and maybe felt a little flattered by the attention. In one case, the student made the first move. What was striking to me is how casual they were about the whole thing. Almost everyone in their lab knew about it and everyone (male and female) resented the advisor and the student. One "couple" was openly flirting and telling dirty jokes in front of other colleagues at the department seminar! The relationships (if you can call it that) lasted from a few months to a few years.

3) I crossed paths with two older male professors who were married to much younger female professors. Later I found out in both cases that the much younger wife used to be their former graduate student (first wife got dumped). Now these are the happily ever after endings... You can make your own conclusions.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby P.C. » Thu Nov 05, 2015 10:39 am

Since you brought up Bill Cosby and long ago violations, I know of one situation very well. I briefly dated a female forestry graduate student, who was pursued and preyed upon by her Graduate Student professor. It harmed her severely mentally and she quit after 1 or 2 semesters. This outraged me and gave me a long standing grudge against this professor so periodically I would leave anonymous notes on his door accusing him of his moral and ethical lapses.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby Dave Walker » Thu Nov 05, 2015 11:13 am

Thanks Parker, I think your write-up is very thoughtful. My recent time in academia resonates with your descriptions.

I think the power dynamic between "trainee" and "professor" drives the dark anecdotes we hear, in addition to the other career-related problems seen in academia. The majority of graduate students are young, inexperienced with the workplace and poorly compensated. This is contrasted with professors who are usually much older, given workplace autonomy and generally untrained in management.

On a side note away from the "Bill Cosby" potential, there is a mentoring/advocacy group called Women In Bio. While in graduate school we hosted a panel discussion about careers development for women in the life sciences. It was headed by several prominent women researchers and executives from the area. I will never forget the turnout for this event -- standing room only, 100% attendance of RSVPs, women from all over campus. The audience was rapt, and the event lasted hours.

I realized that even if there isn't overtly an "old boy's club" on campus, there was no good space to talk about these issues. The dynamic is real, and it affects us in unconscious ways.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby WG » Thu Nov 05, 2015 6:48 pm

3) I crossed paths with two older male professors who were married to much younger female professors. Later I found out in both cases that the much younger wife used to be their former graduate student (first wife got dumped). Now these are the happily ever after endings... You can make your own conclusions.


I know someone who had an affair with her PhD advisor and the scenario is somewhat similar to what you describe above. Without going into too much detail she hoped that he would leave his wife to be with her but he did not.

In these situations the power dynamic is the main issue. Others may disagree but I think relationships like these are ill advised simply for the reason that it can create a strange dynamic in a group or department--others might resent this kind of thing because of perceived favoritism for example.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby Renee L. » Thu Nov 05, 2015 9:17 pm

I’m a chemist, so not familiar with the life sciences, and I got my Ph.D some time ago. Here’s my experience/thoughts:
In graduate school I didn’t have any problems, mainly due to my advisor being a real family man, who wasn’t interested in these sorts of things. However, my first job at a chemical company was 180 degrees the opposite. The lab director and two assistant directors approached women of all degrees and backgrounds in the lab. Those who welcomed the attention had their flings with the bosses. And those women who didn’t welcome the attention, got harassed. I was amongst the latter. When I first joined the company, I had an assistant lab director keep me in his office for two hours, while he explained the ‘real’ promotion policies to me, and how if I played my cards right, I could be one of those people who moved up the promotion ladder quickly. I wasn’t interested, and got several months of anger directed my way. Fortunately, he retired not long after this. He was a good 30 years my senior.

A man I worked with at my company said something enlightening about these situations. He believed that whenever there is a workplace in which there are powerful men who make a lot of money and there are younger women who make little money, then there are going to be these sorts of problems. The power and financial differentials set up a system where some men choose to take advantage of the younger women, without the women having much recourse to complain or set things right. The best they can do is leave the workplace, and hopefully find someplace better. I believe this situation also applies to universities, where there are all-powerful professors versus students with essentially no power and very little money. In one sense, it’s worse than a workplace, because this is disruptive to a person’s education. If that person leaves, they don’t get their degree.

In regards to the Marcy case at Berkeley – the one power that students do have is to go public with the behavior, and use shaming to get a resolution to the situation. And, in this case it worked. I imagine some of these other professor/harassers out there are taking notice. And not just in astronomy.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby J.B. » Mon Nov 09, 2015 1:11 pm

In graduate school, I was told during sexual harassment training that many of the inappropriate encounters between grad students and undergrads were instigated by the undergrad. In my observation, this was true. It was also true for undergrads with professors, although the professors instigated a lot more often than the grad students in my opinion. I don't say this to justify their behavior, only that I can see clearly how they get to a place where they're much too comfortable behaving inappropriately with students.

Anecdote: Prof A has lots of female students visit him during office hours. These students are typically very flirty and get artificial bumps on all of their exams. As ditzy as they may act on the surface, I'm sure they're smart enough to see a graduate student had marked -3 on a question only to have that -3 crossed out and full credit assigned. Number of flirty female students increases throughout the year, Prof A starts thinking every female in class likes him and acts accordingly.

I don't think many male professors are predators. I do think they're subject to bad decision-making and ego-stroking in a system that prevents some of them from being punished for their actions. And while they do wield a lot of power, I don't think that's the reason they do what they do. A lot of them are just stupid and full of themselves.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby Parker » Thu Jan 14, 2016 3:56 pm

Interesting perspective on sexism in Biotech from John Carroll. http://www.fiercebiotech.com/story/biot ... 2016-01-14

I am still of the opinion that this type of thing is more rampant in academia than industry. Case in point, when it happens at JP Morgan, well known industry commentators write about it as unacceptable behaviour, instead of sweeping it under the rug.
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Re: Women in Science: Is there a "Bill Cosby" potential lurking?

Postby J.B. » Fri Jan 15, 2016 9:08 am

It's definitely more rampant in academia, the power balance is skewed more heavily and there are less checks and balances to punish offenders. And there's constant turnover of students, so there's fresh meat every year.
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