Sexy scientists are less scary? Why we don’t like the “sexiest scientists” list

2 Apr

My friend Joyce and I often discuss gender issues in science on Facebook. A couple of weeks ago she sent me this list of the Sexiest Scientists Alive! by Business Insider, one of the most popular blogs online. She was not impressed, and neither was I.

*Updated at 4:21pm on April 2: This post was originally a lot more “unhappy” about the list. I took out some stronger language I used in the post in an attempt to provide a more balanced post. However it seems that my consideration was mistaken by Jennifer Welsh to say that I enjoyed the content of the list – this is a misrepresentation of my stance. The content of the list is hardly the point, it is the way that it is presented that is wrong; I find it very troubling that she thinks as long as there is content it is okay to put together a list like this and to label scientists, and pay no regards to the context. So I am writing this to make sure that my readers know I really don’t like the list at all, and regardless of whether there is content or not, a list such as this should not happen. I also edited the content of this post to make sure I get my point across.

I got a sense of the rationale behind the list from the twitter exchange between Jennifer Welsh (science editor for the Business Insider) and Karen James (staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory).

Hm, I don’t think I can say that I will find fashion models more approachable (?) after seeing a list of the 50 sexiest models in the world. I would rather hear about why they became models and the challenges they encounter, and know that they are people just like us – an example being Cameron Russell in her TED talk (coincidentally the TED talk goes really well with this post). While I appreciate the brief biographies and fun facts included in the list, I think scientists can be introduced without being given the “sexy” label. So unfortunately I failed to understand Jennifer’s point.

And then she explained further:

Not sure why a list of sexy scientists can make scientists less scary (are sexy scientists less scary?). There are many scientists who make science awesome and not scary – but I guess they need to be “not bad to look at” in order to make it to the list? I will let you be the judge for the discussion – read more of the twitter conversation.

When I asked Jennifer about the discussion she said

(This is included so that you also get her point of view) I want to point out that if that is the case, then why are they choosing the “not bad to look at” scientists for the list? That’s a quote from the list. Again, doesn’t make sense to me.

Some, including giovannazanardo, raised concerns about subjecting those on the list to sexual stereotypes.

And a few others talked about the list on their blogs. E.E. Giorgi mentioned why the list troubled her:

In fact, I think it promotes a disturbingly negative message, which is: do I need to be beautiful to have my work noticed?

Zuska pointed out in her post “Sexxay Inequality” that:

Sexifying scientists does not and cannot function equally for men and women.

Roxanne Palmer discussed the stereotypes female scientists face, backed with research references, and said:

There’s relatively little harm in discussing the attractiveness of scientists past and present. 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.

Last but not the least, Sarah Callori described the missed opportunity to inform people of gender issues in science:

The author of “50 Sexy Scientists” could have provided more context within the article about how science stereotypes are a problem and then added in a quick mission statement…

But they didn’t. Instead this article seems to be playing off the stereotype even more in a tabloid journalism sort of way.

If you want to see an example of what the discussion about the list can be reduced to outside of the scientific context, just check out some comments on this forum. Thanks, Business Insider :(

For me personally, the problem is this. There are beautiful people in any professions, and of course there are scientists who are sexy. But regardless of whether they are sexy of not, scientists should be celebrated for their achievement in scientific discovery and the communication of science. The list emphasizes “sexiness” that is irrelevant in science, using outreach as the justification. Having done science outreach and communication myself for the past 8 years, and having been a basic science researcher before that, I find this extremely disappointing and disturbing.

Yes, the title is attention-grabbing and the post probably received lots of views from those who usually don’t pay attention to science news. Good for Business Insider But please don’t defend it by saying that this is a way science and scientists can reach out to people – because being sexy and “not bad to look at” is not what scientists are about to begin with.

3 Responses to “Sexy scientists are less scary? Why we don’t like the “sexiest scientists” list”

  1. awisstaff June 19, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Agh! Women already face so many issues in STEM fields regarding inequity (for example, recognition via awards and pay), basically reducing them to “sexy or not” is the opposite of helping!

    • Terrific T June 19, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      I know. What made it worse was that Jennifer Welsh still tried to justify the story and I was really frustrated with that. Not helping at all…

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  1. What’s Wrong With Sexy Scientists? | I, Kinkster - July 11, 2013

    […] whose comment got 81 likes. And although science communicator and blogger Theresa Liao has better-reasoned arguments for why she doesn’t like the […]

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