Does my brain look big in this?

According to an oft-cited paper by Marcel LaFollette, a 1926 magazine once introduced an eminent medical researcher as a woman whose mahogany furniture “gleams”. From the same study, but a 1950 magazine, a senior figure in the Atomic Energy Commission was praised for sewing her own clothes. Later, via Dorothy Nelkin, Maria Mayer (Nobel physics prize, 1963) was described as “a tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother… her children were perfectly darling” and Barbara McClintock (Nobel prize in medicine, 1983) introduced as “well known for baking with black walnuts”.

In today’s more enlightened times, we see women scientists in an entirely different light. No longer do we look past the prizes, publications and other achievements to a gleaming kitchen table. No, we look at the woman herself and er, um… well, maybe we linger too long on certain other features of her femininity which similarly obscure her professionalism. I am referring, of course, to the emergence of scientific ‘totty‘ (or hottie, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).

To give you a flavour of what I mean, the following are descriptions of women scientists, from profiles of them written in the British press in early 21st Century:

shoes of teetering altitude […and a] miniskirt of dizzying brevity [she] may be Britain’s leading authority on the brain, but it is her physique that turns heads

We must mention the makeover […] accessorised, a sparkling intellect doesn’t get you in on to the pages of Vogue

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist […] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Lab coats, safety googles – and killer heels […] getting teenagers all steamed up over science

The above quotes (and historical examples) were all snaffled from a recent paper by media scholars at the University of Cardiff, Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger. Part of a larger project considering the representation of women scientists in UK media, this paper notes the attention given to women scientists’ appearance compared to men, as well as the slightly different places women are used to talk about science. This is a topic discussed by many science bloggers last July, following a thoughtful post by Sheril Kirshenbaum, but it’s interesting to see systematic research on the topic too.

Chimba and Kitzinger’s research was rooted in an analysis of 51 interviews with scientists, 8 of which were with women, pulled from a sample of 12 UK national papers between January and Jun 2006. They also explored profiles of Susan Greenfield and Kathy Sykes in more breadth. In addition to this content analysis, they collected data from 86 female scientists about what they liked and disliked about media representations as well as their own experiences of working with the the media (questionnaire, follow up interviews and six focus groups).  Finally, they explored emerging findings with more scientists, as well as journalists and communication professionals (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 611-2). I personally wasn’t entirely sure of a focus on profiles as representing representation of women in science across media, especially considering the stress on Greenfield and Sykes. However, I can also see why they took that approach and the other side of the research helps them broaden their scope very neatly. Moreover, I think if you remember the context from which these profile analysis came, they are still worth thinking about.

One clear difference emerged from studying the 51 profiles: the attention given to the appearance of women scientists. Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of the profiles of men. Such references might seem fairly innocuous, especially when located within a generally positive article, but Chimba and Kitzinger stress the ways in which references to a man’s appearance carry a different tone. For example, while women might be described as having a ‘mane of blonde hair’, the focus for men is more likely to be on a beard, with rather different connotations: ‘His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 612-3). It’s not just journalists doing this: hunting out a line about ‘the Nigella of science’, they found it was sold to an editor by a television company’s PR agency (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 617).

References to hair and heels, etc might be welcomed as a way of showing off a generally unseen glamorous side to science. Chimba and Kitzinger also note the way in which a headline such as ‘Blonde hair, short skirt, big brain’ could be a mater of a journalist playfully deconstructing the various stereotypes  on offer; challenging images of boffin and bimbo at once (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 613). At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget the ways a focus on female scientists’ appearance can have very negative consequences. It may draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

For me, the most important finding was the way in which Chimba and Kitzinger draw attention to  the difference in places women are used in science coverage. For example, one publicity officer for a major science organization explained that if they were dealing with a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they would go with a white middle-class male, where as BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman (see Boyce & Kitzinger, 2008, pdf). Another of their research subjects reports that she had trouble moving from kids television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 620). Men may signal an aura of gravitas in science, whilst women are used when the science is being made ‘accessible’ or ‘sexy’; a possible divide between real scientists and scientifically flavoured ‘eye-candy’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616).

