Benevolently Sexist

One of these days, I will have to have a talk with a colleague, who has an administrative role in a physical science field. His heart is in the right place and he is one of the men who really support women and their advancement in the physical sciences, as evidenced by him propelling his female colleagues and students. However, I think he might have inadvertently gotten lost in the thick forest of benevolent sexism.

For probably several years now he has been spearheading this notion, backed by research but not in the literal form he seems to espouse, that we need to pitch our field as the haven for those people who want to help others and that we need to do it specifically so that we would attract more women students.

One the one hand, I understand what his real motivation is. Being head of a department, his role is to bring in students, because high enrollments mean high importance to the college and the university. In that sense, one cannot begrudge him for wanting to cast a wider net by any means necessary.

On the other hand, there are several things that are sexist about this attitude. First, it assumes that, deep down, all women want to be nurses, and that one has to appeal to a smart woman’s inner nurse in order to bring her — nay, trick her! — into the physical sciences. It also assumes that while men are naturally geeks, women could not possibly be real geeks or like the physical sciences for the same reasons as men, or for any reasons unrelated to their inner nurse.

I don’t know what one has to do to get this through people’s skulls: There are women geeks. Honestly, they exist.  *raises hand to be counted* There are women who like and are very good at math, physics, chemistry, computer science; who play video games; who like science fiction and fantasy.

Women geeks and men geeks do not necessarily look and act as the stereotypes. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and at the same time also look perfectly presentable and be perfectly socially adjusted. One can be into math, physics, chemistry, or computers, and also have long hair, boobs, and/or lipstick.

Not all women are motivated by helping those around them. In my choice of career, helping people didn’t figure out one iota. I like what I like because it’s intellectually challenging and fun. If anyone had come to pitch math or physics as a means of helping people when I was young, I would have probably run away from them as fast as I could. (Women can be misanthropes, just like men.)

Not all men are motivated by the same things, either (shocker, I know). There are plenty of men who want to help others. It boggles my mind that we as a society seem okay with stereotyping men as robot-loving geeks. I bet there are many boys who went into premed majors and whom we could have perhaps swayed into the physical sciences with the “physical sciences — because we are all about helping people!” pitch, the same one that supposedly mesmerizes the ever elusive girls into majoring in STEM.

There is a variety of reasons why people choose to do what they do. We should try to understand the reasons and expand the appeal of our field as best we can when we to try to attract more students. But please let’s do that in a way that does not enforce gender stereotypes.

Let’s not insist women don’t come unless you appeal to their inner nurturer. Some girls simply like computers and robots, period. Pitching soft as women and hard as men only further perpetuates the ideas that women are not real physical scientists. It also pushes away the men who may care about their fellow human and would be motivated by the human-centered aspect of the physical sciences. And it also makes many men resentful, because they perceive that the field is being softened and moving away from its essence because of those darn women.

The physical science fields are what they are. Let’s be honest as well as open-minded when we report about the opportunities the fields offer (good job prospects, anyone?). But let’s also be honest about the skills and interests that are required to succeed, and let us enhance the appeal without benevolently perpetuating the stereotype that women could not possibly be capable of swallowing the bitter science pill without the sugarcoat of nurture.


  1. I understand and agree with everything you’re saying. My question is, what is the best way to go about disagreeing with someone when they air these borderline-essentialist views? It’s rare that these characterizations of women are offered in an overtly negative manner. The well-intentioned sorts don’t usually offer up this nurturing portrayal of women as a BAD thing. They say it’s a great thing, and while I agree with all of your critiques and counter-arguments, it’s hard to say “No! Women are not always practical people oriented towards solving problems that matter and doing things that make a difference for people!”

    OK, you can say it, but I’d be eaten alive if I said it, especially since some women (for any number of reasons) would agree with that.

  2. Raising another hand here. I am a geek with long hair and boobs, here for the intellectual challenge and fun. Can never have too much advanced math and I work in a hard core field with enormous technical challenges. Helping people is nice, sure, but that has absolutely nothing to do with my motivation.

    I read about that study as well. The idea is to pitch specific engineering problems (figuring out a way for a severely disabled person to move around and feed herself, preserving a remote village’s food supply from spoiling or being eaten by animals and stuff like that). This would definitely appeal to one of my daughters, who is really good at solving little engineering problems, but only if they have a purpose. My other daughter just loves the intellectual challenge and finds math interesting. She also totally enjoys the badass factor of understanding vectors, functions and the basics of calculus at age 7. She picks up my books, asks what something means and then really listens when I explain it.

