Gender Bias, Sexism, and the Science Cheerleaders

Nov 25 2010 Published by under Meta, sexism, Society

My dear friend Sci seems to have stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest by posting something less than entirely complimentary about the science cheerleaders. That sounds like a sarcastic way of saying that she wrote something taking them down - but actually it's an accurate description of what she did. What she wrote wasn't entirely negative or entirely positive. It was an honest, balanced assessment of just what she thought about the idea of the science cheerleaders and why they made her feel uncomfortable.

I think Sci's assessment was dead-on. But over at Labspaces, there's a whole discussion about it which has largely devolved into a bunch of people shouting at each other (complete with a sub-discussion about which dudes successfully banged hot but crazy smart chicks).

I don't have much too say about the basic issue that hasn't already been said. Personally, I'm very much behind Sci's take on it. I've got a daughter who loves science, and I'd be very proud if she grows up to become a scientist; but I don't like the message that I think the science cheerleaders actually deliver.

What I think gets missed in discussions like this is that there's an awful lot of societal context that you need to consider in things like this. An awful lot of the criticism that's been aimed at the people who aren't thrilled with the science cheerleaders is, I think, based on ignoring that context.

We live is a highly patriarchal society. In our society, there is a constant message that men are important, and that women exist in order to serve men. A woman who isn't attractive, who isn't dressing in ways that show off her fuckability, is considered less valuable as a person.

This isn't just an attitude of the misogynistic assholes in our society. This is an attitude of our society, reinforced virtually everywhere. It's something that's virtually impossible to avoid. No matter how much you think you're better than that, that you don't believe that you're a sexist or a misogynist, you've still absorbed that message. Living in this society, it's pretty much impossible to not absorb that message. Whether you're a man or a woman, whether you're young or old, whether you're smart or stupid, whether you're straight or gay, it doesn't matter. This is a very deeply engrained attitude in our society, and you can't avoid it.

I'm not saying this to insult men, or to insult women. But I am saying that if you deny that you've been influenced by the society you grew up in, if you deny that you've internalized the incredibly strong messages of sexual and gender roles that are such a part of your society, then you are fooling yourself.

Just, for a moment, think about cheerleading as a sport.

Cheerleading is the most popular sport for young women in high school. There are thousands of girls who want to be cheerleaders, with huge competition for the few available spots. As a sport, it's extremely demanding and difficult physically. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, practice, skill, and strength to be any good at it.

But what does a cheerleader actually do? What is their role as an athlete? It's not to go out and win. Not even to compete. The primary role of a cheerleader is to support the male athletes. Cheerleaders are dressed up in impractical costumes - tiny skirts even in the coldest weather - and to dance, jump, and do all sorts of rythmic gymnastics while men are competing at the real sport. The women's sport is very much subservient to the men's, and the women's sport is highly sexualized.

Even when you have co-ed cheerleading, you'll find that the men typically wear long pants and a loose sweater, while the girls wear miniskirts and tight clinging, revealing tops.

In the male sports that have cheerleaders, the primary role of the male participants is to show off their strength and skill at the sport. The primary role of the chearleaders is to show how a group of attractive, fuckable women are supporting the talented male athletes.

This is basically the problem that many people have with the science cheerleaders. It isn't that there's anything intrinsically wrong with cheerleaders - but the societal context of cheerleading is that the cheerleaders aren't part of the thing they cheer - they're outsiders who support it by showing off how hot they are.

The "science cheerleaders" don't actually cheer about science. They don't show off their scientific skills. They don't show that they know or care anything about science. Taken in the context of the society that they're part of, and the traditional role and purpose of a cheerleader, they're basically removing themselves from any role as an actual participant in science. Cheering isn't part of the activity being cheered. A football cheerleader doesn't play football; she supports the football player. A science cheerleader isn't doing science; she's supporting the scientists. And in our society, when you put together a group of hot women in hot costumes nad have them cheer about science, the basic message isn't "Women can be interested in science" or "Women can be scientists". It's "science is cool, and you girls can support it by showing off how fuckable you are to all those smart science dudes".

At best, what the science cheerleaders do is say "You can be interested in science and still be hot". But put in context, that's a very sad message: what it says is "As a woman, your primary responsibility is to be hot; you can be a scientist too, as long as you're hot."

Most people don't want to think of themselves as being sexists or racists. Our self-image is that being a racist or a sexist is bad, and we're not bad people. So we reject the idea that we've got these deeply ingrained racist and sexist attitudes. The problem is, we are sexists. We are racists. We're not deliberately racist or sexist - but we all share the common context of our society, and it is ridiculous to pretend that we have somehow overcome that. And that causes some of the most pernicious problems of discrimination. The majority of discrimination today isn't conscious and deliberate. It's subconscious: it's the attitudes and beliefs that we have internalized, which color our perceptions in ways we don't even recognize.

I've done a lot of work recruiting, interviewing, and hiring people. And when you look at that, it becomes ridiculously obvious just how strong those subconscious biases are.

For example, in an experiment I've actually witnessed: Give a guy a bunch of resumes with names removed, and stripped of any content which could show the gender of the candidate, and they'll pick out a bunch of resumes. If you look at the resulting selection, you'll typically find that the number of women's resumes who get selected are slightly above the proportion of women in the population. (This is another manifestation of sexism; in order to succeed, women need to be better than the corresponding male candidates; in a technical job, the average woman candidate will have better qualifications than the men she's competing with, and in a blind resume search, that will result in the women being selected at a higher rate, because they have better qualifications.

Now, take the same batch of resumes, and an equivalent batch of screeners, but leave the names/gender identifiers on the resumes. You'll get a dramatically different result. In the resulting pool of selected resumes, you'll find that nearly all of the top male candidates from the initial round - better than 90% - were also selected in the open search. But of the women selected in the blind search, less that 20% will get selected in the open search.