The paper also stresses that women aren’t just the objects of media representation, they are active creators and negotiator of their own image, even if they do not always have control over this conditions of this (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616). They noted an ambivalence in some of the interviews, and sense that they were in processes of negotiation. For example, one spoke of it as a matter of ‘walking a tightrope’; how much do they use it for their advantage, ‘or is that getting in bed with the devil?’. Further, such a representation would a woman more than just professionally. One mentioned being personally flattered as well as personally and professional offended. Another said she gave up because of the personal pressure on image (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 619).

Men on television get letched over too, of course, and this can make them feel uncomfortable too. Whether it has the same impact on their career is debatable though. It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but Chimba and Kitzinger suggest, it is especially risky for women, especially as sexuality gets folded into this. Playing with the term ‘media whore’, they quote Laura Barton in saying ‘even in the intellectual world there are slags [a derogatory term for  promiscuous women] and there are studs [an admiring term for promiscuous men]’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

Personally, I don’t mind the odd bit of glamourous science media, but it shouldn’t become a dominant theme. Scientists should not feel as if they have to play up a glamorous image in order to do any public work. Neither should we sort our media scientists into serious debate with men of gravitas on one side, and a bit of girlie chat/ tickle your fancy on the other. If nothing else, it’s limiting; for audiences as well as scientists. I think we should be aiming for a diversity of voices in our science media (and I don’t mean diversity simply in terms of gender).

  • Chimba, M., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: An analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662508098580

What do you think?

35 thoughts on “Does my brain look big in this?

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  2. Alix

    Good post. An adjacent point worth mentioning is that these days there is male totty too. Which is progress of a sort, I suppose. But you certainly don’t have to be male totty, and it probably doesn’t preclude you moving up through the life stages into “bearded boffin”.

    It’s exactly the same in popular history/archaeology, by the way. All the men on Time Team look like swamp donkeys, but I recently watched something on iPlayer about Anglo-Saxon art and symbolism where about a quarter of the total running time consisted of slow-pans across the female presenter’s knee-high boots. Possibly only Alice Roberts escapes the stereotype, but I’m not even sure about that. She used to have pink hair, for one thing, and now looks like a sort of idealised Guardian Soulmate. Did she just get older and stop having pink hair, I wonder, or is this a case of having her image nudged from the outside? Quite possibly there’s no such thing as just “a bit” of glamorous science.

  3. Athene Donald

    Some women probably do play up to this concentration on appearance (mentioning no names of course). I know when I was interviewed last year by the Guardian I was very fierce with them, telling them on no account to discuss my clothes, hair colour etc (blonde immediately might imply something like ‘dumb’). So instead they said ‘Donald is not your usual kind of cosmetics company public face. She is intense and direct, and wary of the media attention that has followed the L’Oreal award, although prepared to endure it for the cause of science – and women in science.’ Definitely preferable, and probably they might have said something akin about a man.

    There is a real tension about this, depending on who is being targetted. Clearly if you are doing something to appeal to teenagers I think it is very different from a broadsheet, so the specifics of the media does matter, as well as the time of day, as you put it. However my one and only appearance in Glamour magazine solved all the problems – they never contacted me at all, or asked for a quote when they were drawing up their list of the UK’s most powerful women – and were far-sighted enough to have a science category. However, that also annoyed me as it would have been great to access that demographic with some ‘inspiring’ words and the opportunity was lost (a make-over would have been less appealing).

    So I think the Guardian probably does have it right, maybe we do have to ‘endure’ and the female Brian Cox, in Aloma Shaha’s phrase, probably will need to be willing to wear make up, although possibly not miniskirts.

  4. Tas

    A mixture of ingrained cultural habits and media neuroses combine to create a situation where female scientists are automatically judged on the basis of their gender, alongside other criteria. This is also true in other traditionally male-dominated occupations eg stockbroking, plumbing, high finance, where men rate and remark on the attractiveness of the exception.

