Sex(ism) in Science

‘Round the blogosphere the past few days there has been an interesting dialogue about sex in science and more to the point, sexism in society.

Seems a guy named Luke who runs an atheism blog, put together a list of “sexy scientists.”  I first heard about it when wellknown, respected–and yes, beautiful–scientist Sheril Kirshenbaum tweeted, “Should I be offended? Would you be? Hmmmm…” when she was included on the list.

Ms. Kirshenbaum promised a response on Monday (today) and over the weekend hundreds of comments were made on various blogs and via twitter about the sexy scientist list.  In the meantime, I asked or read the thoughts of a few other women.

The only other woman on the list I heard from, commented on the original post.  Abigail Smith, who blogs over at scienceblogs, only had 1 unapproving remark to make, “thats a crappy pic of me, LOL!”

Woman at Microscope
Of course, the first person I asked about a “sexy scientist” list was Mrs. AmoebaMike.  You may not know, Mrs. AmoebaMike is a biochemist–a darn good one too.  She is a bachelor’s level biochemist, which means she doesn’t have the publications that most scientists thrive on, but she continually is given more and more responsibilities at work and is praised heavily by her superiors.  She’s toying with the idea of a double-masters, but whether or not she goes that route, she’s still darn good at what she does.  She’s also beautiful.  Everyone has different tastes, so I know she isn’t a 10 on everyone’s list; and that’s okay.  But she’s in a world of nickels and dimes, she’ll always be my silver dollar.

(For the record, Mrs. AmoebaMike makes her sound old, but she’s not even 30 yet.)

Mrs. AmoebaMike said she wouldn’t be offended if she were included on such a list.  Which is actually saying a lot, because in general, she doesn’t like men ogling her.  The other women I talked to felt the same way.  To summarize their feelings, the ladies I spoke to felt like it’s nice to be recognized for your beauty.

Of course, some women would rather you not notice their appearance at all.  I came across responses that correlated sexual harassment with men’s perception of a ladies attractiveness.  I think that’s horrible that women would rather be not looked at by any man because of the few who are unethical and illegal in their courtship.

In the debate, many thought that by recognizing a scientist as a female men are inherently showing their sexist attitudes.  Because women are the minority, men aren’t allowed to appreciate them? That doesn’t seem right to me.  Part of the issue is that attractiveness is genetic, the same way a black quarterback can’t change his race, a female scientist can’t change into a man.  Are Warren Moon and Donovan McNabb not great quarterbacks? Does the fact that they’re black mean anything to their accomplishments?  Are Eminem and Vanilla Ice even remotely related just because they’re both white in a non-white dominated genre of music? Hardly. Eminem is one of the greatest lyricists and rappers of his generation.

Another side of the issue is that beauty can be worked at, or if you prefer, enhanced–or downplayed–by use of clothing, makeup, and beauty products.  Is Maria Bartiromo just a newsgirl because she’s pretty? Maria is one of the most respected journalists in the tv-financial-news sector.  There are plenty of pretty newsgirls, or “money honeys” in the financial sector, that come across as vapid. Maria doesn’t downplay her looks. Why should she?

Girls learning scienceI know plenty of woman who are in the sciences and girls who are going into STEM fields.  At times, I feel naive to the issues of women in the workforce and our culture.  Crude comments such as, “I’d hit that,” aren’t something that cross my mind.  When I hear about sexual harassment, I’m so appalled; sexual harassment is so far from my daily life.  When I was in elementary school, I had a black girl in my class.  I thought, “so this is a black person; what’s the big deal? She’s just like anyone else.”  I have the same reaction regarding women.  I never see them as less than a man. I never think they got where they are by sleeping with the boss.  Heck, I’m convinced women could rule the world if they wanted to.  The only reason they don’t is because women (collectively) don’t have enough confidence in themselves.

Should women just ignore the crass comments? Is there a better solution? I’ve read that some feel reporting offenses or making a scene cast them as “whiny” or unable to take care of themselves.  But more importantly, why do men feel it’s okay to make such passes?  In workplaces across the country, many women and men will happily try a relationship with a coworker.  Work can be a good place to meet someone special… you are there for the majority of your waking hours every day!  Sure, sometimes a man will be interested in a woman who doesn’t reciprocate the feelings.  The man should still be allowed to civilly express interest and politely move along when he’s rejected.

If 1 approach is rejected, why do some men think a new task is at hand to get the woman to change her mind? Not all men are driven by such competition.   I’ve always been bad with girls, but it seems like, “you know, I think you’re kinda cool, wanna grab some lunch?” is a pretty straight-forward approach to at least testing the waters of friendship.  Because if she doesn’t want to have lunch with me, she surely doesn’t want to date me or take me home, no matter what some men may think.  Sadly, it seems much of the harassment comes from the same birthplace as rape.

