Sitting in the audience I cringed a bit. Why was this even being discussed? Should I be upset, or should I be enthusiastic that someone was discussing how society should view women in the sciences?
Ira Flatow gave a talk at AGU in which he brought up the viewpoint that science is becoming sexy. The talk was centered on making science more accessible to everyone and getting people more interested in science. He is well known for his NPR Science Friday, and he was now giving a talk to a large audience of scientists at the American Geophysical Union, a conference comprising of between 15,000-20,000 attendees. The response of the audience was quite telling.
During the talk, a clip of the highly controversial “Science. It’s a Girl Thing” video was played. This takes place during the video link at 39:05 (the talk video is at the bottom of this post). Listen carefully to the response. You can hear some of the men sitting near the front of the audience screaming “woo” and “yeah” after the video plays. Listen closer though. There are women whose voices are drowned out. One woman I was sitting near screamed out “BOO!” and several were joining suit.
Why was the video so controversial?
The video promotes the stereotype that young women are just interested in make-up and sexy things and being sexy. Ira did point out that this video was controversial and showed another clip of the Barber Lab Quartet saying that this is how many scientists think women in the sciences should be viewed– as in, smart, creative and fun.
Is science sexy?
A few of examples of famous scientists were used as examples of how science is “sexy” in the talk. They included a young Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Bobak Ferdowsi. Do I think they seem like freaking awesome people? You bet. Do I hang up posters of them in my room because they are sexy? Um…NO! In this instance, they were getting called sexy because they seem like cool people who are well-liked by society, and have done interesting things.
While Ira had some excellent points about getting people more interested in science, I was not as enthusiastic with his examples of why science was becoming sexy for women. These included a science site that teaches girls about physics by explaining things like how much pressure a high heel exerts on the ground, science cheerleaders, and Danica McKellar writing books for girls about why math doesn’t suck and why they should stick with it. Danica is also seen as a cool role model because she is good at math (she got a degree in it), she gives great advice, and she is still desired by men (she has posed in men’s magazines such as Maxim).
I am not upset with what these people are doing. Using cultural views of women may be necessary to get some women interested in science and learning. I don’t want the doors to be closed on anyone because they can’t look past a stereotype (like girls are supposed to be hot, and girls like fashion and high heels). I also think that it may be one way to fight the view that you have to be ugly or unfeminine to go into the sciences if you are a female. These women are fighting back to show that that just isn’t true, and this may help more young women to not be turned away from things like engineering and physics. Since we place such a high value of attractiveness of young women, many young girls may be turned away from something that is perceived to be for ugly women.
What is upsetting to me are the stereotypes themselves. We have a stereotype that women like fashion and being sexy. Additionally we place high beauty standards on young women. This conflicts with the stereotype that women in the sciences are not attractive. Now the two have to fight it out in a culture war devoted to the appearance of women.
My Takeaway from the talk-
What Makes a Scientist “Sexy” to Society?
Here are two examples given in the talk of people who are making science sexy.
Women are “sexy” if they have posed in Maxim. Danica’s scientific contribution as a mathematician is writing motivational books for girls about math. You can still be sexy and like math. She is great at math, and men find her attractive.
Men in science are “sexy” if they express their uniqueness, seem like cool, decent people, and do or say incredibly intelligent things. Bobak shows his individuality with a sweet Mohawk, and became famous after being seen with it in the control room for the Mars Curiosity rover landing.
It seems like we have a discrepancy in what is considered “sexy” for women versus men in the sciences. The word sexy for men in the sciences means they are cool or have made some sort of interesting science contribution. The word sexy for women in the sciences means they are sexy in a sexual way.
Maybe the conflicting stereotypes about women in the sciences being unattractive and the cultural expectations on female beauty will eventually cancel each other out to the point where we can quit talking about the appearance of women in the sciences, and we can start focusing on the interesting scientific contributions of women.
Why does everything have to be sexy?
I really do like the idea of showing that scientists and engineers are normal people who range from athletes to writers to models to musicians. There are projects out there devoted to showing that scientists are just normal, relatable people, for example, This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. Showing that scientists are normal people may spark interest in the general population and show that science is something we can all make an attempt to understand.
I realize that we are currently living in an environment filled with sexual images and objectification. We have to work to promote science and education within this environment. It’s not easy. However, I don’t think the answer is to throw more sex at something to make it attractive. Sex may sell an image, but it’s not going to cause people to appreciate science the way we would like. We need to be a bit more creative than that. After all, science shouldn’t be about being sexy, it should be about the general population recognizing that science is for everyone. We should all be excited about new ideas and discoveries that can improve the quality of life and move our society forward.
The video below shows Ira Flatow’s AGU talk.