Is Science Sexy?

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.

Females

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.

Males

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.

15 responses to “Is Science Sexy?

  1. Somehow I’ve completely missed all of this controversy! It is disturbing how often attempts to combat stereotypes seem to just support different stereotypes. The answer to “science is only for unattractive people” surely can’t be “science is only for attractive people”! As you say, what about the science itself – when can we talk about how cool that is?

    • I really hope there are other ways to get the world interested in science than just appearance. It really should be more about what science itself means to an individual’s life rather than what the individual thinks of people doing the science.

  2. I feel like women have far more prescriptions on how they are to be sexy than men do. Women are sexy if they conform to the “sexy” standard; men are sexy when they rebel. What Danika McKellar is saying when she says “smart is sexy”, is really, “sexy is sexy, but you can be smart as well”. If she really believed smart was sexy, there’d be no need to be in Maxim to prove this. Rather, she is conforming to the sexy standard, but then making sure that everyone knows that she is also smart. Her brains, unfortunately, are not the source of her sexiness as it is perceived by Maxim readers.

    • You bring up a good point about Danica showing that she is sexy and then having to make sure to let everyone know she is smart. It does seem that women need to conform more to a stereotypical standard of sexy, which is more physical in nature.

  3. Now the two have to fight it out in a culture war devoted to the appearance of women.

    Yes, exactly, and I am torn about how to approach this.

    I was discussing “science cheerleaders” with someone recently, and I noted that when I was younger, the world of cheerleading was just as inaccessible to me as the world of science! I see why someone would want to appeal to feminine girls and show them that they have a place in science, but it would have been at the expense of alienating unfeminine girls like me.

    But it seems like acknowledging cultural stereotypes and playing by those rules is mutually exclusive with taking a more idealistic view and promoting science as “FOR EVERYONE.” I’d rather ditch the stereotypes and fight them on a different front, while promoting the idea that science is for everybody. Whether we are just learning to appreciate science and be more scientifically literate as consumers, voters, educators, etc., or we are actually hoping to go into a career as scientists. It’s not some magical mystical priesthood that only a few special people get to go into. It’s something that is relevant to us all and can enrich everyone’s lives — and that is true no matter what we look like, what our other hobbies are, what our genders are, or where we fall on the feminine-masculine spectrum.

    • You bring up some excellent points. Making science seem like it’s for sexy women alienates many people out there (actually, studies have even shown that some young women are discouraged by seeing beauty focused STEM role models).

      I think it is nice to see people in STEM fields that are similar to you or have similar interests, but we might be going overboard by making role models “sexy” as a backlash to the unsexy scientist stereotype. Really, we should be focusing on what makes science interesting to everyone, and show who is doing science as a secondary way to motivate interest.

  4. I just followed you over here from your comment on my blog — because I was intrigued by your blog name.

    I work in science, although I stumbled into it and did not go the math/science/college route. I joke that I got into it because I could spell (this was pre-spellcheck and it’s a good thing because now I have trouble getting the letters in my name in order). It is so important for this message to get through — that science is bloody fascinating. Even without the math part of it; even without ever seeing anything at all in a microscope (I only saw gray water, I swear), even without dissection. It is vital that women (and men) start realizing that science is ever single thing around us.

    People are afraid of science. They don’t understand it. We need to learn better how to present it in ways that lead people to want to figure out how it works, rather than from the point (I believe) that it is/was taught — ramming complicated ideas down unprepared throats.

    Thanks for the follow! I’m trying to figure out how to get your posts in my email (I don’t use the reader)

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      I do agree that many people are afraid of science. While I’ve had some excellent teachers, there have also been many who used the “ramming complicated ideas down the throat” method. There really should be more focus on relating science to what people know. I am still learning better ways to do this part. I appreciate your feedback.

      • That’s actually what I do for a living — “translate” science into language that helps people to undersand what scientists are talking about.

        But on a funnier/sadder note, in around 2000 there was a conference here in Washington — “Women In Science.” The keynote speaker was Kate Mulgrew, the actress who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyater. Ummm? Didn’t they have any real scientists available? I’m not a scientist but I play one on TV. Lordy.

      • Translating science into a more understandable language—very neat!

        I also get frustrated when I see female actress who play scientists getting a lot of credit and wonder the same thing. Really, there are many female scientists. I wish we would see more of them doing science television narrations, publicly speaking about science, and getting interviewed about current science events.

  5. Are bitter tears of anger, cried because we’re STILL talking about this issue, sexy?

    I’ve spent 52 years on this planet fighting against the “you gotta be sexy to succeed” thing we females have been force-fed. I keep hoping we humans will eventually evolve beyond it. Apparently not in my lifetime. Wait … I’m not dead yet. Maybe my great grandkids’ generation will be the first.

    Great blog. Thanks.

    • Yes, it’s frustrating that this is still an issue. It seems to me that things are moving in a better direction, but it’s sad that there is still a lot of pressure on women to be sexy. I think it is wonderful if women are free to express themselves physically in whatever career field they are in without judgment. However, I am concerned that there is so much emphasis on being sexy in the sciences, specifically towards women, when science itself is should be dominated by intellect and curiosity.

  6. Very nicely written — and thought! I was actually part of the “Gender Expert Group” that was used to get ideas for the EC campaign that, among other things, led to this video. Important: We didn’t know about the video in advance, and wrote a statement distancing ourselves from it afterwards. However, on the constructive side, I decided to try a “crowdsourcing” contest to make a better video. The European Science Foundation came on as a co-organizer, and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt donated prize money. I finally got the chance to write up a bit about that contest and to once again highlight the winners. I’ll include the link here, and would be delighted to tell more about it to any blogger or tweeter or anyone who can help spread the word. The participants did such incredible and inspiring work, that we would love for them to have the pleasure of being more widely recognized.

    Science: It’s your thing! 3 steps to a crowdsourcing success http://bit.ly/Us73hB

  7. Sorry about getting in so late; I just discovered your blog. I feel well-qualified on this subject because I’m too sexy for my shirt and I’m too sexy for my car.

    I’m sure you demonstrate your mathematical skills letting people shake your hair and run their hands through it and “going with the collegiate theme” and a little bit of “school theme”. That would also probably qualify you to write math books, too. I had problems with that approach though, because as sexy as I am, nobody wanted to run their hands through my hair.

    Not having run across McKellar, my college pin-ups were Sofia Kovalevskaya (more affectionately known as Со́фья Ковале́вская) and Emmy Noether. I used to have wet dreams about watching them put on makeup and strutting down the runway in high heels. That must be what makes science such a “girl thing”.

    Come on, now. How did I miss the science/sexiness connection when I was in school? Maybe all these people are seeing a selling point I must have missed. Is it impossible to disengage a person’s social life from their training? Maybe the connection is a good thing because now I should rate as the world’s foremost scientist.

  8. Totally in agreement with you, I also just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog in general and am mantioning you in my “Very Inspiring Blogger Award”, as I find your content incredibly relevant and interesting to me.
    Thank you!
    Lany
    {http://glitternotgold.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/inspiring-blogger-award/}

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