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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

While You Were At the Bench: Week 40

It’s been a busy week for scientists, but here are some of the highlights.

Contrary to the belief that retracted journal articles are due to simple errors, a recent PNAS article found that 67.3% of retracted journal articles are due to fraudulent data.  Com’n people.  We’re better than this!

Columbia University ophthalmologists used human induced pluripotent stem cells to improve the vision of blind mice.  This approach may be useful for restoring vision in humans with macular degeneration and other retinal deficits.

Kyoto University researchers successfully used mouse embryonic stem cells to develop oocytes that produced viable offspring once fertilized and implanted into a surrogate mother.   This method could lead to new infertility therapies but raises potential ethical and legal issues.

Where’s Nemo?  A study conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science has determined the Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral in the last 27 years.  The contributors?  Cyclones (48%), Crown-of-Thorns Starfish (42%) and Bleaching (10%).

By measuring different isotopes of Carbon from ice core samples obtained in Greenland, researchers have determined the amount of methane produced by humans in the last 2000 years.  Human sources of methane production has increased dramatically since the start of industrial revolution in the 1800′s.

Has the Curiosity Rover discovered an ancient riverbed on Mars?  The photos look rather convincing.

In a follow-up to a previous blog regarding genetically modified food, the European Food Safety Authority has determined that a French study supporting the toxic effects of genetically modified corn was poorly designed and therefore does not support the conclusions made in the paper.  The authors have until October 12th to address concerns raised by the agency.

Geologists are attempting to drill 6 kilometers beneath the Pacific Ocean sea floor to obtain the first ever sample of the Earth’s mantle.  Maybe they can retrieve Brendan Fraser’s acting career while they are down there.  Zing!

Have a great weekend.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,