I’m still watching with interest (and a little bit of indignation) the reactions to the shirt that an ESA mission scientist chose to wear to a live streamed press conference of their probe’s comet landing. There has been a swarm of response to the claim that the shirt was inappropriate, much of it hostile and some of it violent. There’s one particular response that has stuck in my lady scientist craw though – the idea that if a shirt with half-naked ladies is enough to keep women out of science, then maybe these delicate flowers should look for other careers.
If it were truly one shirt – one isolated incident in women’s decades long careers – I could see their point. A woman leaving science over one shirt might earn her the fragile flower label. But, it’s never just one shirt. I was reminded of this during my travels last weekend to the American Heart Association conference, where scientists and clinicians present their data related to the treatment of heart disease and stroke.
I went to hear talks about heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. Not to come as any shock, only 20% of the day’s speakers were women. One of the most common drugs used to treat pulmonary hypertension is the vasodilator sildenafil, which is marketed as Viagra for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. It is also marketed as Revatio for the treatment of pulmonary hypertension. Even though the dose to treat lung disease is much lower (5 mg) than to treat erectile dysfunction (50-100 mg) and not high enough to impact erectile function, we were still reminded during the talks that this is the drug that is used to give men boners. One speaker included a slide with a picture of a statue with an enormous, life-like erection and gave no explanation for his decision to show it. Just data, data, huge bronzed penis, data. The day’s final speaker ended his talk with the following cartoon about being neutered, again with no context and seemingly unrelated to his talk about congenital heart disease in children.
So, the issue isn’t that it’s one shirt. It’s that as a woman scientist, I see the equivalent of that shirt numerous times a day. I would like to go even a single day without having to hear about some guy’s cock or balls or how frequently he thinks about fucking or who he wants to fuck or anything related to reproduction. And, Lord, if it were only one guy, but it’s not…
When I was a graduate student, one of my colleagues had pictures of mostly nude pinup girls over his desk. When I was a postdoc, I had to convince a group of scientists I was traveling with that having our social dinner at a restaurant with strippers might not be appropriate.
I may have stuck it out, but I don’t blame women who feel that all of the sex references make them feel too uncomfortable to interact with these men. The problem then rears its ugly head when, because you’ve avoided these men for all of their talk about their johnsons and where they’d like to stick them, that you start missing opportunities.
The worst part about this behavior is that it’s so easily forgiven as an inherent character trait. Scientists are quirky and lack social skills and common sense. Still, I’ve never seen a woman make a lewd reference while giving a professional talk.
No, it’s not that men scientists are inherently idiosyncratic and can’t be expected to act professionally for eight hours of their day, it’s that science operates with a power structure in which men are rarely taken to task for their tasteless behavior.