More sexism in science

Following on my post the other week on Gender bias on both sides of scientific research, I want to draw attention to an incident that occurred at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting last week in New Orleans. SFN is by far the largest neuroscience event every year, drawing over 30,000 attendees to come and revel in nerdy neuro madness for a week (think of it as a music festival for science geeks). With so many talks, poster sessions and symposiums, not to mention the sheer number of people, the conference can be overwhelming. But it is also overwhelmingly positive and exciting, allowing you the opportunity to check out new research, get new ideas, forge new relationships and collaborations, and, if you’re lucky, even meet your academic super-star crush (I’m looking at you David Eagleman).

However, one conference-goer decided that the quality of the researchers wasn’t quite up to his standards. Dr. Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago complained on Facebook that the cosmetic caliber of the female attendees was lacking this year, stating “there are…an unusually high concentration of unattractive women [at the conference]. The super model types are completely absent.” The comment, originally discovered and posted by Drug Monkey on his blog, went on to ask, “Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?”, and considerately topped it off with, “No offense to anyone…”

Fortunately many people did take offense to Maestripieri’s comments, including Dr. Janet Stemwedel who posted an eloquent rebuttal on Scientopia, which I highly recommend. Maestripieri’s overt sexism demeans female scientists, belittling them and insinuating that their value is only measured by their looks, not their research, intelligence or contributions to the field. And keep in mind that this comment was made at a professional scientific conference, where the emphasis should especially be on one’s intellect and creativity, not on beauty or breasts. The response to Maestripieri’s comments has been overwhelmingly negative, and a Wikipedia page about him has even been updated to mention the controversy. 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 everyone who might have benefited from their future work.

Dana Smith

PhD student in Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge