Friday, June 25, 2010

"But you don't look like a computer scientist!"

Joe McCarthy has an interesting post about the Boopsie Effect, "wherin women in upper-level positions in historically male-dominated professions find that 'attractiveness suggests less competence and intellectual ability'". He discusses some female computer science researchers he knows who have felt compelled to conceal their attractiveness in order to be taken seriously by their colleagues.

This is a picture of Hedy Lammar, silver screen 
actress and wireless security pioneer.

Photo by BooBooGBs
I thought this was an interesting comment, because I've fortunately never encountered this sort of problem from my male colleagues. However, I have most certainly encountered this from the lay public.

For example, I recently bought an iPad while traveling. Because I had suitcases to carry, I accepted the Apple store employee's suggestion to open the box and register the SIM card so I could leave all the packaging at the store. After he finished I began to gather my bags and he said, "Do you need any help setting up your email?" to which I replied, "No thanks, I'm a computer scientist." He had a look of shock on his face and said, "Oh! I underestimated you!"

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of that comment. What are we computer scientists supposed to look like exactly?

Of course this comment isn't nearly as bad as one I received a long time ago. I was out with some friends, and a man came over and started talking to me. He asked me what my profession was. I told him, and he said, "But you don't look like a computer scientist!" I had to leave the room for a second, and when I came back he was gone. Perhaps he was hoping I looked more like Hedy?


  1. :) I had a period in college and a bit afterwards, where I would occassionally tell people (those I am likely to just meet that one time and never again, like at random parties) that I am a hairstylist. I don't have too many data points for this, but, on average, the conversations I had with random people who thought I was a hairstylist were much, much more relaxed and enjoyable then the ones I had with people whom I would let in on my true sciency identity. (In the latter, people would always clench after hearing what I do, like I'd grown a second head all of a sudden.)

  2. Ha! That's fantastic, I'll have to try it sometime. (Though I should probably wait until after my next haircut to seem more credible :))

  3. I doubt attractive men are expected to be computer scientists either. The stereotype of the epically unappealing nerd still edifies much of the public perception of scientists.

    Just a thought, but you may be interpreting intimidation as sexism. A lot of times people are discomforted by having a conversation with a smart person. This discomfort probably conflicts with the initial impression given by an inviting appearance.

  4. I don't know if you've read [about] Stacy Schiff's new book, Cleopatra: A Life, but I think it speaks to some of the issues you (and other commenters) raise.

    I haven't read the book, myself, but have read and heard stories by the author and/or reviews of the book, and a couple of things stand out.

    In Still Under Cleopatra's Spell, Schiff writes "we remain unnerved by female ambition, accomplishment and authority. The wise woman mutes her voice in order to maintain her political or corporate constituency."

    In an NPR review of the book, How History and Hollywood Got Cleopatra Wrong, W. Ralph Eubanks writes that "Throughout this biography, Schiff reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose why exaggerating Cleopatra's sexual prowess was less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts."

    The coins that bear Cleopatra's image do not bear much resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor (or conform to notions of exemplary beauty [popular in today's world]), and yet historians have traditionally hyped up her beauty and seductiveness ... perhaps a flip side of the coin [yes, pun partially intended] of the Beauty Bias.

  5. Thanks, Joe! I'll check it out, or at the very least listen to the NPR review. :)