Let’s talk about sex (in science)

I attended the women in blogging session at Science Online, and I’ve been watching the discussion on women in the blogosphere with some bemusement. My personal experience seems to be quite different than that of many others, but I can’t help seeing a strange disconnect between the current earnest discussion of how to get more women to be involved in the blogosphere and the widespread blog-land approval of using female bodies to sell science.

I’ve tweeted this a couple times but never sparked a debate, but admittedly, Twitter isn’t necessarily the best tool for thoughtful conversation, so I chatted up my most excellent internet friend (and annual IRL comrade-in-magenta-tights) Scicurious for a discussion. We have edited this chat for grammar, clarity and length, and Sci has cross-posted it over at her place.


Miriam: So here’s what I’ve been thinking during this very very earnest discussion on women science bloggers. We have a fundamental conflict between selling science & including women. Everything in our society is sold with female bodies. Just check out the blog Sociological Images. Everything from household items to soap to apples. Everything.

Scicurious:  No kidding.

Miriam:  So tapping into this to sell science is very effective. It totally works.

Scicurious:  But it utilizes a framework that involves the objectification of women’s bodies to the detriment of women, who continue to be objectified and thus get judged not on what they do, but on how they look. What a man says on blogs is usually (not always) disconnected from his looks, while a female face on a blog tends to be associated with whatever she writes, and the quality of what she writes is influenced by the way that she looks.

Miriam:  Therefore leading to these issues with female science bloggers.

Scicurious:  Yes.

Miriam:  I’m actually surprised that we didn’t get more anecdotes of women being called fat ugly hairy lesbians & being dismissed. The current discussion seems to be focusing around inappropriate complimenting. But it’s two sides of the same coin.

Scicurious:  We want to be noticed, but often when we DO get noticed, it’s for the wrong things (and by “wrong”, I mean things unrelated to the stuff we blog about).

Miriam:  Actually, I’m sure Zuska has some pungent tales.

Scicurious:  Well, how many women WANT to come forward and say “You were called hot, I was called fat and ugly”? There’s another little issue in there, I think.  The fact that, when you get complimented, it is somehow more OK than if you get harassed for being ugly.  People seem to feel more sympathy for those who are harassed for being pretty.

Miriam:  GOOD POINT.  I think the ugly-harassment is much more common in the feminist blogosphere.

Scicurious:  Oh yes, ugly harassment is very rife among the feminists.

Miriam:  The reason that both ugly harassment and attractive harassment take that form is that women are powerfully, powerfully socialized to believe that the most important thing in their lives is how they look. Thus, how could calling a woman attractive be insulting? And the worst thing you can do is call her fat and/or ugly – because thereby you are attacking the entire root of her self worth.

Scicurious: And similarly, men are socialized to believe that the most important thing is how a woman looks so it makes it even easier to say things, because that’s a COMPLIMENT, right?  that must be what she WANTS.

Miriam:  And some women – who perhaps are a little younger – do think it’s a compliment. At first. But I think the true nature of those type of compliments becomes clear – and it comes back to using the female body to sell everything.

Scicurious:  I do think it’s especially hard for some women who are in science or other rigorous fields, and who have tried very hard to base their self-worth on their intelligence and work.

Miriam:  Those of us who are trying to sell our brains are NOT selling our looks, and it’s insulting to presume that we are.

Scicurious:  Then when you get a compliment on your looks in the workplace, it’s like a slap in the face, taking away the other things you strive so hard to be proud of, by telling you what really SHOULD matter: your looks. Many people may say that really when you get a compliment on your looks, what they are REALLY saying is that you can be pretty AND do science!  But why should the pretty even MATTER for your content?  Why should this be pointed out at all?  It has no effect on the content you are presenting, and mention of it is thus at least a non sequiter.  But what it really does is remind you that you can be brilliant or not brilliant, or do good writing or not…but you’re so PRETTY!

Miriam:  And as you’ve said in one of our previous conversations – science can be a refuge from the very labor-intensive task of having to perform femininity. All that plucking and shaving and expensive clothing!

Scicurious: Right. It’s only cool to be smart if you’re ALSO doing your female duty of being hot.

Miriam: But you better not forget your primary directive. So that brings us – again – to the controversy over using sexy women to sell science. There’s a couple examples of this that have come across my radar (and everyone else’s)  – Nerd Girls, Science Cheerleaders, the list of 15 sexy scientists (since removed) and to some extent, the Geek & Gamer Girls video (though that’s about geek culture, not science).

Scicurious: I feel like using hotness or women or sexy to sell science is not good for the women IN science. But i also think it’s not spectacular for science itself.

Miriam:  How so?