And it's not just men who do this. Use women as screeners, and you'll see something similar. It's not quite as as extreme - with women screeners in the open search, about 40% of the women from the blind search will also get selected. But still, the majority of women will be excluded, when the only additional piece of data is gender.

That's the problem with the science cheerleaders. Not that there's something wrong with cheering about science. Not because it's impossible to be both a cheerleader and a scientist. The problem is that given our societal biases, the science cheerleaders play right into gender stereotype, and end up reinforcing the message that the primary role of women in science is sexual and supportive. You can be a female scientist - but if you are, it's important that you do it in a way which shows your sexual subservience to the men. You can be a female scientist - as long as you're also a hot chick who's sexually available to male scientists.

As a closing point, before you start flaming me: just ask yourself, honestly: what would you think if a group of men dressed up in speedos and filmed a video cheering about science? Not doing any science - just dancing in their speedos chanting "science is cool." In fact, can you even imagine a bunch of really great male scientists agreeing to dance in speedos while cheering?

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67 responses so far

  • jc says:

    Thank you Mark.

  • Kevin says:

    Agreed.

    I think there's also an underlying message in why there would be 'Hot Fuckable Science Cheerleaders' anyway:

    It's supposed to address the supposed tradeoff between 'Being Sexy' and 'Being Sciencey' by saying 'Don't Worry: YOU CAN STILL BE HOT if you do science', and that reinforces the notion that science is related to sexual attractiveness at all, even in a negatively correlated way.

  • leigh says:

    exactly, right on.

  • Kenye says:

    Part of the human resources job is to encourage that discrimination as a part of "team mounting" and that will lead eventually to a natural sellection of mediocre sexists racists, and eventually, given the global situation, that will leave to the end of mankind. Corporativism is destroying humanity.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ok,ok, lemme round up PhysioProf and Pal and Tidliar and, oh, Bora...I'm sure we can find some speedos and put together a little something...

  • Gerald says:

    Maybe it's a US-centric thing? Having grown up in France I had zero exposure to this "cheerleading" thing, except when watching some imported US movies.

    • Soli says:

      +1
      Mark, your "our society" is, fortunately (?), really "your society", at least for this very specific point. No such thing as a (science or sport) cheerleader here (in France), and thus no such thing as a debate over science cheerleading ;)

      • Right you are, Soli. Cheerleading is a very American phenomenon. The situation must be much better in France, where literally every single noun is gendered. There's surely no room for societal gender biases to arise in that sort of environment, is there?

        • Mark, could you get rid of that extraneous "'re" that the iPad keyboard tacked on in there? Kthxbai

        • eric says:

          We have major sports such as hockey where there are no cheerleaders. Or perhaps its better to say that we have sports where the whole crowd gets into cheering without the need for women in skimpy skirts to lead them.

          If only science were one of those activities that (i) drew a crowd which (ii) cheered and otherwise got into it without the need for cheerleaders.

  • Zeno says:

    One of my calculus students makes a living by dancing at a casino. I think most of her earnings comes from tips from the men she entertains. She told me it is poison to her income if she lets slip that she has a functioning brain and is intellectually more accomplished than most of the men who leer at her and stuff money into her skimpy outfit. The last time she admitted to being a college student who knew the fundamental theorem of calculus, her client deflated like a punctured balloon and could hardly slink away quickly enough.

    Many men, I'm afraid, are extremely fragile.

    • James Sweet says:

      Hey, it's hard to avoid that. I consider myself a feminist, and in regards to intelligence vs. sexual attraction, there is actually no bigger turn-off for me than a woman who is not very bright (actually, there is one: Women who act not very bright because they think -- often rightly, I'm afraid -- that it comes across as sexy. Oh my god I hate that...)

      However, that said I must acknowledge that I've never found myself sexually attracted to a woman who was as good or better at math and math-related topics than me. Brighter than me in other topics, sure. I want that. And there's nothing in my conscious mind that's like, "Ugh, she's good at math, yuck." Not even close. And yet, when I think back to when I was single, every example I can think of of a woman who matched or exceeded me in those kinds of abilities, I just did not find myself attracted to. I can't change that any more than I could change the other subtle things that I find attractive/unattractive.... but it's disturbing, isn't it?

      • MarkCC says:

        I can safely say that that's not a problem for me... I married a woman who is, undeniably, smarter than me, and a better CS researcher than I am. And obviously, I find her incredibly attractive.

    • James Sweet says:

      Heh, it just occurred to me, as embarrassingly misogynist as that tendency is, it has probably helped me to be more gender-neutral in my job, where the majority of women who I work with as peers would fall into the category of being on par with me on math-related subjects. I once dated an admin assistant, and have been attracted to others, but I never really had a crush on a fellow engineer... which is probably for the best, all things considered!

    • Nicole says:

      I imagine there's a selection effect at work there... men who patronize strippers aren't looking for smart women. It probably makes them feel guilty and dirty to find out a stripper can think. Perhaps they think brainless women don't mind being objectified since they're not real people with thoughts and emotions and things.

      Personally, before marrying DH, I had to fight off men with a stick, no doubt because of my braininess (possibly my defining feature). It certainly wasn't the care and attention I take on my personal appearance (just enough to be clean, most of the time, and not stinky all of the time).

  • Peter Hollo says:

    Thanks for this, Mark. You're spot on.

    • Valhar2000 says:

      I am strongly inclined to think so, too. In countries in which such things don't exist, cheer-leading is considered odd, to say the least.

  • Bashir says:

    there’s a whole discussion about it which has largely devolved into a bunch of people shouting at each other (complete with a sub-discussion about which dudes successfully banged hot but crazy smart chicks).

