Viscous Cycle

I was going to stay out of it, until they knocked my graph paper shirt. I saw this originally on PZ's blog; some dude posted a page of "15 sexy scientists". Other people have already said better what I could have said. PZ says:
I think it's an excellent idea to promote the idea that scientists can be sexy, and women who are comfortable with that should be able to proudly present themselves as sexual beings. But the important concept is that women should have the choice, and their decisions should be respected. Men do not get the privilege of having the roving eye, of being able to pick individual women out of the crowd to tell them that here, they get to be object of sexual interest, especially not if they're going to then publicly display them as clever eye candy.
Comrade PhysioProf says it rather well also(with his trademark sailor-based vocabulary):
The fucking skeevd00d's post is leering. Leering tells the person being leered at that their value as a human being is defined by how much other people want to fuck them. That is not a compliment. It is an oppressive boot on the neck designed to put women in their place. The internal mental state of the leerer and his "intentions" are wholly irrelevant to any of this.
Then YoungFemaleScientist mocks my graph paper shirts and asks whether it's so bad. That shouldn't we use sex to promote science to young women since sex sells. Well, it's true that sex sells. However, a list of women's photos with limited description of what they do or what is so awesome about their science is not even selling science. It's selling more "hot" photos of women on the internet, except now probably to men for whom the "scientist" mantle is appealing. And it's fantastic that there are dudes out there who want their women to be smart as well as sexy. But sexy still comes first. So that's not promoting science or intelligence so much as reminding us all how we look is still the number one game in town. This doesn't just hurt women. YFS links to a newsweek article where we're all held to ridiculous standards of beauty. How it hurts everyone who is more on the average scale. How pretty women in lower level or secretary jobs might benefit but the higher up you get your superiors assume beauty means lack of intelligence.
I haven't seen that so much in the corporate world, probably because we're all stupid. The "pretty" guys move up and the "pretty" women get promoted. Maybe the women don't get taken seriously at higher levels, but frankly so few women move up around here, and so many of the ones hired, period, are attractive so it's hard to make the distinction of whether their being attractive or not really helps them. Newsweek has another interesting article about what if men had to follow women's standards of beauty in society. As in, what if roles were reversed and shallow women held all the power while men were society's sex objects. I found this paragraph rather illustrative of the difference:
You certainly wouldn't see many paunchy, balding, older guys on TV. Sitcoms would feature couples where the men are tall, muscular, and hot, while the wives are chubby and witty. Salons, cosmetic-surgery offices and Weight Watchers meetings would be filled with men who spend a fortune trying to get that iconic masculine "V" shape women crave.
Humorous, though unfortunately not the situation we have. I'll admit unattractive guys suffer in the workplace as well. I have seen it. But I think it's more than just "pretty" vs "ugly". The executives at most big companies, like here at MegaCorp, are good at what they do. Or they think they are good at what they do. Confidence is key. Most of the decisions they make are a fly by the seat of your pants judgment. A quick, intuitive command. Frankly, we're all creatures of snap judgment and intuition, but in the executive ranks those judgments can actually affect people's lives and the confidence of years of experience make it all the more likely they'll rely on that.
I'm pretty sure the White Men Rule the World at my company isn't a conscious conspiracy. Sure, there are probably a few racists and mysogonists who know that's who they really are. But the rest of them are well meaning Good Guys(TM) who believe in equality and think they are operating under that. Unfortunately, when they think about what makes a good engineer or what makes somebody a good manager they have to rely on what they know. And for a lot of people making these decisions, its their intuition and their experience that guide them. And in their head are all these images (engineers tend to be visual) of who've been good engineers and managers in the past. So they aren't necessarily thinking of ruling out minorities and women, but the built-in montage in their heads is dominated by white men. And so the cycle repeats.
I was just talking about this to a minority at my workplace. His eyes looked around nervously as we spoke. I could tell he was afraid to say anything. He offered that it was hard for a woman at higher levels to succeed around here and waited to see how I took that. Was I a feminist-denier? Would I tell him that that wasn't real sexism and so we didn't need to worry about it? No, I said, he was right. Then he mentioned talking my old boss about it, about how hard it is for a minority to get a chance around here. And he waited again. We are so institutionalized here that it's moments like these where someone yells you are being a bitch, or getting too emotional, or taking things too seriously at this point. That they too, as white dudes, have it hard. I don't hate white people, my coworker told me, in case I was going to be one of those people and chew him apart for mentioning it's not all milk and honey around here. Moments like these are a brief respite from the usual struggle to fit in, shut up, and keep your head down. He told me how hard my old boss had had to work, to fight, you have to work twice as hard he told me. I agreed. I told him how tiring it was to keep fighting. To wonder if some a-hole would be chewing you out and cursing at you if you were a 6'2" man or if it's because you're a woman and your disagreement means he feels the need to put you in your place. That he's threatened by your intelligence, but not by you as a person, and needs to build the box around you again.
It's like you swim for a living. And swimming at my last job was just swimming. Now you're swimming in some highly viscous fluid. They've replaced your pool with honey, or molasses or hot fudge instead. So you're working twice as hard and you're fighting. You're fighting not to make the sarcastic comments you want to to the executive who makes snide comments about women. Instead you just ask him what his daughters would think if they knew he thought like that and move on. You don't tell him he's an unstable douchebag who shouldn't be in charge of a houseplant because he's in your chain of command and you don't have the freedom he does to be a jerk, or in your case, a bitch.


