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

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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.

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

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