    Disappointing response to say the least.

  • Valhar2000 says:

    Not doing any science – just dancing in their speedos chanting “science is cool.” In fact, can you even imagine a bunch of really great male scientists agreeing to dance in speedos while cheering?

    Have you seen the skit from Penn & Teller's Bullshit where they act as "cheerleaders for science"? That's the kind of science cheerleading I cna get on board with.

    • MarkCC says:

      It's just *so* much easier to win an argument when you're arguing against a straw man.

      I've heard the variations of Kafka line countless times... and I'm sure hat somewhere, at some time, someone made the argument that *because* you deny being an X, that proves that you are an X - where X is racist/sexist/homophobe/cat-hater. But in all of the times I've seen the Kafka argument invoked, it's been a total strawman. I've *never* seen the real arguments where it applies.

      The argument that I made is: if you grow up in a society where male dominance and female subservience is a fundamental core attitude which is reinforced by media, culture, education, entertainment, politics... then you are inevitable going to absorb some of that as a basic belief.

      There's a very big difference between "If you say you're not a sexist, that proves that you're a sexist", and "if you grow up in a culture that teaches you sexist attitudes, you'll learn some of those sexist attitudes".

      I don't believe that it's possible to grow up surrounded by the constant sexist messaging in our culture without picking some of it up. Perhaps if you're some kind of superhuman who's always aware of the subtext of everything they learn, and who's able to eliminate the messages that they don't like without ever absorbing them; or perhaps if you're some kind of profoundly autistic person who's utterly incapable of understanding social messaging. But other than that? How can you not?

      Can you really, honestly claim that none of your attitudes about masculinity, femininity, gender roles, gender differences, jobs, communication styles, or sexual behaviors have been at all influenced by the culture where you developed those attitudes?

      Can you explain things like the study I described, without recourse to gender attitudes?

      • AnyEdge says:

        Moreover, whoever wrote that article he linked to doesn't seem to understand the existential point of Kafka's book. Which is that we are all on trial, for crimes we know not what, and that we have all been sentenced to death, and that life itself is the humiliating trial ending in destruction. It was a book which used faceless bureaucracy as meronym for the implacable tautology of the human condition: we are all to die and therefore all is vanity.

      • WellMaybe says:

        There probably are some people who missed out on those subliminal messages. But those people are probably also very naive and sheltered.

  • angrymonkey says:

    Honestly, I think the chearleaders do more good than harm. I've known a few girls who were incredibly bright and told me how in elementary and high school they purposely got bad marks because they didn't want to be weird or unsexy, or what have you (I know some guys who did the same thing, but that isn't germaine to this discussion).

    Maybe the image of a sexy woman, even one just cheering science, would help girls like my friend feel less out of sorts in elementary or high school? This may be particularly effective in the high school environment that picks at both women and men's insecurities.

  • Alan B says:

    I can't disagree with anything you said here. However, isn't it a step in a better direction? wouldn't it be better if 5% of women were hot scientists, than if 0% were scientists at all? Obviously those numbers are made up, but isn't it a first step in eliminating these biases?

    • Alan, you're missing the point. Mark's not talking about attractive women being scientists, he's talking about attractive women not being scientists -- stopping at the point of "cheerleading" for scientists and not actually engaging in science itself.

      • boris says:

        Maybe, as others pointed out, it's easier for americans to associate people cheering with the sports cheerleaders, but after I watched the video, what made an impression on me was that they talked about science. When asked, they immediately said that they *are* scientists, not cheerleaders. It's not like they went on a trip to cheer the "alpha males in the football team" -- they went to a fare, and decided the promote what they do by cheerleading.

    • Jimbo Jones says:

      Yes, it is better. And that's why neither Sci nor Mark absolutely panned the idea:

      My dear friend Sci seems to have stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest by posting something less than entirely complimentary about the science cheerleaders. That sounds like a sarcastic way of saying that she wrote something taking them down – but actually it’s an accurate description of what she did. What she wrote wasn’t entirely negative or entirely positive. It was an honest, balanced assessment of just what she thought about the idea of the science cheerleaders and why they made her feel uncomfortable.

      I agree that while the best possible message is a marginally good one ("you can be a scientist and still be hot) does have it's elements of righteousness, it's still not one I'd want told to a daughter of mine. And that's the point. The fact that this is better than nothing is really a red herring. The point in question is this: the science cheerleaders lean on a patriarchal bias. With a minor tweak to the idea, the reliance on this bias could be removed with very little extra work. As it stands, relying on a patriarchal bias does harm to women in general because of the fact that society is set up to cater to men.

    • Isabel says:

      Right Alan, there are 0% woman scientists, and this is the first attempt ever to do something about it.

    • Cara says:

      No.

      It's a step in reinforcing them. It says a woman's first duty is to be patriarchy compliant and THEN, if she's successful at that, she's allowed to quietly do a little science as long as she doesn't lose her figure or overshadow the male scientists.

  • Mary says:

    I agree with every word of this post, but I do have a "but"...

    I'm a physicist now, but I can remember being a 10 year old girl whose dream was to be a cheerleader in high school. I played with Barbies and I read Sweet Valley High and I was obsessed with horses. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up, because by that time I'd given up on "ballerina." I was a part of my culture.

    And looking back I can still see all of those things as innocent fun. Sure, they perpetuated gender stereotypes. But you know what? So do guys' sports programs. Yeah, maybe cheerleading encourages women to watch from the sidelines. But high school football encourages boys to be competitive and aggressive, traits that can be detrimental to them and to society just as their feminine opposies can be. And athletic prowess is no less shallow than "fuckability" as a quality to strive for and be judged by. In fact a man showing off his athletic talents is really advertising his fuckability to the nearby women just as much as the cheerleaders are to the nearby men. Girls like good athletes and always will. That's a big part of why guys play sports, don't you think?

