Can male scientist jerks scare away the girl geeks?
Neuroscientist Dario Maestripieri was very disappointed that he couldn’t spend his time at the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience staring at hot women. He told Facebook about this disappointment:
“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.”
My Neuroscientist Friend suggested that women probably steered clear of this jerk at the conference. She also wrote:
“I also think that the reason top-end-world-changing science is largely male dominated (besides the obvious gender bias and the fact that most of us take time off to have children) is that many women don’t feel the need to prove themselves to the world and compromise every other important part of their life in order to be at the top”.
Then she asked for my thoughts on this, so here goes:
First off, I am shocked not so much by Maestripieri’s opinion, but by his decision to post it online. He better be very happy with where his career and life is right now, because he is going to be the guy who wrote that for a really long time, and I think (I hope?) it limits his future prospects – in academia and relationships.
As for the larger issue of women in science, I don’t really know where to begin. I could argue that there are factors leading to a higher percentage of men in these fields, factors that may be outside of the control of political or academic forces. Those who suggest that innate differences might have anything to do with this, tend to get yelled at. But of course, if there are systematic reasons that girls avoid science, that shouldn’t matter at all for the recruiting and promoting of individual female scientists. Furthermore, if there are inherent differences between men and women (on average, statistically speaking, insert disclaimer) that have anything to do with our average abilities in science or our average tendencies to pursue careers in science, that should be a mystery for scientists to solve. Not journalists, not feminists, not politicians and certainly not PR consultants.
Maestripieri happens to be working in a field that has the power to uncover these differences, if they exist. However, he has concentrated on something else: attractiveness. Maestripieri’s own research shows that "Good-looking people are more appealing as potential sex partners and so other people choose to interact with them.” He is ”an expert on what the human brain finds attractive in the opposite sex, including the famed waist-to-hip ratio”, according to the Chicago Tribune. So perhaps he thought he was just voicing his purely professional opinion on the number of objectively attractive women out of a sample of 30000.
Now that I know what this guy’s research focus is, I would be inclined to avoid him at a neuroscientist conference too. In a room full of people working to solve the mysteries of our minds, I wouldn’t want to spend time with a guy who would be mentally calculating my face.
I believe that a very important reason for the low number of female top-level scientists is the low number of female top-level scientists. Growing up, we look up to adults and imagine ourselves being like them. And somewhere along the way – probably earlier than we should – we have the option of eliminating math and science from our school course load. Too many girls have simply not had enough scientists to look up to when they were faced with that decision. And that is why Maestripieri’s comment is harmful. If a girl believes that the world of science is populated mainly by people like Maestripieri, why in the world would she put herself through hard work just to hang out with that crowd?
I should also mention that male scientists are not exactly known for their rugged good looks or their ability to charm women. The stereotype that tells girls “studying science means you’ll spend your college years being drooled on by dorks” is not exactly helpful. And now Maestripieri is adding another stereotype, one that we know from other male-dominated areas like financial institutions and corporate board rooms: studying science means breaking into a boy’s club that will judge you on your attractiveness, not your ability.
Updated November 5th 2012: My previously mentioned Neuroscientist Friend wrote this as her Facebook status today: “Downside of working in the department of Neurophysics: my office is messy and smells like boys.”