Monday, July 19, 2010

Or maybe I'm not feminist enough?

I was talking to a friend last week about the idea that young girls are discouraged from doing science because they're literally afraid it will make them ugly.

In her mind, we should be practical. Mercenaries. Simply put, young girls are focused on being attractive. While we agree that the pressure on girls to be pretty and thin tends to lead to extremely unhealthy eating disorders, etc., it is nevertheless how many young girls' priorities are arranged. Even if the list goes 1. Pretty, 2. Smart, 3. Rich...

My friend was saying she thought that showing that women scientists are not all unattractive nobodies could be a good thing for helping to recruit more girls to be scientists.

Now, you all know what I think. I think NOBODY should be a scientist. I think we have TOO MANY scientists already. And not enough jobs.

But on the issue of whether images of attractive women scientists would help or hurt recruitment efforts, I said I don't know.

I said maybe it would help get everyone to realize that not all scientists are male uber-dorks who only wear graph-paper button-down shirts. Personally, I am tired of being laughed at when I meet new people. They ask what I do, and when I tell them, they think I'm kidding. It has happened so many times, I started wondering if I should have been a comedian.

So then I saw this blogpost today, and I don't get it. Isn't this something we've all talked about maybe doing ourselves?

Will this sort of Hot Scientist Babes webpage help? Maybe not. Will it hurt? I can't really see how it could make things much worse than they already are.

None of these women were depicted doing anything demeaning (except the first girl, and I suspect she's a model?).

Would I feel differently if I were listed there? Maybe. Especially if it were a bad headshot.

But right now, I just can't bring myself to care that much.

Meanwhile, the commenters at PhysioProf all agreed that it was egregiously offensive, but I'm not entirely sure why. Plenty of women complained about the Rock Stars of Science ad campaign because it was all men.

Isn't this sort of the same? We wanted to be included in that effort to make science look sexy then, so why not now?

After all, sex sells. Science.... doesn't.

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19 Comments:

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Anastasia said...

Okay, here's the thing. As influential as I think the media is, no one has more power to shape a young girl's sense of self or her priorities than her mother does. Mothers who value science over sex can make a difference. Putting Barbie in a lab coat...? Not so much.

 
At 2:23 PM, Blogger Kea said...

It seems that young women today really have no choice but to care about appearances. They were raised in a shallow, cutthroat time, and everybody made it perfectly clear to them that if they tried to do what we did, they would not end up happy. They do not have the qualms that we had about being mercenaries, because there are no standards anywhere anymore. And they do not understand the harm that they are doing to themselves, because they are too young.

Perhaps we should just say good luck to them. No harm in women trying a new strategy. If menz persist in viewing women as slaves and sex objects, then it kind of makes sense to say, 'heh, look fellas ... yeah, keep looking ...' so that the jerks don't notice what the babes are doing behind their backs. Personally, though, I don't see how any battle can be won by treading the easier path. Women have made steady progress for generations, and being disliked goes with the territory.

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anastasia, you're partly right. But actually the studies show that FRIENDS have more influence over kids' values than parents do.

Kea, you might find this Newsweek article relevant. It just came out. Basically the take-home is that it's a double-bind, as usual. Damned if you pretend like it doesn't matter, but damned if you wander into a male-dominated field.

I just love the equation that
appearance + confidence = perceived intelligence

and that looks & confidence >> where you went to school.

Cuz yeah. I'll take the outgoing surfer from a total party school any day over a shy, graph-paper wearing genius from MIT... wait, what??

And in science, of course, confidence is the OPPOSITE of what they're looking for.

It's kind of funny to see the stereotypes turned around, but the end result in quality performance will probably still be what I should probably make my new motto:

"Mediocrity rules!"

 
At 3:04 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Yeah, OK article. I did a short stint of the short skirt, high heel business attire when I was younger. I'm not good looking but I've got the right curves and I was always healthy, which is most of the battle if you want to go down that road. After all, Paris Hilton is pretty plain underneath all the goop. What I just don't get is how people can find fake body parts sexually appealing.

Of course as a scientist, I have to dress like an uber dork. Some (supposedly professional) men still stare at the boobs, but now that I'm older (43 and starting to look older) they just mostly ignore me. I would quite like to return to dressing more fashionably, but I guess I'm waiting for ... I dunno, a life maybe.

 
At 5:50 PM, Blogger Jade Ed said...

Very nice post. I posted this comment earlier but received an error so here it is again just in case you didn't get it the first time.

I'm not sure that the reason young girls shy away from science is because of how it will make them look. I knew I wanted to be a scientist at a very young age and my dad, seeing that, supported and encouraged it by giving me scientific toys like a dissecting set and microscope. My impression is that many scientists felt the love for science very early.

When I speak to my young nieces about science, I ask, what are you doing in school, what are you learning, etc. They don't have many good things to say about it (although my 10 year old niece did get the only 100% on her science project, I am proud to say.)

I think as women scientists, the best we can do is to interact with the young girls in our lives and see if they have the love for science and then encourage it.

