When I talk to people or write about sexism in academia, I am often met with surprise and skepticism. Some people seem to think that academia is immune to issues like sexism because it is filled with reasonably intelligent individuals who hold advanced degrees. I have to admit that I was a bit shocked to find out just how common sexism is in academia when I first started teaching. The cold, hard truth is that sexism is present and it’s everywhere. I have already dealt with it in my few short years teaching English, but it is a huge problem for women in science and math in particular.
Case in point: Dario Maestripieri, a behavioral biologist at the University at Chicago, recently took to his Facebook page to lament the “concentration of unattractive women” at the Conference of the Society of Neuroscience in October. He went on to reinforce old, tired stereotypes asking, “Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?” He may have tried to tone it down a bit by phrasing them as questions, but the sentiment is still pretty clear and drives home the point that in many fields, especially science, women just can’t win. According to these stereotypes, smart women are ugly and should try harder at their appearance. However, women who do try to live up to the ideal attractive image are stupid and “uninterested” in such subjects and should not be taken seriously. Don’t worry! He did attempt to negate the entire comment with everyone’s favorite closing line: “No offense…”
Academic conferences serve many purposes (the chance to network with other professionals, to present research, to find out what is currently going on in a certain field), but showcasing “super model type” female professors for men is not one of them. Maestripieri’s Facebook post is not some isolated incident of sexism. It speaks to a larger problem, one that many academics are not willing to discuss. Janet D. Stemwedel of San José State University wrote that “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.”
When discussions about women in science come up, people often wonder how we can get women more involved in the field. Here’s a thought: make the field welcoming to women and call out sexism, both subtle and overt. It’s important to notice all sexist behaviors and work to fix them, no matter how small they may seem. As Stemwedel points out, this is something women in science deal with every day (she has even made BINGO cards that reflect her experience blogging about science!). If we continue to tolerate sexism in academia, we are sending the message that women do not belong and should either play by the sexist rules (since they’re not supposed to be there anyway) or get out.