Archive | October 31, 2012

U. Chicago Researcher Makes Sexist Comments: The Science World Explodes

Dario Maestripieri is a Professor at University of Chicago who studies “neuroendocrine, ecological and evolutionary aspects of social behavior in human and nonhuman primates” and was apparently well respected in his field until recently.

Returning from a scientific meeting for neuroscientists, Maestripieri had the following to say on his personal Facebook page:

“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..”

Granted, it’s a boneheaded thing to say and normally, had it been restricted to the hotel bar, would have gone completely unnoticed. However, a reader took a screenshot, sent it to friends who sent it to other friends and the fires began.

Females scientists of all stripes have taken to the blogs in protest.

Now, there is no doubt that sexism exists in science, though, I would venture, the situation is quickly improving as the number of female scientists quickly increases. My department, for example, is mostly women and this is quickly becoming the case in departments everywhere. In fact, as of 2009, more women are earning PhD’s than men. I can’t speak for the lab sciences, but public health, statistics and math are quickly becoming majority female. I think this is a good thing.

Of course, numbers can be deceiving particularly when the power structure is still held by men. We can more very capable female researchers, but if none of them get positions of power, it’s for nothing.

All that said, the very hostile reaction to Maetripieri is quite interesting. What, on the surface, is merely the thick headed musings of a lone guy, has brought out deeper issues of how women feel they are treated in science, speculation as to what men think of female scientists and the future role of women in the world of research.

Honestly, I don’t find Maestripieri’s comments to be offensive at all but I’ve lived in the world outside academia, where people say things that are far, far worse. This is pretty tame. However, in the context of science, where crass sexism is very real, and the costs of marginalization huge, even small comments like these create huge waves.

What happens to Maestripieri is unknown. People are hurling racial slurs at him (like that’s constructive), calling for his funding to be cut and, worse yet, calling for him to resign his post. Likely this whole thing will blow over, but this is the kind of thing that kills careers in science.

What do you think?

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