Under The Microscope: Feminism, Scientists and Sexiness

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 19, 2010 8:48 am

Earlier this year Nicholas Kristof wondered aloud (via twitter), “Why are most pundits men?” In another context, we might ask why men compose 97% of OpEds in the Wall Street Journal. Both involve the hesitancy of women to express opinions. Yet prominent female voices in our culture matter tremendously because they help to define our place in society. But if men get cast into the spotlight, you might say that women are examined under the microscope. As an author, blogger, researcher, and former Hill staffer, I regularly observe problems with the status quo across arenas. Rather then help women find their voices, we tend to send those testing the waters of public punditry dashing back out of focus.

smart mud flapHaving spent my formative years as a run-of-the-mill tomboy, I never considered using the “feminist” label and naively assumed that since I was as good at science and math as the boys, my sex wouldn’t matter. But a funny thing happened when I entered academia; I learned that when a woman expresses herself visibly in any traditionally male-dominated field, the platform comes with the expectation that she will address gender issues. And over time it becomes a necessity. Last week Luke Muehlhauser caused a stir when he included me on a list of “sexy scientists.” Early on that thread, “Hansen” noted:mudflap

Oh dear, you may be in serious trouble now for placing Sheril Kirshenbaum on that list.

The link leads to “Singled Out“: My response from March 2009 to the remarks about my appearance heard ’round the science blogosphere when Chris and I joined the Discover network. Luke followed up with a second post asking whether he’s sexist, a third summarizing the hundreds of comments piling in, and a fourth on objectification. He also emailed me personally and seems genuinely interested to hear my perspective. So I’ve decided to weigh in and explore the topic with readers.

Long before I set out to write a book dealing with human sexual behavior, I knew that evolution primed us to notice the alluring qualities of other members of our species. These are often indicative of health and fertility and women are held to different standards of judgment than men. But even if biology has an influence on how we behave, it’s not an adequate scapegoat. After all, we also have a large cerebral cortex that allows us to choose the way we interact in our communities.

In my profession today I work closely with many talented men.  We write on related topics and speak to similar audiences. Yet, I’m regularly reminded that I face many challenges they don’t have to deal with. No one jokingly whispers about their receptivity to sex during conferences just loud enough to overhear. No one questions whether they were hired so the boss could to get some “tail.” These kinds of experiences are common for women in and out of the ivory towers. We rarely complain for fear of being considered troublemakers or worse. We work hard and don’t want special treatment or penalization, so we turn a deaf ear, aware that some will never see past what’s on the surface. We stop speaking up and a negative feedback loop continues to reinforce gender roles over time.

Just consider the political arena: While candidates should never be chosen based on a number of X chromosomes, it would benefit everyone if women became more involved in the decision-making process given we represent about 50% of the population. But watching the way Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were each cast as stereotypes, ogled, and photo-shopped by the media during their 2008 campaigns, I often wondered to myself why any little girl would dream of being in that position someday?

So Mr. Kristof, that’s likely why there aren’t more female pundits and commentators. Increasing our numbers will involve changing cultural expectations by highlighting the accomplishments of a wider spectrum of women to demonstrate what we are capable of.

Returning to the hullabaloo over last week’s “sexy scientists” list, I honestly don’t think any real harm has been done to me personally. And it’s worth pointing out that in 2005 when Chris was named one of Wired Magazine’s “Sexiest Geeks,” no one complained. So while this may not be the way I’d most like to be featured, far worse items pop up across the Internet about me on a regular basis. To survive in the blogosphere, you grow a thick skin and keep in mind that there’s more to life than what happens online.

That said, I would like to see Luke, and others, think more carefully about the ripple effects of such posts. He can moderate his own site, but also doesn’t have to deal with the related extended commentary now percolating about the web because of his actions. For example, I’m currently receiving comments such as “I’d hit that,” which are promptly deleted, but do make me uncomfortable regardless. And since I can only filter content here, who knows what else is being added to message boards and websites elsewhere. In other words, it’s important to remember that words travel well beyond one’s own blog and can quickly get out of hand. That’s the nature of new media communication–you can’t control or keep up with what’s out there. So it’s important to acknowledge that there are often unintended consequences down the line for those unknowingly involved.

Additionally, in response to Luke’s commentors, I’ll clarify that I’m not offended by being called a “woman in science.” It’s an accurate description. (In fact, in a few months I’ll be moderating a L’Oreal/Discover panel on Capitol Hill about that very topic). When I wrote that “I’d rather not be labeled a woman in science,” I meant that I would prefer that others recognize there are more dimensions to who I am and what I do than those assigned by base pairs.