I'm not sure at what age girls start to take notice of "looks"- I was a little behind the curve compared to other girls, being a tomboy and preferring sports to cheerleading.

What I don't like about the sexy scientist post is that beauty is not just what is on the outside. Beauty is so so much more than that. So those pictures, as Physioprof suggests, are more about lust and who the blogger wants to have sex with (putting it nicely). Not about beauty. It is all about looks. It is one dimensional.

However, as you say, I have nothing against the mention that women can be beautiful, modern, cool, saavy, sexy and smart too. I am all for celebrating the true beauty of women in science beyond the physical.

I don't think I would be insulted if I were listed there, however, the idea of my picture being posted solely for the purpose of men to fantasize what I would look like with their cock in my mouth doesn't sound appealing. Men may be thinking about that anyway, as a matter of course, but when the blogger makes a post as he did, the sole point is for the purpose of judging the women's images as sex objects and not as women. And it invites others to share that vision.

In biotech, men on occasion bypass the filter that prevents their thoughts from shooting out their mouth. It doesn't bother me. I understand their dysfunction. But having my picture posted on the web as something to sexually appreciate might be a bit much, especially when the picture is not intended for that purpose.

The original blogger could have shown more class.

 
At 6:25 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Kea, this made me laugh:

After all, Paris Hilton is pretty plain underneath all the goop.

So true!


Thanks, Jade Ed. Good points.

And I agree re: girls being scared of science and how they might look - that's basically what I told my friend. I wasn't deterred by the stereotype of how scientists look. I always thought Thelma on Scooby Doo was great. Who wouldn't want to be the smartest person in the room?

re: biotech and dysfunctional men, I'm glad it doesn't bother you.

I don't care so much when it's guys I don't work with directly, or who don't let it interfere with the work.

But all too often that kind of mentality reveals how they ultimately treat me and my contributions - like something for them to partake in for their enjoyment or advantage, and then throw away, no thanks or authorship or remuneration necessary.

 
At 9:15 PM, Blogger Dr.Girlfriend said...

I was not on that list either - outrageous!

So what if scientists want to feel pretty in the lab? Is that so bad? So long as it is not part of the job description to dress up or down, I have no problem.

No one should be a scientist 24-7, and I honestly do not feel strongly one way or the other about real scientists playing up their sexy image.

What I do object to is selling science with images of freshmen women, rather than more accomplished scientists.

 
At 6:34 AM, Blogger R.B. said...

If we use sexy lady scientists to draw interest, that demeans all female scientists. And what about the not-so-sexy scientists? Women in science are passed over enough without having their lack of sex appeal shoved in their faces.

Why can't we by-pass sexy and just show female scientists having fun? Because being sexy is what young girls think they need to be happy, but if their role models already look happy, maybe they'll forget about the sexy part of the equation.

Friends and media were definitely what helped shape my perceptions. That's why I hate 'The Big Bang Theory' so much. (Granted, I haven't watched many episodes, so maybe there are some regular lady scientists now who aren't only respected because of their scary vagina power over the nerds.)

 
At 11:36 AM, Anonymous prodigal academic said...

I hate shopping and I've never cared much about my appearance (other than wanting to appear clean and neat). I never wear makeup, hardly ever wear heels (never uncomfortable shoes), have never owned a hair dryer or anything more complicated than a brush, and wear comfortable clothing (usually pants/shorts). I am not alone--there are probably many women/girls who are practical about their appearance. We just get ignored in discussions about women and looks. I don't think there is anything wrong with women who want to dress up/wear makeup/look conventionally "pretty" or "feminine". It is just not for me.

I think "sexy women of science" turns more girls off than gets them interested. Do we really want to tell smart girls that looks are the most important thing? Stuff like that also sends a message to men that it is OK to leer at women and that all women exist to be looked at. It does annoy me when people don't believe I am a scientist, but I don't think things like that blog post will help.

I don't think that girls are turned away from science by fear of how they will look. They are pushed away by society telling them their interests are not their interests, or don't matter because they can't do them, or shouldn't matter because nice girls don't do that.

Women are turned away from science by lots of things, but I don't think looks are one of them either.

 
At 12:17 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

@R.B., you said Women in science are passed over enough without having their lack of sex appeal shoved in their faces.

But I think the point of the article I linked to is that women are passed over for lack of sex appeal all the time, in all fields. It's not specific to science, but we're not immune, either.

Why can't we by-pass sexy and just show female scientists having fun?

Good idea! That's what really got me into science. But it's still a job. And it's not all fun. In fact, most of the people I know who dropped out of benchwork quit when they discovered just how much WORK it can be to get to the fun part.

I hate "The Big Bang Theory" too. I think it propagates harmful stereotypes, even if much of it is true, I think it sends the message that smart down to earth girls should do something other than science.

prodigal academic, you said the same thing that R.B. said, Do we really want to tell smart girls that looks are the most important thing? But the latest studies I cited above show that looks ARE the most important thing, second only perhaps to "confidence".

you also said they are pushed away by society telling them their interests are not their interests, or don't matter because they can't do them

And I absolutely agree.

