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Reading the writing on the (Facebook) wall: a community responds to Dario Maestripieri.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Imagine an academic scientist goes to a big professional meeting in his field. For whatever reason, he then decides to share the following “impression” of that meeting with his Facebook friends:

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..

Maybe this is a lapse in judgment, but it’s no big thing, right?

I would venture, from the selection of links collected below discussing Dario Maestripieri and his recent social media foible, this is very much A Thing. Read on to get a sense of how the discussion is unfolding within the scientific community and the higher education community:

Drugmonkey, SfN 2012: Professors behaving badly:

There is a very simple response here. Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science. In his lab, in his subfield, in his University and in his academic societies. We should not tolerate this crap.

Professor Maestripieri needs to apologize for this in a very public way and take responsibility for his actions. You know, not with a nonpology of “I’m sorry you were offended” but with an “I shouldn’t have done that” type of response.

Me, at Adventures in Ethics and Science, The point of calling out bad behavior:

It’s almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri’s Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science

Isis the Scientist, at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, What We Learn When Professorly d00ds Take to Facebook:

Dr. Maestripieri’s comments will certainly come as no great shock to the women who read them.  That’s because those of us who have been around the conference scene for a while know that this is pretty par for the course.  There’s not just sekrit, hidden sexism in academia.  A lot of it is pretty overt.  And many of us know about the pockets of perv-fest that can occur at scientific meetings.  We know which events to generally avoid.  Many of us know who to not have cocktails with or be alone with, who the ass grabbers are, and we share our lists with other female colleagues.  We know to look out for the more junior women scientists who travel with us.  I am in no way shocked that Dr. Maestripieri would be so brazen as to post his thoughts on Facebook because I know that there are some who wouldn’t hesistate to say the same sorts of things aloud. …

The real question is whether the ability to evaluate Dr. Maestripieri’s asshattery in all of its screenshot-captured glory will actually actually change hearts and minds.

Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel, University of Chicago Professor Very Disappointed that Female Neuroscientists Aren’t Sexier:

Professor Maestripieri is a multiple-award winning academic working at the University of Chicago, which basically means he is Nerd Royalty. And, judging by his impressive resume, which includes a Ph.D in Psychobiology, the 2000 American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology, and several committees at the U of C, he’s well aware of how hard someone in his position has had to work in order to rise to the top of an extremely competitive and demanding field. So it’s confusing to me that he would fail to grasp the fact that women in his field had to perform similar work and exhibit similar levels of dedication that he did.

Women: also people! Just like men, but with different genitals!

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, Why casual sexism in science matters:

I’ve got a daughter who, at four and a half, wants to be a scientist. Every time she says this, it makes me swell up with so much pride, I almost bust. If she grows up to be a scientist, I want her to be judged on the reproducibility of her results, the elegance of her experimental design, and the insight in her hypotheses, not on her ability to live up to someone’s douchey standard of “super model” looks.

(Also, do check out the conversation in the comments; it’s very smart and very funny.)

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Education, (Mis)Judging Female Scientists:

Pity the attendees at last week’s annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience who thought they needed to focus on their papers and the research breakthroughs being discussed. It turns out they were also being judged — at least by one prominent scientist — on their looks. At least the female attendees were. …

Maestripieri did not respond to e-mail messages or phone calls over the past two days. A spokesman for the University of Chicago said that he had decided not to comment.

Pat Campbell at Fairer Science, No offense to anyone:

I’m glad the story hit Inside Higher Ed; I find it really telling that only women are quoted … Inside Higher Ed makes this a woman’s problem not a science problem and that is a much more important issue than Dario Maestripieri’s stupid comments.

Beryl Benderly at the Science Careers Blog, A Facebook Furor:

There’s another unpleasant implication embedded in Maestripieri’s post. He apparently assumed that some of his Facebook readers would find his observations interesting or amusing. This indicates that, in at least some circles, women scientists are still not evaluated on their work but rather on qualities irrelevant to their science. …

[T]he point of the story is not one faculty member’s egregious slip.  It is the apparently more widespread attitudes that this slip reveals

Dana Smith at Brain Study, More sexism in science:

However, others still think his behavior was acceptable, writing it off as a joke and telling people to not take it so seriously. This is particularly problematic given the underlying gender bias we know to still exist in science. If we accept overt and covert discrimination against women in science we all lose out, not just women who are dissuaded from the field because of it, but also everyone who might have benefited from their future work.