  1. Nice post! I liked the swimming through molasses metaphor.

  2. Kudos on taking a stance on this. Women scientists don't want to succeed because some people find them sexy - they want to succeed because they're good scientists. When men comment on attributes that have nothing to do with the quality of the work women scientists do, that opens the door to some other people (men or women) using this as an argument to claim the woman scientist is getting ahead based on her looks.

    Also, we're talking about adults here - adult males posting a list about adult females, but what about the students? Especially if the woman scientist is young, she might have to deal with some undergraduate men having a crush on her, which the undergrad males find "cool" (cue locker room banter here) but which any sane female professor really would rather avoid. Then some of the students may even spread false rumors to show off, even if they don't mean harm. There have been cases like that in high school, which are more publicized because of the legal issue (the woman teacher in the case I remember was ultimately vindicated, but this destroyed her career.) This can't end well.

    The competent woman scientist doesn't want to be sexualized. She just wants to do her job well and go home to her family. (The incompetent and insecure woman scientist might feel good about all the leering, which makes her pathetic and, imho, unfit to teach.) Sexualizing a woman scientist does her a serious disfavor.

    I saw the person who posted the 15 sexy scientists list with pictures took his post down. I'm glad.

  3. Great post. When I was at National Lab, my division had several women and a few visible minorities pretty high up the food chain. Women in other divisions would ask me what it was like to work there (since the rest of the lab is mostly dominated by Older White Men). I found that very sad.

  4. Aurelie writes: The competent woman scientist doesn't want to be sexualized.

    Yet, there are shows like Nerd Girls. So FrauTech, what are your thoughts on that?

  5. Great question. I think Aurelie has it right when she's saying a woman wants to succeed on her own merits, not her looks. But of course, does a woman want to feel pretty and feel appreciated for being pretty? Of course, just like the guys, we like having that kind of attention. I think there was a great post that sums all this up over at stemming.org:


    Basically the three identities: the woman, the engineer, the feminist. Wanting to be respected for our intelligence and skills, angry when we are treated unfairly and objectified, but then the part of us that likes attention and appreciation for how we look or that might like shoes or pretty dresses or whatever it is depending on the person.

    However, I haven't watched Nerd Girls. Given that there are no unattractive women on television though you could attribute a whole number of motivations to it. Both male and female tv executives tend towards putting pretty women on the screen, and engineers are people too. Also could be somebody's honest attempt at showing young women they -can- be girly and pretty while also being smart and "nerdy". Society tends to give women a pretty big guilt trip no matter what path they take.