 
At 5:33 PM, Blogger GMP said...

Like Ms PhD, I just could not get upset by that post (15 sexy scientist or something). It just didn't seem like... anything really. It wasn't really offensive. It was just a list of pics that dude pulled from the web.

On the issue of attractiveness -- I think women scientists are as beautiful as any other group of women (there's a distribution of looks, of course, over any random sample), they are usually just lower maintenace than the women in, say, corporate world. And I don't think straight women scientists have much trouble getting boyfriends/husbands -- virtually ALL female faculty in my college were already married when they started TT, so it's not like men are fleeing from these women in horror because they are unattractive.

Looks are just looks -- they are not irrelevant of course, especially in the realm of sexual attraction and dating. When I first met my husband, he and I found each other very physically attractive; does that make us particularly shallow? I don't think so; we are as human as nonscientists.

I agree with prodigal academic that looks (whether too good or not too good) are not the biggest trouble that smart girls face in their lives/careers. The problem is that the society tells girls that their brains do not belong with their genitalia.

 
At 5:42 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Right, but... See the thing is, I think there's pretty good data to show that attractive smart women are more "threatening" than ugly smart women, and also that they get in more trouble because they can't "pass" without being noticed.

I've seen the logic go like this:

"Oh wow, she's ugly! Oh, but she's smart. That's good. Because I kind of feels sorry for her being so ugly. Well I guess it's good she's smart then. And she seems to know she's ugly, so that's good. That will keep her in her place. I guess we can hire her since she probably won't cause too much trouble."

vs.

"Oh wow, she's cute! And not an idiot! Aw, how cute. The cute girl is not a complete moron. Wait a minute... she's also not willing to put up with being hit on? What a bitch! Walking around looking cute like that and not even appreciating all the attention! She doesn't deserve a job at all with that kind of attitude!"

 
At 6:17 PM, Blogger Kea said...

... she's also not willing to put up with being hit on? What a bitch!

LOL, MsPhD, yes. There really is no way to win. I had an idea for an online poll recently: ask all tenured female academics in male dominated fields what their bra size is. I haven't looked at these stats, but I'll bet you a million dollars that the distribution does not match that of the general population.

 
At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPhD at 5:42,
That's *exactly* my experience. I started a new job, and was sniffed out by a leering male immediately. When he realized I had a brain and I wouldn't fuck him, he dissed me for a research collaboration quite rudely. I was told by women technicians that he would "try to get in my pants since I'm cute" after I told them how he went cold on me for asking questions about the research methods (he realized I knew more than him, it's a travesty, oh noes). I'm not missing his shitty shit shit treatment and stonewalling, and he's getting no help from me at all. I moved my workspace away from him so he can't stare at me from behind all fucking day. Ew. I told our supervisor that I will not be working with him on any projects, because I don't need his crap, er uh, input. Over the years, this same bullshit has played over and over.
jc

 
At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know, maybe it's a bit discipline dependent, but I never had anything even remotely as creepy happen to me as what Anon 5:42 says. Maybe Anon is really very cute (I am average looking and quite tall). The young guys in my field are mostly geeky and fairly harmless.

 
At 9:04 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

jc,

That sucks. I really hoped your new job would be better in that regard.

Still, I'm always kind of amused to see that change on their faces when I start asking questions and they realize I actually know something. Like they literally freeze in their tracks and start looking terrified.


Anon 12:08,

I do think there's something different about being shorter vs. tall re: whether men expect to be able to intimidate you. Based on my observations IRL, taller women don't have to deal with half as much of this shit as shorter women do.

I wonder if it's also because sometimes the worst men are the shorter ones - they're insecure among other men, so they at least expect to be in charge of the women. But they can't intimidate anyone taller than they are.

It's like the old joke about the dude who kicks the dog who bites the postal worker.

In this scenario, the dog is the short man. And we're going postal from being bitten and barked at every day at work.

 
At 9:18 AM, Anonymous FrauTech said...

I just responded to this on my own blog...in sumnation: these photos aren't selling science with sex. They are selling sex with "science." These aren't for young women or little girls to not be afraid to be feminine and be a scientist, they are for skeevy internet dudes who find smart is sexy, but most importantly value sexy first. Stop by if you want the longer version, or to share your own viewpoins: http://frautech.blogspot.com

 
At 12:03 PM, Anonymous anonyMAN said...

uhm EXCUSE ME!

you seem to be a bright and interesting person who has some really relevant and fair things to say. then why do you proceed to make a sexist remark about manipulation? that makes you look pretty stupid.. sorry to say. I still mean the stuff about bright and interesting you know! but that makes it worse actually. you are bright so you have the responsibility to not say sexist stuff. Men do NOT manipulate more. so PIPE DOWN WOMAN! :) byee

 
At 6:25 PM, Blogger Billabongin00 said...

Ok, personally, I love women of science, the brainier the better, and if she's balanced with streets smarts & free spiritness.... I would be in love forever.

Is there a dating website for 'people of science' for this black surfer boy :)

Help!!

 

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