File under “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”
About a week ago, a small tempest erupted in the science blogosphere over a remark made by Dr. Dario Maestripieri, a professor at the University of Chicago, on his Facebook page. The comment read, in full:
My impression 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.. [sic]
Screenshots of the offending status have been spread far and wide, and a few good commentaries on why this statement is problematic and offensive have been written by, among others, Dr. Isis, DrugMonkey, and Janet D. Stemwedel. I encourage you to read these posts, and at least some of the comments, because I don’t intend to explain in detail why this post is so unfortunate here. Suffice it to say, in DrugMonkey’s succinct words,
Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science.
There is still sexism in science. I am most pleased and heartened to see established scientists, like the bloggers I linked to above and (allegedly) some of Dr. Maestripieri’s colleagues on Facebook, speak out against it. Behaviour like Dr. Maestripieri’s contributes to an uncomfortable work environment for female scientists, an environment that makes many of us question whether having a job in the field we love is worth putting up with such condescension and objectification.
I am a young female scientist.
And Dr. Maestripieri holds an appointment in one of the academic sections to which I’m applying to do my PhD.
His comment, while extremely distateful to me, is nowhere near brazen enough to make me withdraw my application, and isn’t likely to weigh very heavily among all the other factors I’ll have to consider when I decide which school to attend. But if all else turned out to be equal, this comment could damn well tip the balance. Do I want to have to potentially interact with a man who’s made it clear that he judges female scientists based on their looks first?
And you know what else? If I had been considering joining Dr. Maestripieri’s lab, I would be running the fuck away from that application right now. If I were working for him, I’d have to assume that he’s judging me based on my appearance, and that he’s perfectly comfortable talking about my appearance to me or to colleagues. That’s the sort of academic environment that I want to avoid, and one that I shouldn’t have to put up with.
To be clear, I don’t care whether professors, or anyone really, mentally rate people’s attractiveness; I think most of us do this at least some of the time. But when this thought process leads to unprofessional behaviour, be it overt harassment, subtle differences in treatment based on looks, or comments like this that both make their female colleagues uncomfortable and tacitly endorse this sort of behaviour in others, it is not acceptable.
Dr. Maestripieri’s comment is far from enough to drive me away from a science career. But it could well drive me, and other women, away from his lab, his department, and his university. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.