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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