Female teacher demonstrating physics to pupils.

Compliments, sexism and careers in science

Female teacher demonstrating physics to pupils.Imagine this situation: you’ve been invited to a school to talk about science. By chance, you and your helper are both female. You give your presentation, doing your best to portray the wonder and challenge of life as a scientist, and when you’re finished the teacher invites the assembled students to thank “these lovely ladies”.

What’s the problem with that?

It seems like innocent flattery, and it doesn’t seem sexist — the teacher could just as easily have referred to a man as a ‘lovely gentleman’. It’s just a compliment, right?

For comparison, let’s take another example from a recent conference. A male delegate I didn’t know came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder while I was at a computer. He then leaned in far too close and made a joke about not stealing his papers (which were next to me), which he followed up by saying something incomprehensible about me involving the words ‘incredibly attractive woman’.

In both situations the comments were well intentioned, but the second example is pretty clearly inappropriate. It’s easy enough to identify and call someone out for that kind of behaviour. Yet I still didn’t know what to say. After all, hadn’t he just paid me a compliment? By the time the polite but firm phrase, “Excuse me, I think you’re being quite inappropriate” had fully formed in my head, he’d already left. So he got away with it.

I felt quite smug the next day when the audience slated his research in the questions after his particularly poor talk… but I digress. The point is that the first example I gave is just as important as the second.

The first example was actually from the astrophysicist Katie Mack, but I’ve had very similar experiences in the past. The comment was well-intentioned and many people would just consider it as an old-fashioned way of thanking the speaker for attending. It just sounds so nice and friendly. It can’t possibly be sexist, can it?

When most people think of sexism we tend to think of negative stereotypes about women. The teacher was clearly not saying that Katie is incompetent or inferior. On the surface, it was a positive comment.

Yet somehow this kind of thing has always made me feel slightly uneasy.

When I had a similar experience I felt it had undermined my position somehow. The comment implied that, because I was a woman, I had to be not just ‘smart’ and ‘interesting’ or even ‘entertaining’ for the kids I’d visited, but I also had to be ‘lovely’. Is ‘lovely’ a relevant character trait for a scientist giving a talk?

Moreover, is being an ‘incredibly attractive woman’ at all relevant to my attendance at a conference? (I remind you that I’m quoting what he said, not being vain.) Having physical or character traits commented on or discussed in a professional situation has never felt right to me. Thanks to a discussion with Katie I now have a term to describe why, it’s called “benevolent sexism”.

This is the kind of sexism that may appear positive, but is in fact damaging to women. For example, the belief that women are somehow inherently more caring or gentle sounds positive, but may undermine a woman’s position if she is applying for a high power job or entering a competitive environment. Similarly the reference to a woman being ‘lovely’ serves to impose on her a traditional stereotypical gender role, which is totally inappropriate when she is a scientist giving a talk. Being lovely is a positive trait, I’d go so far as to say it’s a compliment, but that is exactly the reason this kind of comment can elicit such conflicting feelings when it happens.

Benevolent sexism is described very eloquently in a fantastic piece by Melanie Tannenbaum for Scientific American. In it, she quotes the definition of benevolent sexism from a paper by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske in 1996 which I found quite enlightening:

Benevolent sexism is defined as as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviours typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491).

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).

When it comes to careers in science, whether you are a woman or a man should make no difference. But women have historically been underrepresented in science and have not had the same opportunities as men. There is still a huge gender divide, which only grows as one moves up the ranks. Women in top roles in science are still perceived as the exception rather than the rule. In other words a successful woman in science is seen as exceptional, a successful man in science is seen as normal.

For this reason, references to certain character traits (or physical traits) affect women disproportionately. Even if a comment is complementary it still reinforces the existing stereotype (you can’t be pretty AND smart) and may undermine whether or not the female scientist feels she’s being taken seriously in her work. In our “lovely ladies” example it may also affect the feelings of the pupils watching the talk and their aspirations to become scientists.

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the teacher intended when they said ‘lovely ladies’ and it doesn’t matter if men (or other women) have had a similar experience and felt unfazed by it. The only thing that really matters is the sub-conscious message it sent to the students about the role of women in science and the role of women in general.

This seemingly small incident has the potential to reinforce stereotypes that exist because of much broader issues of gender equality that still challenge society. If little by little we condition kids to accept that women should be ‘lovely’, how can we be surprised when, like us, they assume women should take on the role of primary carer because it is ‘in their nature’? At risk of sounding like a supermarket advert, every little incident counts.

Thankfully it is almost unheard of nowadays in science for anyone to be openly (negatively) sexist towards women, but benevolent (positive) sexism is another thing entirely. It’s much more difficult to spot and unfortunately it seems that some people simply refuse to understand that it is a problem.

You can identify people who don’t understand it quite easily. They were the ones saying to me ‘sheesh, take a compliment’ after I told them about my experience at the conference. If they can’t recognise the problem there, when it is so obvious, what chance do they have of identifying the ‘lovely ladies’ example as being problematic?

Please don’t ignore benevolent sexism. It can be as simple as turning to the person and saying ‘why did you say that?’. Let them know you were uncomfortable with their inappropriate comment. Even better, send them this article.

It’s not always easy, even if you are normally a confident and outspoken person who doesn’t suffer fools. But it is hugely important to speak out. This is my attempt at doing just that. Next time, I’ll know what to say.


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