Minerva Cheevy at Research Centered (Chronicle of Higher Education Blog Network), Where’s the use of looking nice?:

There’s just no winning for women in academia – if you’re unattractive, then you’re a bad female. But if you’re attractive, you’re a bad academic.

The Maroon Editorial Board at The Chicago Maroon, Changing the conversation:

[T]his incident offers the University community an opportunity to reexamine our culture of “self-deprecation”—especially in relation to the physical attractiveness of students—and how that culture can condone assumptions which are just as baseless and offensive. …

Associating the depth of intellectual interests with a perceived lack of physical beauty fosters a culture of permissiveness towards derogatory comments. Negative remarks about peers’ appearances make blanket statements about their social lives and demeanors more acceptable. Though recently the popular sentiment among students is that the U of C gets more attractive the further away it gets from its last Uncommon App class, such comments stem from the same type of confused associations—that “normal” is “attractive” and that “weird” is not. It’s about time that we distance ourselves from these kinds of normative assumptions. While not as outrageous as Maestripieri’s comments, the belief that intelligence should be related to any other trait—be it attractiveness, normalcy, or social skills—is just as unproductive and illogical.

It’s quite possible that I’ve missed other good discussions of this situation and its broader implications. If so, please feel free to share links to them in the comments.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 8:06 am 10/21/2012

    Fantastic round-up of comments and links, Janet!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Na g n o s t ic 4:05 pm 10/21/2012

    Female scientists are free to comment about male scientists and their physical attractiveness, etc. Nobody’s stopping them.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:26 pm 10/21/2012

    But other things may be holding them back from commenting on the looks of their male colleagues. For example:

    (1) recognition that it contributes nothing to the scientific dialogue,
    (2) recognition that it might make their colleagues uncomfortable and/or undermine the climate for everyone,
    (3) understanding that they do not have the institutional or societal power to objectify and marginalize their male colleagues in the way that their male colleagues are able to objectify and marginalize them,
    (4) commitment to being a decent human being.

    Link to this
  4. 4. joewhitaker 9:17 am 10/23/2012

    His comment, by itself, is quite unremarkable. He is a straight guy who was looking at women around him (probably during a seminar that he was less interested in than he had originally anticipated he would be), and judging their attractiveness, with no connection to how he judged their work.

    I’ll try to flip this around and see if I’m offended. Some girl (even a professor in a position of power) posts on their PERSONAL facebook page (a social context) that SfN lacks attractive guys – no specific guys mentioned, just a general trend noted. Nope, I can’t get myself to care or be offended.

    The only way this huge response makes sense is if these people who reacted so strongly to these comments already felt under siege in some sense, and were therefore extraordinarily sensitized to any comments regarding their attractiveness. Perhaps these people who were so offended had been actually sexually harassed previously?

    In response to the points above:

    (1) This was posted on facebook, not nature neuroscience. It was not part of a scientific dialogue.
    (2) He didn’t mention anyone in particular, so why would it bother anyone to find out a straight guy does perceive attractiveness in females. Not exactly news.
    (3) There is not a shortage of females in positions of power in neuroscience. At my institution there are quite a few, at the NIH, there are quite a few. Perhaps less than 50%, but plenty have more power than I do.
    (4) Ok, so it might be a bit douchey to actually post that, but that one random professor is engaging in verbal/facebook diarrhea is not particularly noteworthy.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Parent 12:47 pm 10/25/2012

    Thanks so much to Drugmonkey and Prof. Stemwedel for beginning and continuing the conversation about Dario Maestrieri’s FB comments.

    Some commenters to the various blogposts seem to suggest that the discussion is overblown, as if a mountain is being made of a mole hill.

    Sometimes it’s important to know about even mole hills.

    When I read about Maestrieri’s comments, I found the concluding remark, “No offense to anyone,” to be especially curious, as if the guy is either truly clueless or is actually somewhat hostile. If I had a daughter attending University of Chicago, I’d want her to know that this guy is potentially problematic and advise she give him a wide berth.

    As it turns out, my daughter is an undergraduate neuroscience student at another institution who attended & made a poster presentation at the SfN conference. We’d otherwise not have been aware of the mini-tempest associated with Maestrieri’s comments. As my spouse, who works in media, spotted the blog attention, links were forwarded to me and to her.

    Because our daughter is considering graduate study, the blog discussions have provided very important information. While I don’t expect the Maestrieri maelstrom to affect significantly her decision of WHETHER to pursue graduate education, I do hope that, if she decides to apply, these issues are considered as she determines HOW, WHERE & WITH WHOM she may seek to pursue graduate education.

    Link to this

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