How Do Sexist Comments Affect Women in STEM?

The annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience brings together neuroscientists from around the world to discuss cutting edge research relevant to their fields of study.

Unfortunately, this year’s conference will be known less for advancements in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders and more for the comments of one participant—evolutionary biologist Dr. Dario Maestripieri from the University of Chicago.  On Sunday, October 14, 2012 Dr. Maestripieri posted the following message on Facebook,

“My impressions of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.  There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women.  The super model types are completely absent.  What is going on?  Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience?  Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?  No offense to anyone..”

We can argue whether or not these comments are merely an observation made by a prominent, tenured faculty member specializing in evolutionary biology.    After all, Dr. Maestripieri has openly commented on his blog  that, “Good-looking people are more appealing as potential sex partners and other people choose to interact with them (to spend time near them, talk with them, buy insurance from them, and hire them as employees) so as to increase the chances to have sex with them.”  Or, as some have suggested, a private “joke” intended for 400 Facebook friends and colleagues (personally, the phrase “No offense to anyone..” disavows any claim that this was intended to be a joke).  Regardless of his intentions, these comments provide a real world example to a recent PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy for Sciences) article examining gender biases among scientific faculty in academia.

In case you are unfamiliar with this study, Moss-Raucusin et al., determined that scientific faculty members hire fewer women, offer lower wages, and provide less mentorship to female scientists compared to their male counterparts.  In other words, female scientists, even with credentials identical to their male counterparts, are often viewed as incompetent.    Prior to this study, the misconception for a lack of tenured females in STEM fields was due to family obligations.  It was incorrectly hypothesized that women were at a disadvantage since the critical period in an associate scientist’s career typically coincides with starting a family, thus resulting in lost research year(s) necessary for tenure procurement.  Moss-Raucusin’s study has driven a rather large nail into the coffin of that theory.

Why do I bring this up?  After all, Dr. Maestripieri’s comments did not state any gender bias.  Rather, his comments have taken us further down the rabbit hole.  These comments dig directly at a rarely spoken but prevailing fear of many women in STEM.  Look unattractive and colleagues won’t pay attention to you.  Look too attractive and your research won’t be taken seriously.   There’s no better example than  Nobel laureate Dr. James Watson’s comments in The Double Helix regarding Rosalind Franklin “neglecting to emphasize her feminine qualities.”  I think we all know what happened with her X-ray crystallography data.

The most disconcerting aspect of all of this isn’t that the comments were said (obviously, one must look past the blatantly sexist remarks… made at an international convention… with 28,000 of his peers), but rather Dr. Maestripieri’s role at the University of Chicago.  Whether it be lab managers, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, associate or tenured professors, Dr. Maestripieri has had a role in determining their career progression.  His feelings towards attractive women may or may not have influenced hiring or promotions (either consciously or subconsciously), regardless, Dr. Maestripieri has shown extreme bias towards sexualizing female colleagues while simultaneously denigrating their scientific prowess.

Dr. Maestripieri, with your Facebook post, you have single handedly trivialized every achievement made by female scientists.  Maybe it’s time to hang up your Journal of Neuroscience subscription for some other periodicals.

I think Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt can accommodate.

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About Kevin Hascup

Kevin obtained his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Delaware in 2001.  He worked in Research & Development for Dade Behring, a clinical diagnostics company located in Newark, Delaware.  It was here that he acquired an interest in neurobiology and in the summer of 2003 he began the PhD program at the University of Kentucky.  In 2007, Kevin obtained his PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and continued his thesis research  with two  separate postdoctoral research positions at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.  Kevin is currently Director of Product Development for an up-and-coming biotechnology located in Springfield, Illinois and is co-founder of RateMyPI.com. 
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2 Responses to How Do Sexist Comments Affect Women in STEM?

  1. Anne says:

    A great post on a facebook comment probably not meant to offend anyone, but certainly showcasing the difficulties women in science still encounter. My personal experience with discrimination based on level of attractiveness, is that women who are too attractive are suspected of getting a free ride and not having to work as hard as others (as I wrote about in a blog a while back: http://www.annesteino.com/1/post/2012/10/female-scientists-like-biking-uphill-in-the-rain-with-a-head-wind-pulling-a-trailer-full-of-rocks.html), but I am sure the opposite is also true.

  2. L says:

    Very, very sad behavior for a scientist. And his last sentence on his facebook message solidifies his cluelessness. Is it 2012? And people wonder why less women remain in STEM…

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