    But none of that is a reason to get rid of the Little Leagues or of PopWarner football. Because along with the macho crap they entail, they also bring a lot of people a lot of joy. And you know, teamwork and bonding and all that. And the same is true for cheerleading. It makes little girls happy, and if it re-enforces some gender roles... Well, not everything about the traditional women's role in society is bad (and not everything about the traditional men's role is good.)

    All of which has nothing to do with "science cheerleaders" as such, but does have to do with cheerleading in general... I'd let my daughter do it, if she wanted to.

    Science cheerleading, while not helping the cause of women scientists at all really, may be fun enough to justify its existence at least in theory.

    • Cara says:

      Actually, the glorification of aggression is plenty of reason to discourage team sports. That teamwork crap is, well, crap. If sports were just another fun thing to do, would they get as much funding and societal support? No.

      The fact that they reinforce sex stereotypes and gender essentialism is a feature, not a bug.

  • complex field says:

    Mark, you said: "They don’t show that they know or care anything about science". Yet there is a counter example from footage of the very event. cf scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/11/episode_cxxxi_science_cheerlea.php at 00:28, Summer is an engineer at the Johnson Spaceflight Center. Moreover, Regina at 1:04 is an ER surgeon. Melissa at 2:50 is a neural imaging clinical researcher.

    Obviously, gender bias is a sensitive and emotional subject. Perhaps you have allowed emotions to cloud your argument against the data provided?

    Just some food for thought....

    • matt p says:

      Right. He said they didn't show that they know or care about. He didn't say that they didn't know or care. Saying "I am an X" then switching to a picture of you dancing doesn't really demonstrate anything about science.

  • xarkGirl says:

    This is fucking brilliant. The resume study is appalling, but shows what so many women in traditionally male arenas already know.

    Perhaps, if the gender gap were not so profound, I could agree that science cheerleaders are fun or cute or appealing. But we aren't to that point. This is not really about cheerleading. It's about taking a serious issue and tarting it up to conform to societal biases that shouldn't be there in the first place.

  • Michael says:

    What of the thought that these cheerleaders are promoting that there are women--attractive, highly sought after potential mates--that value science in their men? After all, hot women cheering football gives men the impression that athleticism will get them laid. Won't hot women cheering science give men the impression that intellect will get them laid?

    Now, having said that, I agree... the gender inequality, even in that case, is striking. It might give men hope that women have other sexual desires than the classic jock stereotype, which is good, but it does nothing for the status of women themselves.

  • becca says:

    "At best, what the science cheerleaders do is say “You can be interested in science and still be hot”. But put in context, that’s a very sad message: what it says is “As a woman, your primary responsibility is to be hot; you can be a scientist too, as long as you’re hot.”"
    This paragraph is spot on.

    However, you are technically misleading about two things: 1) cheerleading-as-a-sport exists, and if you use a mental-framework for cheering *without* some macho sport accompanying it, the science cheerleaders have a different 'feel'. Perhaps still less compelling outreach than highlighting these scientists actually, ya know, *doing* science, but not so much gloming onto that 'women exist to support men' cultural meme.
    2) They do cheer *about* science. Check out the website.
    Now, as far as that later point... it might just be me, but I think their cheers about science sound really, really, inane. But then, aren't cheers 'supposed' to be simple? I'm not at all sure about this aspect one way or the other. Good idea, needs better tactics?

    One of the problems here is how *bad* we are at evaluating *outcome* of things that we take for granted in society. If I had rock-solid data that *demonstrated* that football brought X amount of joy (in the form of physical fitness, testosterone rush after wins, good sportsmanship qualities modeled, companionship of teams and/or fans...), and 6X amount of suffering (in the form of injuries, dashed dreams, testosterone crashes after loses, poor sportsmanship qualities modeled and publicized, ostracism of those that 'dont fit in' with the team or fans, drug abuse perpetuated and that whole sick economic cycle of the people that surround pro-athletes, little kids in factories instead of school making nike shoes, DUIs after football games, random outbursts of violence increasing in college towns after upset games, rapes even less likely to be prosecuted than normal because we can't have the star athlete in jail, financial losses to families of sports gambling addicts...), how many people do you think would *really* give up their football pools or stop buying jerseys for family members at christmas?

    Maybe the science cheerleaders are net-bad. But if so, they are bad for many of the same reasons cheerleading and sports in general are bad. And most of us are acclimated to those things. *sigh* just like we're acclimated to the gender smog...

    @drugmonkey for you and tideliar, yes sure. Bora and PalMD, even. CPP? EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW dude, we've *seen* his ankles. *shudder* Way to *kill* love-of-science.

  • complex field says:

    PZ in a speedo.....

  • Not Telling says:

    Yes!

  • Michael says:

    I think the intention of the science cheerleaders is good and think it does far more good than bad, but I also think you make some very good points.

  • Read this post yesterday morning, and it has sparked quite a bit of conversation between me & my husband about gender roles in society, etc. Will try to post on our discussion later today. Thanks for the great post.

  • John says:

    Gender issues aside, cheerleading for science is as absurd as publishing the football results in an academic journal.

  • Mary says:

    Apart of having other more appropriate ways to encourage girls/boys to take up science I think that it's time for you men to kick each other in the bud and support your mother, sister and dauhter to take their - equal place in society.
    Women on the other hand should not fight men, but instead they must fight together. Feminism didn't / doesn't work out that well. It's another elite approach.

    Look at the figures on the distribution of income, property, education and who works hardest and most in the world. Look at the sales figures when it comes to cars, bikes, in the film industry. Sex and the women subordination sells!

    You are raised, teached and fed in this way by the people who get the money (you know who they are!) Stop doing that, think about it.