Some time late last year, I read a post on a blog that really made sense to me.  Schrödinger’s Rapist basically described Schrödinger’s cat in terms of a rapist.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, I’ll break it down for you quickly (just keep in mind this is an oversimplification):

A thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat basically shows that in quantum mechanics, if you put a cat in a box it is both alive and dead at the same time.  As long as you never look in the box to know, it will always exist in both states.

Back to Schrödinger’s Rapist: at any given time a woman will not know if a man is a rapist.  Unless he’s actually raping her, he will always exist as someone who both will and will not rape her.  So if a man takes a lady to dinner, or honks his car horn at her while she’s jogging, or grabs her butt at a conference, he might–or might not–rape her.  It’s a sad way to view the world, but if you thought any man at any time might want to rape you, it certainly would make you pay closer attention.

If a man thinks it’s okay to proposition a woman for sex without courting her first, something in his “social” must be broken.  I honestly see it as one step away from sexual assault.  Sure, it’s a big step, and rape is far more heinous an act than some (most?) men are willing to commit, but is that because it’s wrong.  Or illegal?

Looks are biologically important to us.  Evolutionarily, they help us determine who will be a good mate, based on likelihood to conceive and care for our young.  I’m not saying we should dismiss looks altogether.  I appreciate the aesthetics of a beautiful woman as much as anyone.  But men, we need to change the way we view women.  They are not here for us.  They are as, if not more, smart and hardworking than we are.  (Unfortunately, some women are just as guilty of devaluing women.)  Let’s change the vernacular:

Instead of “that new brunette is hot, I bet she’s banging the boss,” how about “that new girl is gorgeous, I hope the boss doesn’t make unwarranted advances.”  Instead of “first time at this conference, how about we go upstairs and I show you my room?” maybe “if this is your first time at this conference, I can show you the best place to eat, can I give you my number?” would be more successful.  And instead of “I’d tap that,” you could grow up and say, “wow, she’s stunning, I hope she’s as smart and funny as she is beautiful.”

Oh, and as for Sheril Kirshenbaum, as promised, she posted her response today.  I encourage you to read her perspective and keep in mind, as she says, that she doesn’t speak for her entire gender.  But the short version–how I read it–was that she likes people to think of her as beautiful, but likes it even more when someone notices something about her that is less fleeting than beauty.  Turns out that not only is Sheril a good scientist, a widely-read journalist/author, and a beautiful woman, she’s also classy and intelligent.


7 Responses

  1. If someone asked me if I minded being on such a list? I would have said no. I would be flattered. I didn’t get why Sheril was so upset. Until I saw the list.

    One thing I’ve learned from this whole debacle is that there are countless sides to this discussion. Gender and science issues have become so nuanced that it’s hard to think straight about any of this. There are definite wrongs, and definite rights, and too much gray area in between. I can say that I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here, so thumbs up to you for your ability to recognize beauty & brains, and thumbs up to Mrs. AmoebaMike for knowin’ how to pick ’em.

  2. […] Sex(ism) in Science by AmoebaMike […]

  3. The list/post in itself was, at the end of the day was not so much offensive (to me) as much as made of fail. Including only female scientists without including anything about their work other than their name and field? Way to demonstrate what sexy really means to *you*, Luke. /rolleyes

    What was more WTF-inducing were the responses people—men and women alike—got for pointing out that the post was made of fail, or saying that it made them uncomfortable, or whatever. Some of them were absolutely ridiculous.

  4. I’m of two minds here. There is something to be said for promoting the idea that brains and sexiness coexist. There is a reason that my current celeb crushes are Rachel Maddow, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Jon Stewart. Good lookin folks with amazing brains. Oh, and Kari from Mythbusters. yes.

    When we think scientist, we tend to think of the stereotype – pasty, unattractive, weak. So, these lists buck that stereotype. but I think that Katherine nailed it – a list that uses ONLY looks kills the point. I crush on geeks because they have brains and looks, not because they have looks despite the brains. This list seemed to say “Ooh look! Hot chicks! And smart too, but that’s beside the point.”

    A far bigger fail, IMHO, is the lack of diversity here. I get that its this guy’s list of who he is attracted to, and boy, can we spot his type. But still, not one brown skinned person up there. Sad.

  5. Thank you for the comments ladies. I think you all make wonderful points.

    …except, rocketscientista, I think you meant props to me for picking an awesome wife. And I agree, she’s fantastic!

  6. […] of her latest book–on kissing.  As for her being a hottie, well, that’s been a story once or twice before.  And before I’m pitchforked by the mob, Sheril_ agreed to allow me to post […]

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