    I completely agree with you on this one. I think it is a good idea to use this approach to broaden the base of students entering STEM fields, but it should not perpetuate gender stereotypes by aiming it specifically towards women. I would have run away too.

  3. I have had this type of argument (offering myself as an example that women can be just as geeky as men and love the physical sciences just for the challenge) thrown back at me as “Well, you are an anomaly; you are a professor. We are trying to attract other real/average/normal young women.” Basically, you can’t win at this $hit. Either you are not a real scientist or you are not a real woman, apparently.

  4. Yeah, this one comes up a lot, often championed by women. I have no idea what the studies say about women’s vs. men’s preferences on average, but people are terrible about considering these results as statistical distributions. It’s always easier to invoke the mean and move on.

    I am another female geek who is driven by the love of learning but not by some need to be a helper. I also cringe when I hear this type of generalization about women.

  5. Yikes. I had no idea there was a study that came to this outdated sexist conclusion. I’m a female non-geek who did go into a “help people” field but is currently working more on the “intellectual challenge” side of it because, ugh, people. My field is also chock full of “help people” men, by the by. I do agree that highlighting the “helping people” aspect may draw a more diverse student body of women AND men! But that should also never be done at the expense of downplaying the “awesome intellectual challenge and job prospect” appeal. The idea that you have to “soften” the image to attract women is gross.

  6. I feel this divide all the time – I’m in an environmental science field where ‘save the species X’ is a common rallying cry and honestly, I’d rather save the X than not, but I’m here for the intellectual challenge. We have an excess of students who want to cuddle the X (and/or shoot the X) and not really deal with the hard science…so we might be at the opposite end of the spectrum! Our male:female ratio is pretty even though.

  7. Totally with you. I remember not too long ago on some now-dead blog’s website an ad campaign for getting people (both men and women) into engineering with not ONE IOTA ABOUT SCIENCE. When I asked, “where’s the science?”, people looked at me as if I had 2 heads. Because all you need to be an engineer is the desire to help people; an affinity for math or science is apparently irrelevant. Ridiculous!

    Maybe women scientists can start a campaign of their own? #Idontgiveashitabouthelpingpeople

  8. This is a pretty subtle issue though. When I was an undergrad in physics, I would often have my female friends make statements to the effect of “I want to work in a field with a human component.” I often felt obligated to explain that people have lots of different motivations to go into science, and that it shouldn’t be ruled out as a possibility.

    So, I definitely see your point that this attitude can come across as condescending, but it is still worthwhile to bear in mind that people on the outside of our field are shaped a lot more by society’s interpretation of science. All of us here recognize science as a creative affair, with many moving pieces, whereas many see it is mechanistic and dry with no room for creativity. I guess what I am trying to say is that, although it may be tempting to dismiss the attitude of your colleague as reductive and condescending, I do think the message that science isn’t a cold mechanistic place is an important one to broadcast, period. If broadcasting that message brings more female students into the fold, so be it.

  9. I’m a little uncomfortable commenting here, because I have held the view that we could get more women into engineering if we emphasized some of the useful things engineers can do, rather than just assuming that people would sign up for the coolness of the math and programming.

    Now, I have no evidence that emphasizing “helping” would make any difference to the abysmal gender balance in engineering, but it is one of the few suggestions I’ve seen that might help, and as fadsklfhlfja aid, it would be a good thing to do even if it had no effect on the gender balance.

    Note: I am now in bioinformatics and bioengineering, which attracts more women than other engineering fields at our university (though still not to parity, unlike biology, for example). The worst gender balance among undergrads here is in electrical engineering, the next worse is in computer game design (despite an almost equal gender balance on the faculty for the department that runs the game-design major).

    The EE ratio may be explainable by math phobia (though I think it has more to do with the way the EE courses are taught), but the game design ratio seems most explainable by the “usefulness” theory, as game design has all the coolness factors one might want, except that.

  10. I dunno… if more guys who wanted to help people ended up in hard sciences, then maybe those hard sciences would be more hospitable to women as a field.