What I know for sure is that we need to find more ways to acknowledge women who speak up, take a nontraditional path, defy expectations, and contribute to society in and out of science. And there are better ways to do so than commentary on our physical assets. But I also want to emphasize that I appreciate the way Luke is taking the time to explore a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. When someone is willing to engage others and turn over ideas on sexism and gender–especially when they are attempting to understand the other side–it can be quite a constructive dialog. Further, this conversation isn’t really about photos on a blog post. It’s vastly more complex and deals with social and cultural mores and the objectification of females in our society.

In conclusion, given women will remain under the microscope indefinitely, I hope increasing numbers aim for high magnification for reasons beyond appearances. To achieve more equal representation in all realms, it will be necessary to identify and celebrate a diverse set of talented and motivated individuals so that they may become the role models our children deserve. Superficial beauty is ephemeral after all, so we we ought to spend more time focusing on the qualities that matter more and last indefinitely. And if we succeed, today’s visible voices will motivate the career aspirations of tomorrow’s leaders across the gender divide from Mars to Venus.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Related Posts:

(I will continue to update this list, so please add links in comments)

SeXy Science- You’re Doing It Wrong by rocketscientista

Because You Think Being A Girl Is Degrading by Nerdista

Sexism and Objectification by ramblingperfectionist

I have been objectified! by PZ Myers

Creating a “Photos of sexy women” post does not make one a skeevy sexist creep by Joé McKen

The 16 Sexiest Atheists by Geoff

Cientistas sensuais e lindas by Frank Coelho de Alcantara

If You Think I’m Sexy And You Like My Data by SheThought.com

Hot Scientist Babes Gate by Physioprof

Save us from the armchair philosopher with a blog. by Janet D. Stemwedel

Top 15 science hotties and labia-punching by Evil Monkey

Sex(ism) in Science by AmoebaMike

Now at Fark

Sexism and Sexiness, Science and Nature by Rebecca Stanek

Common Sense for Common Sense Atheism: don’t make a ‘Sexy Scientist’ list by Thrasymachus

The hotties of science by (It’s a …) Micro World (… after all)

Funny How That Works by Katherine

A small incidence in science and feminism by salim

“Sexy” Scientists, Objectification, and Feminism in Science, Part 1: Why Sexism Doesn’t Matter by Katherine

Is Science Sexist? by Alex Jellicoe

Sex, Intuition, and Evidence in Science by Chad Orzel

I Apologize for my ‘Sexy Scientists’ Post by Luke


Comments (54)

  1. There is evidence that male babbling (what you kindly call Punditry) is a Zahavian handicap.

    During both fetal development and puberty, male brains are subject to damage from hormonal processes that convert the female body and neural system into a male one (more or less). This causes males to be, on average, poor at communication. They don’t understand what they hear as well as females, can’t form their thoughts into words as well, and most interestingly, can’t think about one thing while carrying on a conversation with another human at the same time, as females routinely do.

    Therefore, ability to communicate at all, let alone well, is very difficult given the HANDICAP of this developmental brain damage. Public communication (babbling/punditry) would indicate relatively high quality for any male that could do it. Thus, all that male babbling.

    This does not mean that we expect the actual pundits to be ‘sexy’ males. But they are trying ever so hard.

  2. Good post.

    There’s really a lot going on in the sort of “hotties of science” posts that come up, and they cut on a lot of levels. If they’re only about women, that’s definitely not a good thing: it accents the perception that scientists are men, and women stand out as a completely different sort of scientist; it enforces the idea that only men are interested in science, because it adds “sexy women” to the list of interests of the readers of scientific blogs, along with you know, the actual science topics. Along these lines, it also tends to be heteronormative, and generally assumes that all readers are straight men.

    If there are regularly both lists of men and women (or single lists of both), it may go back the other way, and tend to humanize sciencey folks, who tend to be thought of as sexless and almost alien. Tone obviously matters a whole heck of a lot: rarely are science bloggers posting pinup pictures of themselves to go along with their sites, so heavily-sexualizing people for basically having a face can get very rude pretty quickly, rather than just showing scientists as the sort of clever, attractive, likable people that you’d want to hang out with.

  3. Great and very important post, Sheril – and sadly enough, it resonates very strongly with me. I work for an incredible influential and high-powered PI. She is never afraid to ask questions and is unquestionably brilliant. But so many of my peers (usually in other labs) don’t like her: she’s too pushy, works too hard (“Doesn’t she have a husband and kids? Does she ever spend time with them?”), networks too much, is too aggressive. Qualities that would be praised in any male PI are perceived as negative qualities in her – perhaps because she is not traditionally “feminine” enough.

