Pity the attendees at last week's annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience who thought they needed to focus on their papers and the research breakthroughs being discussed. It turns out they were also being judged - at least by one prominent scientist - on their looks. At least the female attendees were.
The scientist was Dario Maestripieri, a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology and neurobiology at the University of Chicago. He posted the following reflection about the meeting on his Facebook page:
"My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone."
Maestripieri posted the comment on what he may have presumed was a somewhat private portion of his Facebook page. But at least one of his Facebook friends didn't see the humour, and the post spread on Twitter and elsewhere. And the "no offense to anyone" conclusion of the post doesn't seem to have prevented considerable offence.
The reaction has been intense online, with people tweeting comments like "Looks like Dario Maestripieri thought the #SFN conference was Paris Fashion Week" and others posting his email account and or critiquing his looks.
Within the women-in-science blogosphere, many have been writing that Maestripieri's Facebook post provides evidence of the kinds of attitudes they have long experienced, but that many men doubt.
On the blog On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, writing as Isis, a scientist recounted attending a scientific meeting, and complaining to a male friend about the "overt assgrabbery" that went on at receptions there. Her male friend doubted that this was common.
"Well, unto him and the other male disbelievers in the audience I say unto thee ta-freakin'-da!!!!! If you ever needed proof that some (certainly not all) male faculty use scientific meetings as their own personal fucking grounds, there it is," Isis wrote.
"Now, Dr Maestripieri’s comments will certainly come as no great shock to the women who read them. That's because those of us who have been around the conference scene for a while know that this is pretty par for the course…And many of us know about the pockets of perv-fest that can occur at scientific meetings. We know which events to generally avoid. Many of us know who to not have cocktails with or be alone with, who the ass grabbers are, and we share our lists with other female colleagues."
On the blog Adventures in Ethics and Science, Janet D. Stemwedel of San José State University noted that some online comments have questioned why it matters what one person posted on his Facebook page, or have suggested that those criticising Dr Maestripieri are trying to limit his free speech.
Dr Stemwedel responded: "It's almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri's Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see. The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science."
She argued that it was important to spread the word about such statements, not to ignore them. "I want to shine a bright light on all the sexist behaviors, big or small, so the folks who have managed not to notice them so far start noticing them, and so that they stop assuming their colleagues who point them out and complain about them are making a big deal out of nothing," she wrote.
Janet Bandows Koster, executive director and CEO of the Association for Women in Science, said she thought it was important to remember that scientists who express such attitudes as Dr Maestripieri's also have teaching duties. "If Dr. Maestripieri deems an academic conference as a place to objectify women then how does he view them in his classroom?" she asked.
Dr Maestripieri did not respond to email messages or phone calls over the past two days. A spokesman for the University of Chicago said that he had decided not to comment.
The Society for Neuroscience, the group on whose female conference attendees Dr Maestripieri commented, released a statement from its deputy director, Mona Miller: "We do not comment on opinions expressed by individual members in their personal capacity. However, SfN as an organization is explicitly committed in its strategic plan to being a welcoming community for diversity in all forms, and continues to promote greater diversity and representation of women, minorities and young investigators, in all of its activities."