Does This Lab Coat Make Me Look Fat?

What does it mean when a highly successful neuroscientist, like Dario Maestripieri, states that he is disappointed there aren’t more “super model types” at a major conference? Here’s what he wrote:

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.

There are some who will say that it is no surprise, given the large number of attendees (30,000 plus), that an ugly statement appeared on an individual’s Facebook page. Some might say it’s inevitable, and perhaps inconsequential, given how large the membership is, that you will find a bad seed. But dismissing Maestripieri’s comments would be a mistake and represents part of the problem for women.

The first troubling feature of Maestripieri’s statement is that someone in a position of power—mentoring students, having an influence on article review, candidate selection, intellectual exchange in the field, and the like—seems to believe that women at an academic conference exist first and foremost to be physically appealing to him. Perhaps more disturbing, Maestripieri is so distressed about his unmet libidinal needs that he must share his disappointment with the world.

Who is he writing this Facebook status update for? His female research assistants? His female colleagues (if he actually considers them as much) at the University of Chicago or the American Association for the Advancement of Science? Who is this audience that he means “no offense” to?

Even more troubling than Maestripieri’s adolescent wailing is how some women have tacitly accepted his subjugating rhetoric. Rebuttals in which women say that they “know plenty of beautiful female neuroscientists” or insist, “Hey, I’m not ugly!,” miss the point to such a degree that even our advocates can’t advocate for us. When a woman is told that she bears deficits because of a man’s incapability of being aroused by her body, she is not serving her best interests to exclaim, “Hey, I’m not ugly!”

Those attitudes and assumptions hinder women’s progress in science and in the greater society.

As a member of the Society for Neuroscience, having been a part of Women in Neuroscience (a SFN committee dedicated to professional development for women in neuroscience), and having established a professionalization group for women, I know the reality of being a woman in science and the unique hurdles I face as I build my career.

What has been surprising is how insidious those hurdles are. I’ve had to explain to male students why women’s professionalization groups aren’t inherently discriminatory. And I’ve had to explain that even though men aren’t having clandestine meetings to undermine women, each decision men (and women) make to include or promote women in the field is colored by assumptions about women’s abilities (assumptions that too often carry the weight of sexual biases).

In the sciences, we know that those attitudes do shape behavior. A recent double-blind, randomized study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when identical applications were presented for the position of lab manager, an application bearing a woman’s name resulted in lower ratings for competence, hirability, and potential for being mentored. We also know that women who lack female role models often lack confidence in their own abilities and are less likely to pursue careers in science.

Women are so marginalized that even bearing children is considered an official disability, rather than a natural and healthy part of life for any woman who makes that choice. We should recognize that this disabled status tacitly supports employers’ expectations that hiring women will slow their laboratory’s progress. We should also recognize that this bias harms men as well. Men aren’t expected to take long-term paternity leave because it is considered fitting only for women.

With all the challenges one faces in becoming a scientist, we must strive for an environment in which one’s intellect can be cultivated without having to routinely battle sexism.

Statements such as Maestripieri’s are damaging, and active denial or silent ignorance of such biases can be equally damning, because they perpetuate societal norms that actively subjugate women.

Karen S. Rommelfanger, a movement-disorders neuroscientist, directs the Neuroethics Program at Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

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