Do female scientists tend to be unattractive?

“She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’” is a New York Times article by a science professor, A. Hope Jahren, that describes women abandoning science:

Within my own field, physical sciences, the results of this shedding were clear. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, seven B.S. degrees are granted to women for every 10 granted to men; three M.S. degrees granted to women for every five granted to men; one Ph.D. degree granted to a woman for every two granted to men. The absence of women within STEM programs is not only progressive, it is persistent — despite more than 20 years of programs intended to encourage the participation of girls and women.

Why should this be?

My own experiences as a student, scientist and mentor lead me to believe that [sexual] harassment is widespread. Few studies exist, but in a survey of 191 female fellowship recipients published in 1995, 12 percent indicated that they had been sexually harassed as a student or early professional.

Since I started writing about women and science, my female colleagues have been moved to share their stories with me; my inbox is an inadvertent clearinghouse for unsolicited love notes. Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this: A woman (she is a student, a technician, a professor) gets an email and notices that the subject line is a bit off: “I need to tell you,” or “my feelings.” … The author goes on to tell her that she is special in some way, that his passion is an unfamiliar feeling that she has awakened in him, the important suggestion being that she has brought this upon herself. He will speak of her as an object with “shiny hair” or “sparkling eyes” — testing the waters before commenting upon the more private parts of her body.

In other words, harassment of women in science is not due to animosity towards women as scientists but rather due to their attractiveness as potential sexual partners.

If Professor Jahren is correct then shouldn’t we expect to find that female science professors are less attractive than female science graduate students who are in turn less attractive than female science undergrads?

[We also have to adjust for “Beautiful People Really Are More Intelligent” and the fact that science requires at least a moderately high IQ. It might be necessary to do this analysis on a state-by-state level. Attractive female scientists in Massachusetts, for example, might learn that having sex with a medical doctor would yield a higher after-tax cash flow under the state’s child support guidelines than working at the median salary for a science professor (see “Women in Science” for an analysis). On the other hand, a female scientist in Minnesota, Nevada, or Texas, would find it more lucrative to continue on through the Ph.D. and then work for wages. It may be the case that female scientists in states that offer unlimited child support revenue abandon the field in greater numbers than those in states where working with a Ph.D. pays better than having children.]

How about an alternative hypothesis? There are a lot of women in undergrad science because they want to go to medical school (roughly 50 percent female). Thus many of them were never on the academic science track to begin with. The observed drop-out rate from master’s to PhD occurs as women get older and more savvy about the life of a working scientist versus alternatives, some of which are almost exclusively available to females.

13 thoughts on “Do female scientists tend to be unattractive?

  1. I read the referenced article and didn’t find any mention of the fields the harassed women escaped to. Law, politics, medicine, corporate management? Quote “Sexual harassment in science generally starts like this:”. So sleazy drooling casanovas are only limited to science? Also, the author doesn’t venture a guess as to what fraction of males come on to women so are we to assume its many or most males?

    I think it would be much more productive to concentrate on the denial and covering up that happens in most organizations and that probably most of the harassment is created by a relatively small fraction of men who should be exposed as soon as any whiff of problems occur. Why couldn’t a strict no dating within the organization policy be enacted to help discourage such come-ons as a first step?

  2. I read these articles too. In the Times article, where Jahren describes the letters she gets from female scientists, she never talks about the “code”.

    What’s the “code”?

    The code is when a man at work says something mildly flirtatious to a woman, the woman mentions her boyfriend. When the man starts talking about being lonely, the woman, jarringly, changes the subject. When the man asks the woman out, either on a date, or even on a group event, the woman says that’s her day to stay home and wash her hair, or something else suitably trivial. All of these are unambiguous ways of signalling a woman’s complete disinterest in a man without being terribly awkward or offending the man.

    Sexual harassment exists, and these things don’t work all the time. But they work a lot of the time and they work a lot better then quitting science or reporting someone to HR.

    Ms. Jahren seems to be offended by the idea that anyone can harbor romantic feelings for anyone else in the workplace.

  3. Just an additional thought. I see a business opportunity to help unattached women that are harassed in their workplace: Rent-a-Fiance! Just have a large well spoken male person appear with the woman at work functions where significant others are invited. Of course it would be nice if such harassment never happened in the first place but the real world is not always fair and pleasant.