    I think this can be explained scientifically. The male gender has an inbuilt biological response that is transmitted as a psychological reflex action. I think it is this instinct, undoubtedly genetic but also reinforced by the environment, that causes this automatic consideration of women as sex-objects, eye-candy etc. It takes considerable intellectual effort and self-awareness to fight this instinct. It reminds me of an article I recently read about a young man who became an anti-porn campaigner. He was addicted to porn and then had a sudden realisation about the objectifying and degrading nature of his dialogue [about women] with male peers. This kind of sudden realisation is very rare and takes considerable willpower. Even the most intellectual of men, the most powerful of positions, save those who have lost their libido, are slaves to this instinct. You may well say that it is not OK to blame male genetics only, but ultimately that is what is responsible for generating the sexist attitudes that pervade virtually all cultures. Who was it that said being freed from libido was like being ‘unchained from a monster’?


    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Well I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, but my inclination is to disagree with you. I certainly don’t think sexism is ultimately caused by genetics, niether do I think it’s helpful to focus in on that aspect of the (complex) issue.

      1. Tas

        It was a simplification of a complex issue but it is also difficult to deny that biological instincts determine behavioural traits. I was not saying that stereotyping, sexism and other issues are not important or should just be written off as just natural biological impulses. They are real issues that need to be addressed by both scientists and other professions.

        1. alicerosebell Post author

          ok, but I’m not sure what relevance that has to this paper, which is more about content than explanations for behaviour – it’s sociology/media studies, not social psychology.

          1. Jason Whiffin

            As a man, i think Tas is on target and worthy of discussion. It’s certainly not an excuse and only a reason; but it is fundamental and therefore i think has relevance. If public discourse focused more on our innate human biological animal nature and how that maps in and is managed in a progressive society, then i think we would collectively make positive headway. I consider myself a progressive male, and know many of the CR group who would hopefully would attest; but evolution is a powerful if frustrating driver. The disconnect between our intellectual and emotional drivers can be considerable and sometimes unreconcilable. So intellectually i would not condone unprofessional comments, but that doesn’t necessarily remove the undercurrent.
            Best regards Ja

  5. Rob

    “It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but… it is especially risky for women”

    Seems to have paid off ok for Sykes, though. With absolutely no disrespect to her, if she had pursued a career purely in physics, rather than branching into TV presenting, she would not have been likely to secure a Chair at a Russell Group institution at the age of 36.

    Iain Stewart, now Chair of Geosciences Communication at Plymouth, shows that a similar career path is open to males.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      Yes, Iain Stewart and Brian Cox show it’s open to men – that’s the papers’ point, it’s easier for men (though still not easy, both Stewart and Cox get a lot of criticism).

      Kathy Sykes isn’t a scientist-populariser. She works in science communication. She isn’t a working scientist. One of the reasons why I think she’s a problematic example for this study.

  6. Richard

    Studies that look at ‘bad science journalism’ are often analysing ‘bad journalism’ that happens to be covering science (in my opinion). Is this the case here too – a study analysing media coverage of female and male scientists observes similar cultural attitudes that can be found in other media coverage of female/male ? Or is there something distinct about the media’s treatment of women scientists that differs from its treatment of women in general?

  7. Lee Jackson

    A lot of truth in this – although I think *both* genders expect women to appear glamourous/sexy/attractive when appearing in public; and, to generalise wildly, that women are much more critical about female appearance (makeup, hair etc) than men. This is perhaps a slightly different issue than the TV camera fetishing aspects of women’s clothing/body, which is probably more about simple ‘male libido’.

    [nb. is there a typo – ‘toyboy image’ (!) should read ‘tomboy image’ ?]

  8. Samantha Vimes

    Do stoutish, non-chic women scientists get in the media? Because it seems to me that the ultimate price of this sort of coverage is to make it so only the glamorous ones get to act as spokeswoman for a project or broadcaster of a discovery. Which, of course, means a considerable part of the talent pool is excluded, and someone can be very bad at doing their hair and very good at explaining things.

  9. Rob

    @Samantha: I agree – and the same is true for men. Not long ago I was told by a TV science documentary producer that “middle-aged white males” were effectively banned by commissioning editors as choices for presenters, regardless of skill as science communicators, and they were looking for “young female ethnic” presenters to fit with a diversity agenda and overcome stereotypes.

