Stereo­types about at­trac­tive­ness ‘still hold back fe­male schol­ars’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Matthew.reisz@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Stereo­types about at­trac­tive­ness and an­drog­yny still hold back the progress of women in the sciences and math­e­mat­ics, a scholar has ar­gued.

Eva Maria Kaufholz, a PhD stu­dent at Jo­hannes Guten­berg Univer­sity of Mainz, has traced these stereo­types back to lit­er­a­ture on the Rus­sian math­e­ma­ti­cian Sofia Ko­valevskaya (1850-91) (pic­tured right), the first woman to ob­tain a full pro­fes­sor­ship in North­ern Europe.

Early bi­og­ra­phers claimed that Ko­valevskaya’s achieve­ments were partly spurred on by her jeal­ousy of a more at­trac­tive sis­ter or that her al­legedly an­drog­y­nous looks re­flected the fact that, by ex­celling in math­e­mat­ics, she had bro­ken down a “nat­u­ral bar­rier” be­tween the sexes.

Later writ­ers, keen to present her as a role model, as­sured their read­ers that the pro­fes­sor at what is now Stock­holm Univer­sity was “the full pack­age” and “the best-look­ing math­e­ma­ti­cian of ei­ther sex”.

Ms Kaufholz said that sim­i­lar stereo­types can still be found. Ex­am­ples were pink “I’m too pretty to do maths” T-shirts and the on­line com­ments when the late Maryam Mirza­khani be­came the first woman to win the Fields Medal in 2014 (“Con­grats! She’s very beau­ti­ful” and “That’s a fe­male? She has more testos­terone than I do”). Equally per­ni­cious was the con­tin­u­ing “gen­der bias in the at­tri­bu­tion of cre­ativ­ity”, based on the age- old as­sump­tion that women can be com­pe­tent sci­en­tists but never truly cre­ative.

The stress on looks and an­drog­yny, how­ever, had also led to what Ms Kaufholz de­scribed as “a counter-move­ment as­sur­ing us that even fe­male math­e­ma­ti­cians and sci­en­tists can be sexy”. She cited Marie Noëlle’s 2016 film Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowl­edge, in which the No­bel prizewin­ner – de­scribed by one re­viewer as “so hot, she’s ra­dioac­tive” – de­votes most of her time and en­ergy to a pas­sion­ate af­fair with a mar­ried man.

Although Ms Kaufholz ac­knowl­edged that such por­tray­als “have fem­i­nist in­ter­ests at heart and want to show that you don’t have to be ugly to be a math­e­ma­ti­cian”, she was op­posed to their con­tin­u­ing stress on “body con­scious­ness” rather than achieve­ment. Pre­sent­ing her re­search at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don ear­lier this month, she ended her talk with a mon­tage of pho­to­graphs show­ing col­leagues of many dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes in or­der to demon­strate that “be­ing a fe­male math­e­ma­ti­cian is not con­nected with the way you look or present your­self”.

“You wouldn’t have a movie where Al­bert Ein­stein is chop­ping wood so we are sure he’s a man,” Ms Kaufholz pointed out. “No­body has ever con­sid­ered that to be nec­es­sary. But we need to as­sure viewer that [fe­male sci­en­tists] are women. And that can only done in a sex­ual way.”

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