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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A Facebook Furor

Being a serious scientific publication, we resisted commenting when we saw heated discussion in the blogosphere (link not suitable for work) about the unfortunate observation that University of Chicago evolutionary biologist and neurobiologist Dario Maestripieri posted on Facebook. But now that Inside Higher Ed has reported on the resulting “furor,” we figure it must be serious enough for Science Careers.

Maestripieri’s self-inflicted troubles began because he felt that the researchers assembled in New Orleans for the Society of Neuroscience annual meeting did not meet his exacting standards of feminine pulchritude.  “The super model types are completely absent,” he confided to his Facebook friends, and the “concentration” of “unattractive women” is “unusually high.”  He also wondered if “beautiful women [are] particularly uninterested in the brain.” He closed with the feeble proviso, “no offense to anyone.”  So, despite knowing his comments were ill-advised, he made them anyway. 

Some of those commenting online suggest that Maestripieri intended his post as an objective
observation by an evolutionary biologist, but the great majority aren’t buying that. Along with the jokes–too obvious even to mention–about the level of physical attractiveness prevalent among the men at scientific meetings, there are some serious points being made about Maestripieri’s boneheaded remark. 

 First, there is something truly creepy and repellant–at least to this veteran of many scientific gatherings–about a faculty member trolling for beauty at an academic meeting, where professionally vulnerable young researchers of both genders come in hopes of making contacts that can help build their careers. I haven’t been in graduate school for some time, but back when I was, sexual predation by male faculty members on female grad students was far from rare.

Some of the things considered permissible then for men to say to female subordinates are now legally actionable harassment, but cases of powerful men exerting pressure for sexual favors on less powerful women certainly still occur. With the power balance in academe between men and women still tilting heavily in the male direction, and the sense of impunity powerful academics often possess, it seems very unlikely that some men don’t take advantage. Indeed, the Inside Higher Ed piece offers testimony to this effect.  And Maestripieri’s blithe assumption that a mere “no offense” would make things right, when the offense is obvious, implies an infuriating sense of entitlement.

There’s another unpleasant implication embedded in Maestripieri’s post. He apparently assumed that some of his Facebook readers would find his observations interesting or amusing. This indicates that, in at least some circles, women scientists are still not evaluated on their work but rather on qualities irrelevant to their science. It brings to mind the famous anecdote, told by one of Maestripieri’s fellow neurobiologists, Stanford’s Ben Barres (who, until the age of 42, did science as Stanford’s Barbara Barres):  Unaware of Barres’s gender change, a male colleague commented on what great work Ben had done, so “much better than his sister’s.”

The wide attention that the Maestripieri post has garnered indicates that Maestripieri likely has suffered a painful comeuppance.  But the point of the story is not one faculty member’s egregious slip.  It is the apparently more widespread attitudes that this slip reveals.  And that’s no laughing matter.