  10. Athene Donald

    This has turned into a discussion of what attributes producers might look for in presenters, but I thought the original post was much broader about representation of women scientists in the media. The danger to my mind is that any female scientist being quoted is liable to be described as ‘professor x flicked her hair back as she answered my question, looking stylish in a little red number’ sort of thing. The equivalent comments about men would, as Alice says, be more likely to refer to Darwinian beards or Einsteinian hair, something that at least has a serious overtone.

  11. Aarathi Prasad

    There are smoke and mirrors a-plenty in TV. The BBC and Channel 4 have an actual staff member whose designated role is to ensure diversity. The post at the Beeb is held by a black woman and at Channel 4 by a mixed-race woman . Reassuring to know they are there – or perhaps their actual role is just that – to reassure the diverse public that the channels are caped crusaders for increased diversity while allowing things to pretty much stay the same. I don’t know – just putting it out there.

    Some years back, and in a very cynical mood I remember telling a production company guv not to waste time on pitching me for a BBC doc because the Beeb don’t tend to use darkies (sorry, but the whole farce is slightly retro..), so it would be a waste of time. He said he hadn’t noticed — can’t blame him, news readers fill the ethnic quota after all — but he did agree that the only time you will see an African, Indian, Chinese and a one-armed person presenting on telly (and in the same shot) is on CBeebies. (If you are not under the age of 5 or have a child who is, you may not have known that).

    Then we got on to discussing the practice of what he called ‘chav-baiting’, which in a nutshell has to do with the fact that most of TV is run by white, middle class males with public (i.e. private – for any non UKers)-school educations, but who make programming for hoi polloi. That is to say “If there’s rubbish on TV it isn’t bec we want to make rubbish but bec YOU, the viewer, demand it of us..”. Our TV empires, it seems, are governed by Pontius Pilates.

    So my 2 cents on the perception/media description of women who are serious/intellectuals/academics/people who use big words (bec it’s not just women scientists who get the wrong attention – see for e.g.) is this.

    As Alom Shaha wrote last week (, these women are scarce (on telly, but certainly not in real life). May I suggest that one of the reasons they are perhaps given the treatment they are is quite simply because they are in a minority, by which I mean that when we see one we’re not entirely sure what box to put her in, so commentators point, stare, criticise the entirely irrelevant. It’s some kind of license to get personal. Well, no, the women scientists on TV have not conformed to the stereotype of the old grey man who was dressed by his mum, but (outside of my old chemistry department), I, as a working scientist, had never seen a one who did fulfil that image. Scientists are normal people too, and it’s ok to be a woman and be attractive and dress well, and wear make up if that’s what they would do anyway, AS WELL AS saying something clever – and it’s ok for the TV demographics to see that. The more normalised THAT becomes, the less journalists/PRers will think it’s ok to wash over the science bit and comment instead on the size of her arse or the colour of her hair.

    1. alicerosebell Post author

      I think that’s an interesting suggestion – there may well be some truth in it. I don’t think it’s right to be quants vs qual on this issue (or any…) as one may well impact on the other

  12. Alison

    Brilliant post. One of the creepier aspects of the way that Susan Greenfield is discussed (and indeed, seems to discuss herself) is in this ooh-gosh-I’m-sexy-and-a-scientist sort of way. It is an absolute double bind – the woman scientist is either pretty and by implication a bit thick, or stolid/older/plain and therefore some sort of threatening scientist-castrator.

  13. Joana Andrade

    It is very interesting that you’ve mentioned Susan Greefield, Alison, because her story illustrates quite well how playing the media game can be a double edged sword: I think her sexy-flashy persona helped her gain the spotlight at first but it ended up playing against her when she was sacked from the Royal Institution.
    Great Post!

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  16. Mokele

    I wonder what the role of “Broader Impacts” in US NSF grants has had in the ambivalence of many of the female scientists interviewed – if their current/future grant-writing success did not depend upon a strong Broader Impacts statement (or UK equivalent), would they be willing to tell journalists/producers who want to focus on their image to just get stuffed?

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