    And beyond that there are all the comments I personally get, both in the lab and at happy hour, as a blonde 23-year old technician. The worst part is that sometimes I feel myself giving into them, becoming more fearful of speaking up in lab meeting or defending my methods and results. And then there’s the inkling feeling that everyone suspects I was only hired because I’m a 23-year old blonde chick.

    Men and woman are different, for sure, but sexism should not get in the way of intellectual pursuit. A huge step is drawing notice to this issue. So I thank you for that.


  4. Excellent thoughts about an ongoing issue. Agree with your comments about “woman in science” and your preference to be recognized simply as a scientist. We’re still not there yet. Women scientists need to be BOLD. They need to share their science by getting their faces and stories out to the public. There is a certain amount of self-promotion required and women are not always comfortable with that task, especially women who would rather be hidden in their lab working on their science.

  5. PJay

    The craven, skulking utterances of so many emasculated men is best exemplified by Greg Ladens posting below.

    Sad that they do not know how to be masculine (it was beaten out of them by years of feminised education, sexist, anti-male “feminism”, and a mistaken cultural message that “male = bad, female = good”), ashamed that they are not feminine (read his letter), such half-men are numerous and belligerent in American society.

    Perhaps Greg’s brain damage is behind his posting such crippled, self-abnegating prose.

    Sorry Greg. We know the soft pseudo-science of evolutionary psychology is hot right now. After all, academia is full of self-hating near males like yourself.

    That doesn’t make the bastard child of 70’s women’s studies and weak psychology any less fictional.

    Nor does it make your sneering, metrosexual puling any more tolerable.

  6. I’ll jump in and agree with Debra, on several accounts. I don’t want to need to be labeled as woman in science, it’s just that there are few enough of us that we should step up and tell the dudes, “hey, we are here,” and show everyone we’re not taking all of this sitting down. It sucks to feel like (as you mentioned in your earlier post) that you somehow always represent your “camp” when speaking about an issue that has many sides. It sucks to not just have it be the science, but it isn’t. Because while we can do some pretty rad science, we do still have to deal with shit like this, which becomes part of our narratives whether we like it or not.

    I think you’ve done a wonderful job voicing your opinion and frustration here. Not being one of the oogled, I can’t imagine what that felt like to find yourself on that post. But one thing I will say is- it seems like most (save the needlessly grody commenters) have handled this pretty well. An open dialogue is better than being winked at and dismissed, right? One step closer?

  7. Reports of the emasculation of American men by a ‘feminised education’ are greatly exaggerated.

  8. For an alternative viewpoint on gender feminism, books that might be worth reading are Hoff-Sommers, Chistinia. (1995). Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York: Simon & Schuster. or possible Pinker, Steven. 2003. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. USA: Penguin Books.

    Perhaps it might be useful for those genuinely interested in promoting feminism to focus on things like equal pay for equal work and situations where women are being shown hate or contempt (which is not the same as being hit on, however disgusting the male hitting on you may be).

    This may be a more successful tactic compared to the fashionable tendency (described by Dr. Laden) to attribute pathology to millions of healthy males.

  9. @ 6 rocketscientista

    An open dialogue is better than being winked at and dismissed, right? One step closer?

    I hope so.

  10. #8 – I wouldn’t underestimate the relationship between contempt for women and aggressive hitting on. Nobody makes the argument that flirting is the same as contempt; that’s a straw man. But street catcalls, like the “I’d hit that” comments that Sheril reports, aren’t that. Those aren’t attempts to engage women in pursuit of a relationship, but bald assertions of contempt.

  11. Megan Dawson

    Excellent response, it warms my heart to see Sheril using her influence for the good of women (in science and beyond) seeking to break into traditionally male-dominated fields.

    The only way to bring attention to the negative side of praise for being awesome (+ attractive) is through this kind of neutral analysis with a personal story. It brings in those who don’t understand what’s wrong with such “harmless” or “flattering” attempts to praise powerful women’s accomplishments without being able resist the urge to comment on her attractiveness. While you can’t convice everyone, at least a few will hopefully think more critically about how high-achieving women are treated. And that’s good for all women. Thanks for setting such a good example. 😀

  12. Later, we’ll have a discussion on recognizing humor, satire, sarcasm, and irony on the internet. It is hard, but it can be done.

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    There is a fundamental difference between the place that appearance has in the political careers of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Sarah Palin has blatantly traded in her appearance, she has done so repeatedly and obviously, frequently going well past the point of bad taste. Hillary Clinton, and the large majority of women in politics have not and many certainly don’t.

    Palin is not alone in that Scott Brown has certainly done the same thing, some people in Mass. are calling him “Pretty Boy Brown” as he trades in his looks and created persona in pretty much the same way. It’s far more common in Republicans than in Democrats.

    The way to suppress sexism is to make people expressing it uncomfortable with doing it, consistently and every time.

  14. Very nicely stated. It’s important to point out that the 2005 Wired article on “Sexy Geeks” was written by a woman. Because of gender inequality in our society it is very different for a man to be singled out as sexy by a woman than the reverse. Men control most positions of power and prestige and never have to consider that being ogled demeans their reputation or abilities. This comfort level (what is called male privilege) is taken for granted by most men and needs to be acknowledged before there can be any discussion about gender equality. Some male readers may object and insist that there should be gender parity on this issue, that a woman can objectify a man just as easily as the reverse. Yes, but gender inequality matters. If you don’t think so perform a simple thought experiment. You’re walking alone on a dark street when three women approach you and say, “Hey baby, where are you going?” Now imagine the same scenario with the genders reversed. Muehlhauser probably never considered that posting his list of sexy scientists could result in online harassment. Hopefully now he’ll reflect on his decision and try to empathize with those he was objectifying. Those who consider themselves “skeptics” should make a concerted effort to be skeptical about the assumptions inherent in patriarchy to the same degree that they’re skeptical of religion.

  15. Samantha Snyder

    I’m never sure where I soundly stand on this.

    On one hand, I don’t agree with employers being encouraged to hire more women, because then instead of not being hired because I’m female, I’ll be hired because I’m female. It’s still discrimination. That doesn’t change just because it’s in my favor now.

    On the other hand, I openly welcome compliments on my looks. I see them as a useful tool. There’s a reason that the best salesmen and public speakers are attractive. People are more inclined towards those with nice looks. I’ve read some decent arguments that a major factor in Kennedy becoming president was his good looks. When people comment on girls being pretty, I think it may be a good thing. It proves that you can be pretty and smart, and it opens people’s eyes. The only time I see it as a bad thing is when they assume that because I don’t look hideous, I will be dumb. In these rare cases, I carry the advantage of surprise and it’s easier to outshine my competition, even that outlook has it’s perks.

    What makes me angry is the negative connotation that now comes with being pretty in the sciences. That it’s BAD for people to notice your looks. I’ve been told by career coaches to avoid wearing make-up at all, (obviously I wouldn’t be rocking fuchia lipstick and eyeshadow.) to keep my clothes from showing curves, and to keep my hair in a very simple pony tail. I’m aware of the difference between club wear and office wear, but I was being told to look as bland as possible, ESPECIALLY on presentation days.

    I’m still young, and decent looking by default of youth. I’m in electrical engineering and there aren’t many more male dominated groups. If a guy thinks that I’m good at my job and that I have pretty eyes or a nice tush, I’m glad he noticed all of those things. If he only notices the physical aspects, then he had better hope we’re not competing for the same promotion, because his underestimation gives me an upper hand. 🙂

  16. Dr. Laden, you may be surprised how often such arguments are stated in all seriousness.

  17. PJay

    @Greg Laden

    “Later, we’ll have a discussion on recognizing humor, satire, sarcasm, and irony on the internet. It is hard, but it can be done.”

    My bad. But Emil Karlsson has it right.

    Got to look into that spastic knee…..

  18. Sorbit

    It might have been slightly better if the blogger had also posted the qualifications and achievements of the women whose pictures he put up (PZ also made this point). Sexy Science is a blog run by a woman chemist who used to put up pictures of male chemists, but she also used to provide a lot of information about their work. That never looked this bad.

  19. But Greg, you’re almost TOO good. I wasn’t confident at first whether what you wrote was satire or seriousness! I first thought, surely Greg hasn’t moved in with the evo psychos…

    Sheril, thanks for writing this and sharing your thinking, and compiling the list of others who have weighed in.

  20. Scientists – men and women – can be “humanized” without being sexualized.

    Calling a dude a sexy geek enhances his status.

    Compiling a list of head shots of women scientists and juxtaposing it with a cheesecake shot of a babe in high heels and a lab coat and saying “hey look how hot these women are! i would totes do them all!” does not enhance their status. It reminds the world that their primary function is to be constantly available to any man to satisfy his wank desires. If she can do it as a geek wank fantasy, so much the better.