    For hat matter, the majority of men have a big stake in a social / system change. Today's economic system is not welcome for male living conditions and future prospects either. Perhaps at first glance it seems that they have an interest in the sexist structures in society, but in reality sexism and the economic system holds a permanent pressure on the living conditions and wages of everyone and perverts the family and love relationships by keeping women dependent.

    In ancient times it was landownership and title that held the power, today it's Land & money that holds the power. And tomorrow it is knowledge.
    Educate both men and women. Education can prefent poverty and inequality.
    Educate for science, social skills, technical or whatever. Teachers (m/f), parents (m/f), women and men, be sensible and take responsability and brave steps.
    Cheers!

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Mark, can you give us a link or reference for the resume study? I'd love to be able to cite that at opportune moments, especially at Christmas with Mr owl's Republican relatives.

    • MarkCC says:

      Unfortunately, no. It was a study that I participated in at a former employer, but the results weren't published.

      (One of the odd things about working in industry research is that you don't always get to publish your work; you need to get permission from above. And there are people above who don't necessarily understand the work, and judge it on the basis of whether or not they believe it will make the company look good. If they think it would make the company look bad, then they won't let you publish it. To be clear, this wasn't *my* research, but it was done under the umbrella of an industrial research lab; and the PR people who have a say in whether something got published didn't like it.)

  • There's a lovely irony in this post, which I think demonstrates your point about being a product of your culture: you refer to all the males, whether adult or adolescent as "men", never as boys, and yet you slip between "women" and "girls" for females, usually in age-appropriate contexts.

    It's a subtle example of how your culture has shaped your language, and I think reinforces the point you're making rather than detracting from it.

    • James Sweet says:

      Heh, that's a really tough one to avoid. I try to be hyper-vigilant about it in my writing and speech, and I mostly succeed in my writing (my comment just below this one, which I wrote before reading this, you can see that I was successful there) but still fail often in speech.

  • James Sweet says:

    No matter how much you think you’re better than that, that you don’t believe that you’re a sexist or a misogynist, you’ve still absorbed that message.

    It's more than absorbing the message; in many situations, our physiology makes it so that avoiding misogyny requires constant vigilance. There is an SMBC comic on this topic I would look up if I weren't so behind at work (it's the one where there is only a single female in the CS dep't...)

    But think about it. If you are a heterosexual male in an environment that is predominantly men, and there are only a few women, it is virtually impossible to avoid at some point considering your female colleagues sexually -- far more so if you are single. In fact, for many single males in extremely male-heavy disciplines, especially those in college, it may very well be the case that the majority of your contact with potential sexual partners will be within your discipline. There is just no getting around this.

    Which means that if you are a woman in a male-heavy discipline, it's a virtual certainty that the majority of your male colleagues have considered you in a sexual way, and highly likely that several of them would seriously like to hook up with you.

    That's without any societal baggage. That's physiology. To make life bearable for women in this position requires a societal bias against considering women as sexual objects, not just a neutral bias. It requires constant vigilance on the part of us men who find ourselves in such disciplines. That's just the nature of being human, and we've got to work hard not to fuck it up.

    • MarkCC says:

      See, I don't buy that at all.

      It's something that's constantly used as an excuse by men to ogle at women in unwelcome situations: "I can't help it, it's just the way I'm made".

      Somehow, women manage to get through a day of work without considering whether or not they want to fuck every man they see in the office.

      Men are perfectly capable of seeing a woman without thinking about whether or not she's someone they want to fuck. Really. The only reason that you think that we aren't is because of the fact that you've been taught that an essential part of your manhood that you have to judge and evaluate women.

      • James Sweet says:

        It’s something that’s constantly used as an excuse by men to ogle at women in unwelcome situations: “I can’t help it, it’s just the way I’m made”.

        I was worried someone would take it in that sense, though I didn't think it would be you, Mark. I meant it as, "Because of the way we are made it is very difficult to avoid, so we must be ever vigilant if we intend on not being dicks."

        Men are perfectly capable of seeing a woman without thinking about whether or not she’s someone they want to fuck. Really.

        Yes, I think that is clear. My point was that in situations where gender is highly unbalanced (well, mostly just where it is highly balanced towards the male side), there is a strong tendency, even without the societal baggage, for men to view the few women who are around as potential mates -- which is not a very nice situation for those few women. And so the gender imbalance is self-reinforcing.

        I'm thinking here reading some of your response that you missed the point that I was talking specifically about situations where there is an existing gender imbalance... That's kind of key to the point I was making.

        Assuming that people do, in fact, at times find themselves sexually attracted to other people, and that this is not caused by society (which I think is a safe assumption!) and assuming the population is majority heterosexual (which is borne out statistically) then without even making further assumptions, we can pretty safely say that the minority gender in a gender imbalanced group is going to find themselves with an uncomfortably high amount of unwanted sexual attraction directed their way. This is just a numbers thing.

        I think that denying this phenomenon is not progressive -- I think the progressive response is to acknowledge it, and try hard to compensate for it.

        Mark, if all of this is purely a societal thing, and has absolutely no basis in physiology, than how come we see so few societies historically who haven't developed in a patriarchal direction, one which views women as sexual objects? It seems to me the innate tendencies for society to organize in this fashion are painfully obvious -- and since with modern eyes we can see that this is wrong, that intensifies our need to struggle against it.

        I feel the same way about those who deny that racism is a natural phenomenon. If you look at any civilization anywhere in history, a natural in-group/out-group dichotomy develops, and in virtually any place where there was an opportunity to base this distinction on skin color, people have taken advantage of it. No, children don't have to be taught to hate -- they naturally hate and fear that which they are unfamiliar with. This is why we must teach our children that differences are okay. If we fail to teach our children tolerance, foolishly assuming that tolerance is the default, then we have failed.

