Women and science

The mooks over at Conservapedia love to parade out old studies that show statistically insignificant leads for boy over girls in math and science. Despite this heavy dose of misogynistic idiocy, it’s no secret men outnumber women in science. Go one step further: famous men outnumber famous women by a longshot. In thinking of just 10 scientists, Lynn Margulis is the only female that comes to mind.

So when commenters focused on the looks of Sheril Kirshenbaum, she became understandably annoyed.

Now folks, I’m not naive. I recognize everyone forms preconceived notions based on visual and nonverbal cues. As it happens, my next book deals with science and sexuality, so this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately off the blog. Naturally, attention to physical appearance has been hardwired into our neural circuitry over a few millenia, however, you better believe it’s never acceptable judge anyone based on appearances and number of X chromosomes. And of course I’ve noticed the science blogosphere is buzzing over some neanderthal comments from Monday about my photo. After Phil was kind enough to welcome Chris and I to Discover Blogs, I was disappointed to read several of the responses. For example:

    as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.

Or even less articulate:

    mmmmmmmm……….. wo-man

Okay, I get it. People are focusing on her looks rather than her credentials. But let’s take a look at that first quote. In full.

Having not read any of their material, I am supremely unqualified to comment on any of their writings.

But, as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.

That’s just bad practice. While Kirshenbaum has a valid overall point, she misquotes a person. I thought reasoned people had left that up to creationists and other stupid conservatives.

Let’s keep in mind what the original post was all about. It was an introduction. Is there a specific, pre-approved, politically correct response expected? I see an intro to a new blog, a short description, and a picture – the most prominent thing about the post – and not much else. It is entirely reasonable to comment on the picture. Naturally, some level of respect should be given. The above, misquoted commenter did that. He wasn’t vulgar, he noted that he cannot speak of Kirshenbaum’s science credentials, and only then did he say, “Hey, she’s pretty”. Kirshenbaum extends this to a broader point.

I doubt any of the aforementioned anecdotes–or the now infamous comments–were intended to be insulting, but they each highlight a broader social issue. Several female colleagues have similar stories of receiving sexually explicit emails and poetry, while I’ve yet to hear the fellows complain of unwanted advances (though surely that happens occasionally too). This is not an isolated problem, nor is it specific to me as an individual, rather it demonstrates that no matter how much the nature of science has changed, it continues to be very much a ‘boys club.’

This is somewhat inappropriate. Of course, science is a “boys club”. It is a field that is dominated by men, shown to the public through male spokespeople, and probably has a good deal of misogyny running amok. That cannot be extrapolated from a few posts that say “I am attracted to this person”. Let’s drive this home. Here’s another quote from that original post.

Is it just me, or do they look YOUNG? It must just be me getting old I guess. I look forward to reading what they post.

WHOA! WHOA! What’s with all the ageism? Come on, people! Science is such an ‘old persons club’. It’s ridiculous. How about some common respect for the young members of the field?

Don’t miss the point. Please.

Kirshenbaum has valid points and she makes them shine through her other anecdotes. The comments about her being attractive, however, do not illustrate her point. If they do, then I just equally illustrated a point about ageism.

From Kirshenbaum:

Now folks, I’m not naive. I recognize everyone forms preconceived notions based on visual and nonverbal cues. As it happens, my next book deals with science and sexuality, so this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately off the blog. Naturally, attention to physical appearance has been hardwired into our neural circuitry over a few millenia, however, you better believe it’s never acceptable [to] judge anyone based on appearances and number of X chromosomes.

First of all, I prefer accuracy so let’s augment that last statement a tad. It’s never acceptable to judge anyone based on appearances and number X chromosomes, in most instances. If I’m looking for someone to date, I’m definitely going to find a person to whom I am attracted. If that isn’t physical judgement, I don’t know what is. Second, from the comments I read, there was judgement being passed on Kirshenbaum’s looks, not her quality of science. One cannot necessarily take such comments to be outright ignoring her scientific credentials. The prettiest creationist in the world can open up a blog, but I’m not going to give it any praise for that reason. If I say, “Hey, that creationist is sure pretty, but she’s also pretty dumb”, the first part of my comment may be irrelevant, but it is not harmful and it says nothing of the creationists’ credentials – the latter part of the comment does that. Take out that latter part, and no comment was made on scientific credentials. In other words, no credentials were demeaned. If the post was about Kirshenbaum’s research on a particular topic and people focused on her looks, then, yes, that would be inappropriate and demeaning.

Hell, take the mook Sean Hannity. Torture yourself with just a few interviews. Women will often make the point that while he is attractive, his points are awful and misguided. In other words, “here’s a compliment, but it has no bearing on what I think about what you’re saying.”

Of course, not everyone is so innocent with their compliments. Some people are just saying it for the sake of saying it. If that’s all they’re saying, give ‘em hell. If they’re saying it in response to a picture accompanied by little more than a generic intro, it’s difficult to see a problem.

I really want to drive this home and I keep coming up with examples how. Take, for instance, a blogger who has a butt-ugly blog layout. Maybe some gross looking color scheme or whathaveyou. Even simply an ugly avatar. Would it be unreasonable for someone to say “I don’t know anything about John Doe’s science, but that is one ugly avatar/layout/whatever he has”?

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