Ranking Scientists By Sexiness Is Kind Of Weird

 @rpalmerscience
on February 27 2013 12:26 PM

Today’s scientists are far from the cartoonish stereotype of the lab-coat wearing geek. Just check out the blog “This Is What A Scientist Looks Like” -- nary a white coat in sight. Business Insider recently appraised the attractiveness of 50 scientists in a format sure to snag page views and spur discussion on the charms of NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi’s signature mohawk.

For a "sexiest" list, the BI ranking is refreshingly balanced between men and women, plus the language is far from the drooling copy you’d find on a Maxim roundup. The people listed are all certainly accomplished scientists -- no Nobel winners of either gender, though this might be because the average Nobel laureate for the last few decades is in his or her 60s. And unless you're Helen Mirren or Richard Gere, most people in that age range are not topping any "sexiest" lists. 

Still, there’s something uncomfortable about a list ranking scientists by hotness. And it’s hard to read about "sexy scientists" without being reminded of science’s gender disparity problem in the real world. Women already have to deal with their sexual attractiveness weighted as a higher proportion of their value to society than men's. And women scientists, however sexy they may or may not be, face a much harder road to respect among their peers, even when they have the same credentials as a man.

One study led by Yale University scientist Jo Handelsman used a simple trick to evaluate gender biases in academia. They sent 127 faculty members in applications for a lab manager position with identical materials, except for one key difference -- 63 applications were from a student named John, and 64 were from a student named Jennifer. The results were published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Despite their identical pedigrees, Jennifer was consistently ranked as less competent and hireable than John. Faculty members also gave John a median starting salary nearly $4,000 higher than Jennifer and were more likely to offer mentoring services to him. Both male and female faculty members were equally likely to favor the male student.

The fictional student used in Handelsman’s study was a good, but not exceptional, candidate.

“When faced with a candidate who is clearly exceptional, gender rarely matters,” a Guardian columnist wrote in January. “However, for the large chunk of people who inhabit the ‘grey zone,’ where subjective and objective evaluations matter, the outcome of this study indicates that men get the breaks where women do not.”

Many scientists are uncomfortable with the idea of sexism, more so in such a supposedly rational, meritocratic system like academia. But a recent survey published in the October issue of Gender and Society shows that scientists are aware that gender discrimination can be a big factor that pushes women into certain scientific fields or out of science altogether.

That analysis, led by Rice University researcher Elaine Ecklund, asked 2,500 biologists and physicists from elite universities and colleges across the U.S. about why some scientific disciplines, like biology, are female-heavy, while physics is still largely a boy’s club.

While both male and female scientists acknowledged that gender discrimination could lead women to exit science or to pick biology over physics, the genders had very different views on when and where discrimination took place. Men largely believed that gender discrimination was relegated to primary school, while women scientists thought discrimination was still present in their universities and research departments.

If sexism isn’t obvious, it may be harder for people, especially males, to accept it. Handelsman’s study did not find faculty members dismissing the female applicant because she was a girl; they spoke to ostensibly gender-neutral factors like competence, while somehow tending to favor an identical male candidate.

There’s relatively little harm in discussing the attractiveness of scientists past and present (if portraits of a young Isaac Newton are accurate representations, he may have at one time been among the "Sexiest Men Alive"). But sexiness does not exist in a vacuum -- the label can have very different connotations, depending on whether you’re a man or a woman in science.

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