Under The Microscope: Feminism, Scientists and Sexiness

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.

Having 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:

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.


  3. 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.

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