    Christina Hoff Sommers is only a feminist in her own mind. She is more properly characterized as anti-feminist, rightwing conservative. Also, she has no science cred whatsoever.

    Nobody can ever figure out what Greg Laden is talking about.

  21. PJay

    There is little “male privilege” in academia – it is a rigid, politically correct environment where maleness is seen as something to be punished, and female traits are rewarded.

    Duke University, anyone?

  22. On a gut-level, I’d expect this to be a bigger problem for women in male-dominated fields like physics and engineering and less so for women in biology and medicine. But is there any real evidence for that?

  23. Tim

    Thank you Samantha Snyder (#15) for articulating the (strangely elusive to many?) point that there can be upsides to being both good-looking and smart.

    I happen to agree that policies that explicitly favour marginalised groups are the wrong way to go. In fact I would say that despite good intentions, they tend to have the opposite effect — they are divisive, because of peer perception that those chosen are undeserving. An especially cruel twist is that these perceptions affect even those people (often the majority) who would have been chosen anyway.

    It’s a shame that you’re advised to “drab-down” your clothing, and a worse shame that this is possibly good advice given the ongoing prevalence of the “pretty=dumb/undeserving” attitude. I sincerely hope that this lifts soon. I believe it must, if for no other reason than simple economics: those who ignore a pool of talent long enough will ultimately be outcompeted.

  24. Emil, I was present at the birth of Evolutionary Psychology, and that is not even a tiny exaggeration. I’m a member of HBES. I have seen the intellectual carnage up close. My wet blanket is quite scorched!

  25. Marion Delgado

    Since this is also referring to the Common Sense Atheism post, the part of that I found off-putting was the “sexiest atheists” reference, because it referred to agnostics and Buddhists, e.g., as atheists.

  26. Sorry I don’t have the energy to retype my comments, but here’s a link (comment 417) to the discussion going on @ Pharyngula’s post on the topic: http://ow.ly/2dzRz

  27. I love that you’ve taken on this topic, but let’s blame women as well. While we may not like how men objectify women, women also do a damn good job objectifying other women. I’m sure you all heard about or watched the video of Carly Fiorina making fun of Barbara Boxer’s hair; or just watch one episode of “Real Housewives” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38060072/ns/business-careers/) And did you see the CNN spot with comedian Kathy Griffin calling two young daughters of a senator “prostitutes”? (http://www.evetahmincioglu.com/web/blog/2010/07/15/i-hate-when-im-proved-right/) Many women undermine other women even though we should be all cheer leading each other. The experts offer their reasons for why women do this — they’ve been victimized so they’re victimizing back; they’re just too busy handling work, family and everything else, etc, etc. What ever the reason, we need to start redirecting the energy toward fighting the ills of society; and that means becoming pundits for all the causes that really mean something — discrimination, the wage gap, the lack of family-friendly workplace policies in this country. We should not be afraid to be bitchy, be sexy and tell it like it is. Let’s just choose our targets wisely

  28. PJay

    @ Zuska

    You have no science cred whatsoever.

    I work with a lot of hot, sexy female scientists. They are not threatened by their or my sexuality and they are happy to be attractive to members of the opposite sex.

    Christina Hoff Summers is one of very few real feminists the academy has produced.

    * edited for inappropriate content

  29. ash

    @Samantha Snyder

    “When people comment on girls being pretty, I think it may be a good thing. It proves that you can be pretty and smart, and it opens people’s eyes.”

    When people comment on girls being pretty – and, oh yes, they did quite well in academia – the focus is not on their brains, it’s still on their looks. The focus on looks is still totally inappropiate if it’s within the workplace. You gave the example of salesmen and spokesmen, but scientists are not usually either (nor should have to be). With this list, the scientist factor was almost an aside; it was just a different pool from which to draw a list of westernized stereotypical attractive women.

    I also think it’s slightly disconcerting that you seem to understand societal norms as hideous woman = allowed to be intelligent, pretty woman = dumb (that may be the way things are currently seen, but it does no good to perpetuate these); and that you seem to think that a male counterpart who underestimates you because of your looks gives you the upper hand in hiring circumstances – an employer is likely to be older, and therefore more prone to sexist inclinations, and unless you’re looking to be hired to make the tea, it’s worth letting your counterpart know exactly why he (as a potential employer himself) is wrong.

    In summary, in case you think I’m being harsh, you could be pretty, ugly, fat, thin, whatever; your capability for professional work should be judged by the same merits as a man – not how likely you are to feature in a ‘sexiest 15’ list.