        Similarly, men don't need to be conditioned to view women as sexual objects (even though undoubtedly societal conditioning currently intensifies this unfortunate tendency). We do that just fine on our own, thank you. Which is why it is imperative that we struggle against it, that we teach men not to behave this way.

        Let's not fall prey to the moralistic fallacy here, just because some other idiots have employed the naturalistic fallacy to justify their misogyny.

        • Jimbo Jones says:

          Yes, I think that is clear. My point was that in situations where gender is highly unbalanced (well, mostly just where it is highly balanced towards the male side), there is a strong tendency, even without the societal baggage, for men to view the few women who are around as potential mates

          I'm sorry, but you've made a few assumptions there that renders your whole point invalid. You can't have a situation without societal baggage. Additionally, if what you're saying is true, women would also be engaging in judgemental mating behaviours when the gender balance is exactly opposite, because they would have the same drives. Seeing it as a male drive is a very patriarchal and heteronormative viewpoint, especially as it's mainly a society-motivated "drive".

        • MarkCC says:

          Yes, I think that is clear. My point was that in situations where gender is highly unbalanced (well, mostly just where it is highly balanced towards the male side), there is a strong tendency, even without the societal baggage, for men to view the few women who are around as potential mates — which is not a very nice situation for those few women. And so the gender imbalance is self-reinforcing.

          So why is is it "mostly just where it is highly balanced towards the male side"?

          One of the really tricky aspects of this kind of issue is that the basic conditioned biases run so deep that we don't even see them.

          Think about elementary school teachers. That's traditionally an overwhelmingly female job. (In my kids elementary school, which runs K-4, average 6 classes per grade, there's one male classroom teacher; two male specials teachers; and one male teachers aid. All of the other teachers are women.)

          And yet, a male schoolteacher doesn't have problems with all of the female teachers constantly thinking about whether or not they'd like to fuck him.

          Why is that?

          I think it's because we've got very deep gender biases that say that men are supposed to constantly be looking at women in terms of their fuckability; and women are supposed to be the passive targets of that.

          Similarly, men don’t need to be conditioned to view women as sexual objects (even though undoubtedly societal conditioning currently intensifies this unfortunate tendency). We do that just fine on our own, thank you. Which is why it is imperative that we struggle against it, that we teach men not to behave this way.

          You're falling for the naturalistic fallacy right there. The way we men constantly look at women in terms of their value as sex objects isn't something intrinsic. It's something we learn to do.

          • James Sweet says:

            No, I'm not falling for the naturalistic fallacy, Mark, and the fact that you are saying so shows that you do NOT understand what the naturalistic fallacy is.

            The naturalistic fallacy is when you assert that "what is, ought", i.e. an assertion that because something naturally turns out a certain way, that is the way it ought to be.

            Now, you can dispute my contention as to the extent to which the problems with pervasive gender bias are a result of naturally occurring phenomena, but it is ridiculous to read my previous comment and accuse me of falling for the naturalistic fallacy, because my point is that "what is, oughtn't". i.e. I am saying that -- IMO, and you can dispute this -- it seems fairly plain that there are both societal and biological contributions to pervasive gender bias, and that gender bias is an inherently bad thing.. and so if are we are to overcome it, we can't just eliminate the social contributions (which I certainly don't deny!), we must calibrate the social conditions to combat any natural tendencies towards pervasive gender bias.

            In any case, it's somewhat of a moot point, because I am finding myself arguing the side of an argument which I do not think matters at present. We all agree that societal conditioning is a major contributor to pervasive gender bias, so we all agree about the direction in which to move things. There is no disagreement there.

            The reason I brought up my initial point is because the scenario described in the SMBC comic I referenced (perhaps I will have to look it up...) is all to common, and can create problems for women even if the men involved are all acting in good faith.

            If you are a single heterosexual male (oh, and BTW, to Jimbo Jones who accuses me of heteronormative biases, you will find that I was meticulous in always specifying heterosexual when it mattered, and acknowledged that many of the arguments I am making are only applicable in a society which is majority heterosexual, which happens to be the society we are living in right now -- so please, no accusations of heteronormative biases, okay? I am making an argument regarding the world we live in, not some hypothetical world the bell curve of sexual preference is more evenly distributed, and have been meticulous about specifying as such)... anyway, where was I... Oh yes, if you are a single heterosexual male in a relatively small major (e.g. computer engineering) you will find that the majority of your classmates are drawn from the same pool of fifty or so people. If you are also relatively introverted (hmmm, computer engineering majors... no stereotypes, please!) then this pool of fifty or so people may comprise the majority of your social contact. If that pool of fifty or so people contains only a single woman (and again, I specified that I am only talking about the heterosexual males, whom we can pretty safely presume are a majority according to current statistical estimates), and being single and lonely you'd kind of like to find a partner... the odds that you might legitimately find yourself attracted to this lone woman, not even from a sexual objectification point of view, but from an emotional point of view, are non-trivial. (Unless you have romantic notions of people being "fated" to be together, which I don't... We fall in love with the people we know, and if you only happen to know one or two potential partners, well... you do the math)

            My point is that this hypothetical heterosexual male could be acting entirely in good faith, not even necessarily objectifying the lone woman in question -- and yet the net effect of all of the lonely heterosexual males in this small major who find themselves attracted to this poor women is one of sexual objectification. It must be a tremendously uncomfortable situation to be in.

            Why is this less likely in female-dominated groups? Well, for one thing, I think the effect still exists. But it is probably less so. Is that all due to societal effects? Maybe, maybe not. I'm actually not all that concerned about it. But the point I was making is that the very factor of human biology, that the people whom we fall in love with (i.e. choose as desired mates) are the people we know, and in highly gender imbalanced groups composed primarily of heterosexuals, that means a whole lot of the majority gender wanting to fuck the members of the minority gender -- even without societal reinforcement, which is surely also a major problem.