Scicurious:  Coolness doesn’t rub off. Putting science next to something that’s cool doesn’t make it more cool. It makes it science, standing next to something cool, and I feel that science has a great deal to sell itself on its own merits.

Miriam:  Hah, I am imagining a poor little test tube with glasses, leaning next to a pipette in a leather jacket.

Scicurious:  To sell science with sex implies that it’s not GOOD ENOUGH on its own, that science itself can’t be fascinating or interesting unless it’s got glitter on it. But it CAN be!  Look at the citizen science projects!  They makes science perfectly interesting and fun, without having to prop it up next to something that’s sexy.

Miriam:  I don’t have as much of a problem with that – I just see it as part of the way our society sells EVERYTHING. Why should science be different?

Scicurious:  i feel like science, and other academic fields, should strive to be different, because we all know and have evidence of how much that objectification harms women, we in fact have scientific evidence of it.

Miriam:  I’m thinking of all kinds of highbrow stuff that is sold with glitter. Like how art museums have special exhibits on the Art of Pixar for example. (Actually I loved that exhibit.)

Scicurious:  Yeah, I have to say that sounds really cool…but that’s not using women to sell it, it’s using something else, and something which has not yet been deemed to be harmful.

Miriam:  So, playing devil’s advocate, should science strive to be better than society at large, even at the cost of perhaps reaching fewer people?

Scicurious:  Hmmm. That’s a fair point. Should science strive to be “better than” the public at large in our recruiting strategies?  Or is it a matter of life or death and let’s use whatever we’ve got?

Miriam:  Actually, one of the issues in the Science Cheerleading debate was about the audience. I have a much less negative reaction when the audience is little cheerleaders.

Scicurious:  Oh yes! Absolutely!

Miriam:  Clearly they already connect to cheerleading. So yay! Reach them!

Scicurious:  But the audience is often not little cheerleaders, and most of the people paying attention to the video on the internet are probably not showing it to their kids.

Miriam:  Exactly. And then we come back around again to selling science with sexy women. People made arguments that Nerd Girls or cheerleading are not actually about sexy women, which frankly I think are ridiculous.

Scicurious:  When they perform live, the vast majority of their audience will be adults, and at the science and engineering festival, it will also be majority male.

Miriam:  If it wasn’t, they would wear comfy warm tracksuits like the men (and Sue Sylvester).

Scicurious:  I mostly get told in response to that that little girls won’t respond unless they see cheerleaders dressed like they are ‘supposed’ to dress.

Miriam: I actually buy that. Who imagines a female cheerleader in a tracksuit? It’s ridiculous. Why? Because cheerleaders = sexy woman. Sexy women don’t wear tracksuits.

Scicurious:  Also…why science cheerleaders?  Why not literature cheerleaders?  Financial cheerleaders? English teachers surely need more exposure and appreciation.

Miriam:  I’m rather fond of the Radical Cheerleaders. They cheer for left-wing causes, are kinda punk, and include a range of body types.

Scicurious:  I feel like science cheerleaders tends to fly very well because most scientists are men. I think in a female dominated field it wouldn’t be so positively viewed.

Miriam: So I wanted to bring it back around to the lack of prominent women science bloggers. Can we articulate why we find it so bizarre that everyone in the Science Online-oriented blogosphere is so concerned over the women science bloggers thing –  while being nearly universally positive about using sexy female bodies to sell science?

Scicurious:  I have been thinking about this too. I think for a lot of women it comes down to an inner conflict. We DO base most of our self-worth on our work in science. But it’s REALLY hard to give up the idea that looks really matter.

Miriam:  Hey, you and I will be the first to admit that we like to look nice! At least, I try to look nice at conferences – at work I mostly wear dirty blue jeans and smell like dead sea life.

Scicurious:  Too true! I usually try to start out my days pretty well dressed. it makes me feel more confident, but at the end of the day, I smell like rodents.  Oh well, at least Sci-cat thinks its pretty cool.  And of course no one wants to punish people for being good looking. You’re ALLOWED to be good looking and a scientist.

Miriam:  There are a TON of examples…in fact marine scientists are pretty damn hot on the whole.

Scicurious:  It’s totally fine!  I encourage it as much as I encourage being ugly and a scientist, or being bright green and a scientist! What you look like should not influence your work.

Miriam:  Some of the looks-based science outreach, like Nerd Girls, seemed to try to specifically reach self-identified hot girls by telling them that it was all right to be hot and a scientist.