  30. Sorbit

    One thing we all need to honestly admit; just like in any other workplace, both men and women very much objectify themselves in the scientific workplace as well. That’s not going away anytime soon.

    You think women and men wear curve-enhancing and revealing clothing only in the corporate office and the gym?? I have seen more than my share of graduate students, postdocs and even professors (to a lesser extent) do this. Using sexuality to leverage favors and broker power deals may seem like it only belongs in “Madmen”, but it is very much a fixture of modern academic science, that much I can say without a shade of doubt.

  31. I recommend speaking to some males in predominantly female fields. I’m sure you’d be less confident about prefixing statements with “No one” to represent the experience of men in these areas. Although not identical, similar issues apply. While I realise the spark for this discussion was a list of mostly female ‘sexy scientists’ I’m interested in why it has been framed as an issue that predominantly affects females. This is not the case.

    Furthermore, I’d suggest much of the heat in this argument comes from the fact that in European and English speaking countries, we have a prejudice that ‘sexy’ people are stupid, and even if we don’t believe in this stereotype we are loath to be associated with it. In Latin America, this belief is much less prevalent and even the experience of being a ‘beauty queen’ or model is not frowned upon or used as an way of undermining someone’s intelligence (indeed, there is a long history of ‘beauty queens’ being community leaders).

    For example, the incoming president of Colombia has just appointed Sandra Bessudo, marine biologist and swimwear model, as the incumbent Minister for the Environment. Despite the fact that several places have re-printed her swimwear shots, the facts of the matter are not considered controversial or even particularly noteworthy.

  32. Do you [people] know what leering is? Do you know that leering at someone is not a compliment? Do you know that leering is [super] oppressive? Do you understand that what Mulehsucher did was leering, plain and simple?

    * comment has been moderated

  33. What Comrade (#33) said. Also PJay (#21) we should talk sometime about how Duke is a “politically correct environment where maleness is seen as something to be punished.” I can give you enough examples of sexual harassment and the Old Boys Club amongst senior faculty to justify the claim that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

  34. Carlos Pi

    Careful there, Vaughan.

    I’m with you in that sexyness shouldn’t be equated to stupid, but you miss the point about South America and you give yourself away too.

    Sandra Bessudo is not a swimwear model. She did a single photoshoot for Soho magazine to highlight her cause and give publicity for Fundación Malpelo. But in your eyes that makes her a swimwear model (which is fine too, just not what she was doing).

    On to South America. My experience has been of a type of generalised deep-rooted sexism (generally expressed as discrimination against women) that is characterised by unusual modesty in everyday life with occasional (generally out of place) sexual outbursts. Classic signs of strong repression.

    I heard Rafael Correa (President of Ecuador), for instance, tell a large public gathering how glad he was to have young, good-looking women ministers in his cabinet. He joked that he didn’t know whether things would get done better, but that the partying was definitely improved. A joke like that would have led to the resignation of any senior politician in Europe. Not in South America. You’re right, things are different there, just not how you think they are.

    After he was done with his speech, the popular dancing began: scarcely dressed (or talented) but definitely voluptuous women, moving in ways that had children confused, adolescents bubbling with hormones, husbands distracted and wives submissive. The little girls, of course, copied them.

    I’m all for voluptuosity (I can’t help it, it’s who I am), but I can also recognise something’s not right when I see it.

    As for Sandra Bessudo, I still think she was brave rather than ill-advised. The harm, the prejudice, is in the eye and the mind of the beholder. The other extreme is the burka.



  35. PJay

    @ EMJ:

    Really? Has any one of the victims to whom you refer had their names dragged through the mud without due process at huge financial and personal loss to their fortunes and reputations?

    Have the faculty who rushed to judgement apologized to those falsely accused?

    Didn’t think so.

  36. Michael Over Here

    I feel that one of the reasons that that blogpost has had such a viceral reaction from so many people, myself included, is because it combines sexist mansplaining with regular old creepy stalker shrine building that transcends the gender of the blogger.

    I won’t reiterate most of the excellent examination of the list as being sexist. But Luke’s focus on the sexist side of things ignores the regular etiquette side where collecting photos of people you don’t know fairly intimately who aren’t celebrities and expect a certain degree of anonymity then labeling them sexy is considered creepy. It doesn’t matter if a man or a woman does it, it’s almost always considered wrong outside of junior high. That’s why I think not many people cared too much about his sexiest atheists list (which was much worse) but people are creeped out by the scientist list.

