But enough with controversies …

… let’s talk about sexism in science instead.

The occasion is the recent discussion (see here and [here]) about an report on a talk given at CERN by physicist Lisa Randall. If you don’t want to follow the links, the article dwells at length on the speaker’s appearance, clothes, accessories and fitness, before getting to the content of the talk.

It is a pet peeve of mine how the appearance of women in position of authority or power is commented upon in a way that would just never happen with men. (Try reading a random interview with a woman vs a man who is a politician, a writer, a scientists…) And god forbids the woman is overweight. The fact, for example, that Bill Richardson is quite round around the edges would never be remarked by anybody, but imagine there was a presidential candidate who looked like Rosie O’Donnell, and imagine if we would ever hear the end of it from late-night comedians. (Who would do their fat jokes while sneering at the “PC police.”)

This subject might inspire thoughtful reflection and the writing of an eloquent essay. I am, instead, going to tell unrelated anecdotes, derive unwarranted and incoherent conclusions, and eventually fail to make a point. (Some people, by the way, do this for a living: we call them columnists.)

When I was an undergrad in Rome, I studied for most finals with a group of three other students. By some measures, the four of us were, academically, the best or among the best in our class, and my three friends were all women. I don’t think anybody thought there was something particularly unusual about women doing well in math-heavy courses. At the time, indeed, a distinct majority of math undergrads were women (I don’t know if it is still the case). This was not due to affirmative actions (that have never existed in Italy) or to a particular enlightened society (sexism is certainly rampant in Italy). Indeed the causes are too complex to be analyzed here, but one thing I can say is that Italian men don’t think that it’s unattractive for a woman to be smart; or actually maybe some do, but, more importantly, Italian women generally don’t think that men think so, and I have never seen Italian women speak in a higher pitch or “be more girly” when talking to a guy they like. Going back to my friends, one of them was extraordinarily attractive, a fact that, I later learned was commented upon by the male faculty (as it was, to be sure, by the male classmates), but this never meant that her academic achievements were taken any less seriously (and certainly nobody complimented her on her appearance to her face in a professional setting or in a public forum).

But where does one draw the line between proper admiration and “don’t worry your pretty head about such difficult equations”?


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