Sexy in STEM?

Last month Dario Maestripieri, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago, lamented on Facebook that there was a lack of “attractive women” at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. I wasn’t there, but I would probably pass Maestripieri’s “super model type” test, at least to the extent that any woman looks like that in the real world. He has been thoroughly eviscerated by now, but his remarks are an opportunity to reflect on how attractive women are treated in the academy.

As a graduate student, I worried about being sexually harassed by professors. Men don’t fear having their careers derailed in this way, but it is a real concern for women. I asked other female students about professors to avoid and was given two names. One was described as “relatively harmless” but would “stare at your boobs on the elevator,” which was 100-percent confirmed. The other was rumored to be a sexual predator. Whether that was true or false, worrying about such individuals adds to the challenges that women face in academic life.

People who knew me in graduate school will perhaps be surprised that I was concerned about sexual harassment. I was not known for my modest attire. However, I don’t dress to attract male attention, but partly as a stylistic choice, and because my instinct is to emphasize the fact that I am a woman in male-dominated fields. It seems many women have the opposite instinct and try to blend in.

These days I dress in a professional but very feminine manner, preferring skirt to pants, but nothing too short. Female professors have to strike a balance. Male professors can wear sandals and shorts to give a lecture, but any woman who does the same will catch holy hell on her evaluations. The men are “cool,” but she is “unprofessional.” One of my friends received an evaluation that said she “dressed like she was on a date,” which tells you what happens when you dress attractively. Another professor had a (female) student come up to her and say, “We think you need to dress better. Your time to look good is almost over. You need more sparkle!”  It seems there is no winning strategy.

The women I know who feel comfortable dressing in a feminine manner also seem to be the ones most men would not dare mess with. I advise the young women I mentor to walk tall, like they would give a guy a black eye if he got out of line. It helps that I am 5’9”, but petite women can cultivate this attitude as well. Whether in appearance or personality, a professional woman has to exhibit some masculine qualities to ward off unwanted advances.

Now, I’ve never been treated in a way that I would regard as sexual harassment, but I’ve encountered some inappropriate conduct. The majority of offenders fall into the category of “perfectly nice men who say stupid things.” You let them off the hook if it happens once. Crying wolf at every minor infraction is not a good strategy.

However, even when nice men say stupid things without malicious intent, it begins to limit opportunities for women because they avoid men who make them uncomfortable. It’s not harmless, even when the offenders themselves are. Here, I offer two anecdotes, one of which caused serious concern when I was considering job offers.

Interviewing for a job, I was in the office of a famous and powerful professor whose field of training is different than mine. At one point, he stopped the conversation. “You are a very attractive woman. I’m not sure what I was expecting from a female mathematician, but you’re quite pretty.” What do you say in that moment? Do you take the job knowing that you are in a vulnerable position should this person make advances toward you? Do you file a complaint?

Here’s what I did. I said something about trying to balance brains and beauty and segued into a nonstop discussion of research. After the meeting, I sent an e-mail to a friend explaining what had happened and cc’d myself. After (and only after) I got a formal offer did I mention it to the hiring chair, saying that it hadn’t made me uncomfortable but that I wanted to inform them in case of future problems.

Another time, I was introduced to a senior colleague who looked me head-to-toe and back again. “Wow,” he said. Not “Welcome to the department” or “Nice to meet you,” but “Wow.” This person has since become a good friend, in part because, like me, he lacks any filter between his brain and his mouth. He felt really bad when I reminded him years later of our introduction. There are opportunities for education and change when we don’t automatically draw battle lines.

Now, ladies, you aren’t off the hook. A recent study showed that both male and female professors rated the same science résumé as more deserving of a higher salary if the name on it was John instead of Jennifer. Another study concluded that the pay gap for women was $0.82 on the dollar one year out of college—and men are not doing all the hiring. Studies in the corporate world show that women are more likely to be bullied by another woman than by a man.

What’s this all about?

Because women are made to feel insecure about how they look, it becomes a marker against which we judge others. I admit to having caught myself thinking, “Oh, look at little miss sparkle pants!” followed by, “Did you just think that about another woman who is trying to make her way in the world the same as you are?”

I know what it’s like to be looked at like I’m little miss sparkle pants. When another woman is younger, prettier, smarter, more successful, it is threatening. Men invite the new guy to play golf. Women try to crush their new rival. (There are, of course, examples of both types of people in both genders, so before you berate me, I am trying to explain these studies. With awareness comes change.)

I’ve also been guilty of using looks as a weapon in a dispute, and in hindsight I see that this type of behavior contributes to the problems women face. We are quick to call a woman “fat” or “ugly” when it’s really her behavior that bothers us, because we know those are the biggest insults society has to offer.

I also believe notions of female attractiveness influence the gender imbalance in STEM fields. Girls are better than boys at math until about middle school, when there is more pressure on girls to be attractive. Boys can get away with being a little geeky without a huge social penalty, but not girls. It doesn’t become cool for a girl to be smart until college, and we see that women who study math often enter the major later than men. This leads to an imbalance in training for graduate school.

Let me conclude with this thought. Perhaps the reason Maestripieri isn’t seeing attractive women at the neuroscience conference is in part men like him. Women are at the conference to work. They are serious about their careers, in a profession where being attractive offers no real advantage. If looking good means being hassled by colleagues or being taken less seriously, it’s easier to play down their appearance. Women will feel more comfortable presenting themselves in an attractive manner when men stop acting like it’s a big deal, and start behaving more professionally. And when society begins to value a woman’s intelligence as much as her looks, we will see more women in science, some of whom might have otherwise had their pictures on the cover of Vogue.

Julie C. Mitchell is an associate professor of mathematics and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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