  37. Great post. Personally I get annoyed with a lot of womens magazines that do not recognise scientists as ‘women of the year’ and would rather promote people like Cheryl Cole. I know about the L’oreal campaign, but I do believe that it is out there on its own. I have nothing against Cheryl but I do think that if these media outlets gave more serious pages to women in science then that would help the situation – and maybe encourage more women to go down the career path. I am not talking about encouraging a feature here on ‘scientist of the week’ in Heat magazine… but proper articles and recognition for the work people do in science – because I think a lot of people do not understand the nature of being a scientist. The magazines feature articles like this about other career paths (especially women entrepreneurs) so why not do it for science too?

    A shameless plug, but I have been blogging about this here – http://sciencehastheanswer.blogspot.com/2010/07/women-in-science.html

  38. Great post. Personally I get annoyed with a lot of womens magazines that do not recognise scientists as ‘women of the year’ and would rather promote people like Cheryl Cole. I know about the L’oreal campaign, but I do believe that it is out there on its own. I have nothing against Cheryl but I do think that if these media outlets gave more serious pages to women in science then that would help the situation – and maybe encourage more women to go down the career path. I am not talking about encouraging a feature here on ‘scientist of the week’ in Heat magazine… but proper articles and recognition for the work people do in science – because I think a lot of people do not understand the nature of being a scientist. The magazines feature articles like this about other career paths (especially women entrepreneurs) so why not do it for science too?

  39. Carlos Pi

    Well, it seems our Vaughan has learned little, if his tweet is anything to go by:


    He directs us to the following:

    “While the achievements of Colombian President-Elect Juan Manuel Santos’ cabinet are yet to be seen, one thing is clear – his Minister for the Environment Sandra Bessudo is a saucy mamacita!”

    Nothing against you mate, but the irony was too good to let go.


  40. I’ve already blogged this, but this just seems plainly wrong. Sure, it probably hasn’t done anyone any deal of harm, but all-the-same. If I made a list like this and my medical school found out, I’d be disciplined. If I kept a list like this, I’m fairly sure why my friends think less of me. I’m genuinely mystified why Luke could ever have thought this was okay. Is there some nuance I’ve missed?

  41. Cara

    If he only notices the physical aspects, then he had better hope we’re not competing for the same promotion, because his underestimation gives me an upper hand.

    No, sweetheart. It doesn’t give you, or any other woman, an upper hand. Not a bit.

    Trust the old lady on this one. I was young and pretty once, too, as well as being smarter than every guy in the place. It doesn’t work to our advantage, not really. If it were, then why wouldn’t there be more women in positions of power?

    Tokens of “power” bestowed ON US by a guy liking our looks isn’t real power.

  42. Brian Too

    While I very much liked the article, I suspect that it only scratches the surface.

    One thing I think we ignore to our peril is the power and tyranny of beauty. Neither gender is immune to this effect and I personally believe it goes well beyond sexual attraction. Personally I deal with it by acknowledging the appeal of the beautiful person but then putting it aside, to the extent possible. There’s a reason that almost all sales reps, PR types, models and anyone who has to attract a following, are physically appealing. Ugliness in such professions is a barrier to success.

    Here’s where the article does not go. If we are attracted to beauty because it is a sign of reproductive suitability, why then do we not associate beauty with brains? Would this not be the more logical connection? I would expect that an attractive body should be positively correlated with a fine mind, from a genetic and environmental development standpoint. So are we dealing with a cultural override on this point? It could be as simple as envy, or something a bit more sophisticated (not necessarily more admirable).

    Anyhow I still enjoyed the posting.

  43. Thanks for linking to mine. I’ve got a new, much more thorough post about it here:


    Instead of the “preview of coming attractions” bit that’s currently archived in your link list. 🙂

    And basically I echo everything EMJ said a few posts above this. Thank you for putting succinctly what I have been trying—in many more words!—to communicate elsewhere.

  44. Alek

    “”We rarely complain for fear of being considered troublemakers or worse. “””

    And men complain even more rarely (read never), because if we complain about the crap we take for being men, in the name of female privilege we are told to grow up, be real men, and that we’re “opressors” for daring to say that we have crap happen to us. And when we dare explain how we have feelings and are hurt too, our emotions are mocked with “ooooh the male ego, bohoo, cry me a river”. On top of that, the rest of men don’t complain for the fear of the “female denial”, which is the threat of witholding of affection from every woman in the vicinity if we dare not agree on even one thing with one female, regarding gender issues.

    You’re using and abusing your female privilege with its full might, with all the unconfident geeky men who feel that daring to disagree with you is a death sentence to their communication with the female gender, so they agree and nod to everything you say.

    Should they (accidentally) dare to say something you dislike, they will make apologetic posts and bow their heads in shame.