            Why am I making this point? To excuse this behavior? Fuck no, and it's offensive to me that you keep misrepresenting me that way. I am making this point because it is far too easy for the majority gender in a gender-imbalanced situation (again, composed of primarily heterosexuals, as appears to be the case with most human groups) to make the minority gender feel uncomfortable without realizing they are doing anything wrong. Those lonely single guys in the computer engineering department, they need to understand that that lone woman probably is getting advances from all directions, and maybe you need to chill out -- no matter how real it all feels to you.

            Do you understand the point I am making here? Gender imbalance is self-reinforcing even if all members of the majority gender are acting in good faith (and it's a good bet they are not, for the reasons you all have already expounded on ad naseum, and which I whole-heartedly agree with). Those who find themselves in the majority gender in a gender-imbalanced situation would therefore be advised to not only consider whether their own behavior is "fair" or in good faith, but the net effect created by all the behaviors of the members of the majority gender. (And again, the fact that this is more of a problem in male-dominated groups may or may not have biological roots -- I consider the question unimportant at present, because we know it has very powerful social origins)

            Is it all clear now? This is the last I will say about it.

        • Y. says:

          When you say that it's natural for men to objectivity women, it comes out wrong. I think you meant "to sexualize." In fact, here's another twisted value of our society: that all sexualization is demeaning and objectifying for women.
          It's ironic, I know. While being portrait as sex toys by the media and having their success measured by how attractive they are, women who take charge of their sex lives (and don't make a point of hiding or being somehow embarrassed about it) are often looked down by all of us. At the end of the day, we still believe that good girls are not supposed to like sex and only do it for love. They're pure. They're not the ones who take their top off on TV.
          Think about it. You seem to think that considering the women who work with you as sexual partners is the same thing as objectifying them. You're implying that it denies their value. You said that we should fight against it. After all, the sexual girls are the bad ones, right? And your coworkers, that you respect, are supposed to be the good girls. So you shouldn't sexualize them. But like I said, this is a twisted value of our society.
          Women are sexual too. It's not demeaning to think of them as such. As long as you also think of them as human beings like yourself and respect them as such, you're not objectifying women.
          Do you get it? I don't know if I managed to say what I mean. But in short, sexualization does not equal to objectification. One is not demeaning and the other is. One is natural and the other is learned.

    • Cara says:

      That’s without any societal baggage. That’s physiology.

      Actually, no. It's not.

      Also, for the record, nobody cares what your private thoughts are if you're "considering" your co-workers sexually, as long as you keep your thoughts to yourself, don't leer, and keep your demeanor professional.

  • James Sweet says:

    As a closing point, before you start flaming me: just ask yourself, honestly: what would you think if a group of men dressed up in speedos and filmed a video cheering about science? Not doing any science – just dancing in their speedos chanting “science is cool.” In fact, can you even imagine a bunch of really great male scientists agreeing to dance in speedos while cheering?

    FWIW, as a heterosexual feminist male, I think that would be awesome. And although I am not a scientist and nobody wants to see me in a speedo, I would totally do it.

  • trrll says:

    I share the ambivalence. On the one hand, it is important to many young women to be attractive, so it is a good thing to make the point that being attractive and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. And its even true. As a scientist, I meet a lot of other scientists who happen to be very attractive women.

    On the other hand, I can't help but be uncomfortable with reinforcing the idea that being physically attractive is the most important thing for a woman. In fact, many women seem to place higher value on female beauty than men. It certainly works as advertising, but there are other ways to attract the attention of the opposite sex, and once one is past the initial encounter, the importance of physical attractiveness to most men diminishes rather rapidly. After a while, a woman just looks like herself. Even more curiously, I've found that what I find physically attractive in a woman is not a constant, but is strongly influenced by the women I've been romantically involved with in the past.

  • eric says:

    MarkCC: It isn’t that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with cheerleaders – but the societal context of cheerleading is that the cheerleaders aren’t part of the thing they cheer – they’re outsiders who support it by showing off how hot they are.

    Mark,
    I think you're right with that first part, but go off the rails with trying to draw some connection between cheering and being a part of what you cheer.

    A mascot is a cheerleader. So is a marching band. So is the guy or gal behind the organ, or the equivalent person who has control of the game's audio. When someone in the crowd starts a wave, they are being a cheerleader. And absolutely none of these people have to be 'part of what they cheer' for their actions to have meaning. You're wrong to state or imply that someone needs to 'be part what you cheer for' for the act of cheering to have meaning.

    I agree with most of what you say about U.S. cheerleading squads objectifying women etc... But I think you need to make a clearer distinction between the
    concept of cheering on a team (ok - even if you have no training whatsoever in what you cheer for), and how some U.S. High School, Universities, and professional sports teams implement cheerleading (bad).

  • Katharine says:

    One of the weird issues brought up in this discussion appears to be the occurrence in some idiots' brains that once someone is considered in a sexual manner they are automatically devalued to object status - as if all prior respect for them goes out the window once they see their colleague/partner/whoever is a woman and they start thinking 'ksaj;dlgknhejkg;j vagina laskjdf;lakjdflkd fuuuuuck' and act like slobbering troglodytes.

    This seems to be a very male thing, too, and seems to not be prevented from occurring whether the woman who is their department chair, their colleague on equal footing, or their grad students. You don't hear about women doing this to men who are their department chairs, colleagues, or grad students.

    • dryad says:

      And so the calculus student who chooses to dance at the casino (mentioned above) is doing exactly what to improve the situation? Or is she just not culpable, being female and therefore hopelessly doomed to entertain the idiotic prurience of men?