  4. My understanding is that there are gropey old guys in all of academia; I’ve read articles about philosophy in particular having a crisis in this regard. The rest of humanities aren’t much better, from what I gather, with there being cases even in gender-studies type departments from time to time. Why does STEM get a bad rap? (Are the guys too spectrum-ish to be sly about it?)

    I’m not saying it’s a not a serious problem, I’m wondering if it’s THE serious problem.

  5. We used to have a lot of colleges where all of the students were women (and we still have some, e.g., Wellesley, Smith, Scripps; says that there are 43 total).

    What about a college or university where all of the faculty and staff are women? There is a huge glut of PhDs so it should be easy to fill the ranks. With an all-female faculty, the possibility of a female science student being harassed by a male professor would be eliminated.

    Of course there would be a transgender issue, but there could be a policy that any time a faculty member wakes up identifying as a man rather than as a woman, that faculty member must stay home for the day to avoid creating an unsafe environment in the lab.

  6. I think people tend to scale their sense of what is attractive to the pool of available options, so the idea that attractive women would leave science/academia to avoid harassment until those women left in science were too unattractive to be worth harassing seems flawed. There will always be a few women who are the most attractive in the immediate environment, and they will probably get hit on/asked out/harassed.

    One has to wonder why part of the standard science curriculum at either the high school or undergraduate level hasn’t already become “don’t hit on your classmates/coworkers/fellow lab members”.

  7. In the old days, the faculty would try to fix up female grad students (some of whom were not exactly the most ravishing looking creatures) out of pity, on the theory that if they didn’t pair up with other scientists then no one would be interested and they would die alone with their cats. Apparently dying alone with their cats is now the intended result, so male interest is unwelcome.

    From the Heartiste POV, women welcome (indeed crave) attention from “alphas” but (as is pretty obvious from the referenced article) hate, hate, hate, beta males who pursue them. I suspect they are right – if the guys writing them mash notes were highly successful (say they had some great idea that they got $10 million for) then suddenly these notes wouldn’t be so unwelcome.

  8. I’m about done with rewatching all 10 seasons of Stargate SG1 where all the women are brilliant scientists, all are hot, and the men hit on them all of the time. So I’m afraid I can’t be counted on for any accurate feedback on this.

  9. What I don’t like about this article is that it suggests that STEM is enriched for creeps. My impression (but I am just a man) is that STEM is probably one of the safer places for women to work (apart from elementary school education), compared to say the corporate world. Maybe it’s because I don’t see the media portray scientists like characters from Mad Men, and I only have personal anecdote/experience to go by. Most of the guys in science I know are pretty egalitarian and value intelligent women. For sure harassment does happen in science (just recently Chicago fired Jason Lieb for sexual harrassment) and yes, there are really creepy guys out there in science – just like in any profession. There are also guys that take advantage of women’s work and don’t give them credit (see Rosalind Franklin – btw, I refuse to call the DNA strands ‘Watson and Crick strands’).

    Regarding your first hypothesis that this suggests the least attractive women would stay in science, I think there has been a huge demographic shift since 2000. Science is no longer the refuge of the homely and weird. Maybe back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s/90s one could have generalized and said the typical science woman was homely (falling into the same category as most science nerd men, aka ‘the odds are good, but the goods are odd’). However, these days all sorts of women and men are entering science. Good looking ones too.

    Another professor-creep at Caltech got in trouble for harassing two attractive students of astronomy. See article: of the victims here: and Although rather amazingly in this political climate, he was not hanged by his balls, but he had tenure and got only 9 months of temporary unpaid leave.

    As I science nerd, I can understand the attractive pull of a women who is both beautiful and extremely intelligent (literally catnip for male nerds). But why chase after women in your own lab? Particularly subordinates? These days there are so many women in science compared to the past, and with Geek/Nerd life being in fashion at the moment, why couldn’t he find some intelligent and attractive women outside of his lab? I haven’t looked but I’m sure there’s probably an app or website for scientist dating (Nerder? Geeker?).

  10. Since Beautiful People really are More Intelligent, they are working smarter, not harder. Beautiful People realize they would rather be doing something other than working in a lab. The really smart ones profitable businesses then retire so they don’t have to do science any more, thus removing themselves from the pool of attractive scientists. So the people in science, in general, tend to be less attractive. And Smart.

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