More on Women in Academia: Sexy…or Cerebral?

Can women be both date-able (that is, attractive) and cerebral? Stereotypes tell us no, as Dr. Eileen Pollack commented during her campus lecture when she spoke about the still-abysmal numbers of women in STEM fields.

Popular sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory don’t necessarily help, using the female characters, for example, to place an unequivocal divide between desirable attractive women like Penny and the smart women like Amy.

Penny (left) and Amy (right) from sitcome "The Big Bang Theory" reinforce stereotypes of women in science.

Penny (left) and Amy (right) from sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” reinforce stereotypes of women in science.

About a week ago, during Halloween, received quite a lot of attention via social media when several women in academia responded to the sale of Delicious brand “Lady PhD” costume.

"Women's PhD Sexy Darling" costume, sold on this Halloween causes quite the stir among women academics.

“Women’s PhD Sexy Darling” costume, sold on this Halloween causes quite the stir among women academics.


But the women who commented on the costume didn’t shy away from having great fun while conveying what they thought about the PhD Sexy Darling” look. An article on featured a selection of the satiric responses and reviews posted by women academics:

“First things first, I am a lady Ph.D. Like all lady Ph.D’s, I frequently ask myself: ‘How could I be sexier?’ Delicious costumes has come to my rescue! I can now lecture in my 5 inch gold spiked heels and ‘barely there’ regalia while giving nary a thought to the male gaze and it’s implications on the prevalence of rape culture in our society. I fully expect my chili pepper rating on RMP to go through the roof once I begin to greet my students in this costume. Hopefully I can keep my post structural hegemony’s from engaging in some wardrobe malfunctions. Then again, who cares? I’m sexy! Forget about the 7 years I spent sweating out a dissertation and engaging in innovative research! SEXY!!!!”

“I spent 6 years working hard to get my PhD, which was extra hard because I am a lady, and it hurt my ovaries to think so much. After obtaining this advanced degree, the only position I could secure, like the majority in my field, was an adjunct position teaching for less than $2000 a course. Then I got this LadyPhD regalia and my life immediately changed! My department, full of esteemed and very prestigious senior male tenured faculty, saw me walking in the hall, invited me into the department meeting, and right there on the spot, immediately voted to make me a TENURED FULL PROFESSOR. Sadly, the next morning, I found out it was NOT a faculty meeting that I had wandered into, just professors having an office cocktail party and I was not tenured after all. I WANT MY MONEY BACK. I have student loans to pay off!!!”

So what do such representations of smart women in STEM fields, and in academia in general, tell us about femininity and intelligence? Despite the increasing numbers of women entering college, why do we continue to see performining femininity and acting on our intelligence as incompatible?

What do the images of women at Purdue, as a STEM-heavy, male-dominated campus, tell us about women…or about smart women? The images below appear in the Marriott Hall Lavazza cafe and were voted on by students in the HTM major:

Marriott 2


Marriott 1


If we want to address this issue, one thing we must examine is the ways in which women are socialized that make them vulnerable to accepting such behavior and representations and, in some cases, hesitant or afraid to confront them, lest they call attention to themselves as one of the few women (or African Americans or Latinas) in the room (or major). Women are generally raised to be more quiet and more polite. One study revealed that men were over 80% more likely to interrupt their female colleagues than their male colleagues.

Whether intentional or not, the impact and cumulative effect of such behaviors can be profoundly discouraging.

The Huffington Post featured an article exploring this phenomenon, titled “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn” , and offering a simple way to challenge the behaviors of men or women who might discourage, interrupt, or otherwise talk down to women and minorities, particularly in the workplace.


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