      As far as women not drooling over men...gosh, really? I never heard that.

    • Peter Gerdes says:

      That statement doesn't even make sense.

      "Devalued to object status"

      Am I devalued to object status when my wife asks me to stand on the folder she dropped so it doesn't blow away? She is surely using me as nothing more than a nearby object with lots of mass and is probably distracted by dropping her stuff to not be thinking of me in any other capacity.

      On the other hand the stereotypical examples where men "degrade women to the status of objects" like watching them in porn or at a strip club they are actually viewing them as anything but a mere object. Pornstars moan and beg for more because how erotic men find the situation depends hugely on the woman's feelings about it (even rape style fantasies require the women have strong feelings about the sex). Similarly at the strip club.

      Now I'm wondering what evidence you have for the rest of the statement. Does our sexual evaluation of people affect our other evaluations? Sure. But it's equally true that society judges men for being unasserative, non-confrontational etc.. (think average math guy at a non-math party) in a way that affects their judgement of them in other contexts.

      Also have you ever seen a girl go around for months praising some fuckup because she has a big crush on him. Women tend to be attracted to a smaller percentage of the population than are men but the degree to which that attraction affects their other judgements may offset this effect.

      You don't have real evidence or a well-posed assertion. You are just indicating an affiliation with the people who tend to be on one side of this argument.

  • "We live in a highly patriarchal society. In our society, there is a constant message that men are important, and that women exist in order to serve men. A woman who isn’t attractive, who isn’t dressing in ways that show off her fuckability, is considered less valuable as a person."
    Well, it depends who is measuring the value of the person. If my prime motivation in live was to sleep with women, as mentioned by Jeff Goldbloom in The Big Chill, then the value I would put on an attractive woman would be higher than someone who has a different motivational structure. There are tons of movies, plays, books, even history channel shows that make the argument the human male is simply geared for sex. It could be argued the human race is geared for sex as it is the only means of keeping our race on this planet. But to your point that society devalues someone who doesn't dress in a "fuckable" way, I personally feel society is making significant progress towards getting away from the cosntant message of "men are important".

    "In the male sports that have cheerleaders, the primary role of the male participants is to show off their strength and skill at the sport. The primary role of the chearleaders is to show how a group of attractive, fuckable women are supporting the talented male athletes."
    - Alright, yup. You got us on that one.

  • Peter Gerdes says:

    Yes you hear a lot theories with logical fallacies and lacking any evidence used to argue that women just aren't as good as men at X but that's no excuse to use equally unsupported and unsound theories to infer various things are sexist. They may or may not be but the reasoning in this post wouldn't cut it in any other subject.

    First let's take a look at the data you have about resumes. Does that actually support the claim you are making? For that to be true the most likely explanation of this effect is that ALL men and women can't help but judge women worse because of societal influences that we can never seem to pinpoint, operate by no recognized psychological principle and seems to infect those groups who we would suspect would be immune. Alternatively women actually look better on paper for a given level of skill than do men. There is a fair bit of psychological data that we unconciously adjust for these kind of differnet ratios (picking form two decks of cards) long before we become concioussly aware of them and our adjustment tends to be fairly accurate. The second theory seems at least as plausible to me.

    Indeed, given what other data we have it would be surprising if women didn't look better on paper for a given level of skill. We know that women tend to care more in HS about impressing their teachers. We also know that women get WAY better grades than men in school (and go to college in greater numbers than men). So either there is some non-ability based effect that accounts for women's greater success in both grades and exams (the study that was trumpted as showing women did as well as men in math now also showed that women do much better than men on the verbal side of the SAT) or you must explain women's far greater academic success (through college) as innately superior ability. If you choose the former then it would be surprising if women didn't look better on their resumes than would be reflected in their ability.

    We live is a highly patriarchal society. In our society, there is a constant message that men are important, and that women exist in order to serve men. A woman who isn’t attractive, who isn’t dressing in ways that show off her fuckability, is considered less valuable as a person.

    There are two seperate and totally unrelated claims you are trying to tie together. Yes, physical attractiveness matters far more to our judgement about women than it does to our judgements about men. However, it's also true that equally shallow properties like how much money someone makes or how much status/respect they have. There are plenty of statistically rigorous studies proving the first one but the effect is so strong that you can go out with pictures of men and ask women to rate how physically attractive they are from 1 to 10 and that number will often change by 5 or more points based on whether you happen to list info beside the picture saying they have a high or low paying job. We also judge men more than women based on how fancy of a car do they drive and how easily they cry (could as well be learned as innate) or tolerate insults.

    Indeed, it's almost like we engage in the same kind of 'unfair' judgements that other species where the man helps raise the young accentuated by the difficulty of human birth. Maybe we are in some kind of crazily discriminatory patriarchial society (dunno what that means since that's not the anthropological sense) or maybe we are in a society that values indicators of health and youth in women while valuing indicators of wealth and ability to defend (I'm so bad ass type of statements) in men. I'm not going to argue either way but you surely haven't demonstrated any clear asymetry in treatment.

    Sorry but if the people arguing women were innately inferior at math tried to use these same arguments you would skewer them for their logical fallacies and evidential inaccuracies. Just because you are on the politically correct side shouldn't protect you.

    ----

    Personally it's my view that a major influence in women's underrepresentaiton in math/science is exactly their greater desire to please and listen to their HS teachers for whatever reason. The problem is listening to them will get you to solve algebra problems by route memorization but the way you become a scientist or mathematician is ignoring the teacher and figuring stuff out yourself.

  • [...] also get how videos like the cheerleading ones may send out a type of message we are not comfortable with.. In the end of the day, if it inspires one girl to go into computer [...]

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