    “”””became more involved in the decision-making process given we represent about 50% of the population””””

    And you’re nowhere near 5% of the risk-taking in the population. And nowhere near even 5% of the sacrifices made in society.

    Men represent over 95% of injuries and deaths on the job. They also represent similar numbers when it comes to sacrifices made in the name of succes, for example relocating, accepting incredibly bad conditions in exchangef or a higher position… Sacrificing their love life or social life for a higher position, etc… etc…

    When you make as many sacrifices as men do, you can then reasses the end results. But right now women do not even near the amount of sacrifice and driven single-minded focus toward a goal.

    Existing is not good enough reason to get something. Studies consistently demonstrate pretty much all the risk in society is taken on by men. Us average height people are more than 50% of the population, but we’re not 50% of the athletes in sports or in hollywood!!! WHY WHY! WHY! Its a conspiracy I tell you!!! They’re trying to oppress us average height people!!!!

    The actual decision making is done by the **voters** not the public servants. And women vote in greater numbers than men. Women actually own over 50% of the wealth, more than 50% of the votes. The number of organizations in the name of female interests outnumber male-interest organizations what, 100 to 1? Women make virtually all the rejections in the social sphere and the decisions in personal relationships… as well as run most of the media (not own, but run, decide what gets published)… most of marketing and TV content is decided by or caters to women.


    If you’re still blind to all the copious amounts of female privilege you have, just watch for all the white knights who will come in to try and “rip my comment to shreds” and try to defend your honor. Why? Because you’re a female, and their only function in life is to play a white knight for the hope of getting female approval.

  45. Alek

    “””Do you know that leering is [super] oppressive? Do you understand that what Mulehsucher did was leering, plain and simple?”””

    I love it when someone tries to speak for the entire human species. I’ve never found leering to be oppressive. In fact, I find it to be a compliment. I’ve only been getting it for 2-3 years, since I started hanging with cool guys that are models and pretty popular… But I’m yet to get bored of it. Happens everywhere we go, the supermarket, the mall…

    At clubs, we have women running up to us, rubbing off of us, and objectifying us all night. Guess what. I LOVE IT.

    I’m hard at work at my post-graduate studies (with a vision of a PhD and research all planned out in my head), my 2 businesses, my art and my books. Do I mind that a woman leering at me recognizes none of those? Heck no. Do I mind all she sees in me is a piece of cute meat? Heck no. Love it every single time!

    So don’t try to talk in everyone’s name. And don’t try to force your beliefs down on everyone. We don’t all subscribe to the same political theories you do.

    Its really interesting when someone tries to speak for an entire gender or the entire human species. I’ve never found objectification anything more than a compliment, and neither has any of my female friends. They’re all quite successful and intelligent too. It might have to do with the fact that they’re not politically guided? Its odd how all the people who have a problem with objectification are really using it as a trick of sneaking in political agendas.

  46. Woody Tanaka

    @Alek #50

    I find the discussion on this topic interesting, and definately see the reasons why some women would find this type of attention objectionable.

    (I mostly believe that promoting gender strife is one of the many ways in which the capitalist system and those who benefit from it, prevent unity among the people to develop, thus protecting their money, influence and power.)

    Nevertheless, when you noted this:

    “…most of marketing and TV content is decided by or caters to women.”

    it reminded me of an interesting series of commercials for Corona beer. (it’s kinda off topic, but anyway…)

    Their long-running ad series — the couple on the beach in chairs, seen from behind with Coronas on the table between them — recently had a series of three ads.

    In the first, the man turned his head to look at an attractive woman as she walked by on the beach. His mate in the other chair, seeing this, reached out and squeezed her lime at him, spritzing him with lime juice.

    The second ad was a quasi-reversal; the woman turned her head to follow an attractive man as he walked by. Her mate reached over and shook the woman’s Corona, so that it would spray her when she opened it. However, she, though, took his beer, leaving him with the shaken one.

    The third one had the man turn his head to follow a couple of attractive women. He then turned to his mate, saw her staring at him and, after a pause, he took the lime and squeezed it at himself, into his own eyes.

    I thought that the message of this series of ads was quite remarkable, as it seems to suggest that the message which presumably this beer company believes will be attractive to women is that while woman are permitted to gaze at attractive people of the opposite sex without reprocussions while the man is not, if he does look, a [proper? compliant? tamed?] male will voluntarily spray lime juice into his own eyes as punishment.

    Is this really an example of female wish fulfillment? I don’t know, but I hope that it is merely a poor marketing choice.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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