Scicurious:  Darlene Cavalier has stated in comments on my blog that she wants it to be ok to be good looking, and a cheerleader, and a scientist. I think that’s great and just fine, but I worry that using cheerleaders to promote science makes the looks supersede the science. And while using cheerleaders, and things that little girls like, to promote science for kids SHOULD be fine, it’s only really fine when we live in a society where we do not have to worry about being taken less seriously because of our looks. Sadly, we do not live in that society, and cheerleaders have far more connotations than just being role models for little girls.

Miriam:  I have an “Intermediate Hotness Hypothesis” based on the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis in ecology that it is best to be unremarkable. I have no doubt that really beautiful women are taken less seriously – but unattractive women have it really bad too.

Scicurious:  Ooooh, that sounds quite plausible, at least as far as being taken seriously in academia.

Miriam:  So, yeah, I guess my summary is that by selling science with female bodies, we are actually contributing to the barriers that women run up against both in science and science blogging. When female looks are central to science outreach, the physical attributes of women become part of the conversation, whether they want them to or not.

Scicurious: I think there is a divide here. People want to promote science, and the easy way to do that is based on using female images to make science sexy.  But I’m not sure we can do that AND try to keep comments on our boobs away from our blogs at the same time.  While, in a perfect world, we SHOULD be able to do this, there’s no perfect world, and there are still too many connotations with using sexy to sell science that could negatively affect the women trying to perform and write about science on a daily basis. 

I think there’s got to be a way to promote science that is effective and exciting.  Citizen Science projects and fun science blogs for kids and adults are a GREAT start.  Other great ideas for outreach are things like math books for girls and books on math and science that spark general interest, and are BY women, but do not focus on appearance.  I think we can and should build on that kind of outreach.  It’s great to look however you want, and do whatever you want (cheerleading, gymnastics, D&D, anime), and still do science.  But mostly, it’s great to DO SCIENCE!

12 Replies to “Let’s talk about sex (in science)”

  1. First of all, thanks to both of you for posting this conversation. Much of what you say here rings true for me.

    Miriam will know that I’ve been getting rankled about this too, and am bothered by selling science with (primarily) sex, and by explaining science using sexist analogies (for example, one of the films in the #scio11 film fest tried to explain phenomenon X by suggesting that a great application of phenomenon X would be the enabling of female stereotype Y). I’m still formulating some thoughts on this.

    Miriam, when I read “Intermediate Hotness Hypothesis” I slapped myself in the forehead and said, “a ha!”. Then, of course, as a scientist *winks* I immediately wondered how we might test such a hypothesis. I think it involves scoring photos of women in academia then asking whether score is correlated with things like getting jobs, tenure, promotions, grants, etc.

  2. Great post.
    In addition to shedding light on several important issues regarding women in science and the academic world, you’ve also articulated some social phenomena that are pretty widely discussed in feminist circles but are almost completely unheard of in others. I’ve often been met with blank stares and/or surprise when I’ve talked about the hidden expectations from women to be intelligent/professional/whatever it is they do only as long as they’re “sexy” and “feminine” as well.
    I’m sure I’ll be sending people who aren’t part of the scientific world at all to this post as a reference to the things women are expected to do and are burdened with daily, as opposed to men, whenever someone tells me that we’ve already reached gender equality as a society and that the feminist movement is therefore obsolete (something I’ve heard a remarkable number of times).
    So thank you :)


  3. Great contribution to the discussion of recruitment and retention of women in STEM — with a focus on social stereotype threat.

    What rang true for me is how difficult it is for an attractive female scientist to be taken seriously. While plain-looking women are either valued for their intelligence or ignored by their male colleagues, it is virtually impossible for “hot” female scientists to be seen as intelligent peers — as opposed to sex symbols like the ones sold to us every minute on television and on the internet.

    The first step to combating this will have to involve raising awareness among men that “compliments” on appearance (be it dress, hair, or general look) are damaging to a female scientists’ professional identity and sense of self-worth as a serious researcher.

  4. Great Post,

    Your points are all well stated. I am part of the nerd girls movement, and I understand the concern about trying to sell science with sex. That is not what we are trying to do though. Our mission is to connect to young girls who are discouraged from pursing science, math or engineering because they don’t identify with some of the stereotypes associated with women in this field. We just want to say, hey, we are engineers, we solve the worlds most complicated and interesting problems, and sometimes, we wear makeup or high heels or do “girly” things. You don’t have to give that up if you decide to pursue these careers.


  5. Hi Lauren,

    Thanks for stopping by and joining the discussion! My criticisms of the Nerd Girls are about the marketing, not what you guys are actually doing – building a solar car rocks! But when you look at your marketing page, it is covered in models wearing fake glasses. I would love it if your web page had more photos of you all looking however you like to look (Carhartts or heels, makeup or ponytails, whatever), DOING engineering!

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