    In economics, the useful areas that help people definitely have more women in them, but the male professors (and until the past 10 years or so, they were almost all male) are also a lot less likely to be douches. Perhaps people who want to help people may be less sexist as well, thus creating a better environment for women.

    So… don’t emphasize helping people to attract women. Emphasize it to attract more hospitable people.

  11. Am I the only who thinks that if your main goal is to help people, then science (and economics) are rather a roundabout way of getting there?

    Let’s be real, people. I can think of a bunch of other things that I could have done with my life that would have had a bigger impact on my fellow man than my chosen profession (engineering).

  12. @AnotherAnon. Everyone’s life is what they make of it—almost everyone could have had a bigger impact if they had done something differently. I would argue that engineering prepares one better for having a positive impact than most other undergraduate majors do, though it also prepares people for doing useless things. A slightly higher emphasis in engineering courses on doing good things with one’s training could shift the balance significantly towards engineers doing good things, rather than useless (or actively harmful) things.

  13. I’d agree with Nicoleandmaggie here: if you take out the gendered component of “ladies like to help people!” but keep some of the practical/useful message, you do get a different component of men as well, and some of them are great. So I don’t have a problem with the altruistic advertising of STEM.

    I think at the same time, though, there should be advertising of the truth/beauty/cool toys & explosions explicitly to women. Many women enter STEM because they want to play with robots/blow things up (physically or algebro-geometrically)/prove theorems/have fun with theoretical proofs of security of cryptological algorithms. In the larger cultural narrative, though, some of these women (I know some!) feel kind of bad in explaining this to others, because they’re supposed to be nurturers. Why are you doing physics when you could be taking care of people or making a *real difference* in the world? asks your neighbor. You’re so smart, you could be curing cancer or poverty. And all those guidance counselors in high school assuming you want to be a caretaker…. trying to sell teaching and nursing… Making young women aware that there are great female math/science types who are just pursuing awesomeness instead of taking care of people would help some of those young women resist the pressure to be pre-med instead.

    I’m in math for the research, not the teaching, but I have noticed in some exchanges with annoying people that I bring up the teaching as a feminine cover for my unfeminine interest in math. It’s a cop-out and I feel bad, but if they get to reclassify you as “woman” rather than “mutant” they’ll shut up and leave you alone which is what I want.

  14. Re: resisting the pressure to be pre-med

    At the dinner for students in the minority bridge program this fall, I noticed a distinct shift. Two or three years ago, half the young women were premed—this year computer science was the preferred major among men and women, with the goal of “working for Google”.

    Heavy media coverage of the Google jobs has made a bigger difference than anything we could do as professors at attracting women and minorities to a techie field. (Of course, the moment there is a slight downturn in the job market, the media will be exaggerating that too—which is why computer science enrollments have been the wildest roller coaster in academia for 2 decades.)

  15. I’m conflicted. I agree that it’s totally wrong/sexist to believe that women “inherently” want to help/nurture/hug puppies/whatever. But here’s the deal. From the age of 0 to 1 billion we are conditioned in subtle and very unsubtle ways that these are the things that we SHOULD want. Just like boys are being conditioned in subtle and extremely unsubtle ways that the things they SHOULD want involve robots and explosions and whatever other stupid masculinist bullshit.

    We can’t just ignore the existence of this crap and say to everyone “well you should be inherently motivated to do science or you’re not worthy”. Because that would be very problematic to say the least.

    There are two kinds of people that succeed as scientists who do “useful” research. The first group are the people that are already interested in science and then because it’s fundable/sufficiently interesting they end up helping people. The second group are the people who go into fields because they want to help people and only then realize how freaking awesome they are at science and how cool doing science is.

    The second group (made up disproportionately of women and other minorities) is going to be underrepresented in less applied fields, for obvious reasons. If we don’t want to exclude these people from less applied fields then in my view it behooves us to make those less applied fields more inviting. That may include talking about how they can help people.

  16. @jojo: “The second group are the people who go into fields because they want to help people and only then realize how freaking awesome they are at science and how cool doing science is.”

    Do you actually know anyone like this?

  17. @another Anon

    Yes. Most of them became doctors first and only went into biomed research when choosing specialty (when they realized working directly with patients wasn’t for them, but e.g. analyzing giant cancer datasets or looking at tumors was).

    Also, I know several women that went into Ecology / Environmental Science because they wanted to help save the world. But became much more enamored by the practice of science than the application.

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