The Beauty vs Brains Debate: Can a scientist post a selfie and still be taken seriously?
Another scientist’s claim that selfies are holding women in science back has sparked a hot debate.
By Fleur Britten, published on June 10 2018, The Sunday Times
It’s the classic 21st-century feminist dilemma: do selfies empower or exploit the modern woman? The debate has come crashing into the male-dominated world of science after comments from a little-known scientist suddenly made international news. Meghan Wright, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, wrote in the journal Science that women who post “pretty selfies” from their laboratories are actually holding back the fight against sexism in their industry.
Naturally, the Scientists Who Selfie — that’s their hashtag — fought back, defending such posts as instrumental in challenging the dated stereotype of scientists (think white coat, wild white hair, specs; think man). On the one hand, posting pictures is a way to get more people engaged in science; on the other, is it merely distracting from the main subject itself? As the argument rages on, Style asked two British scientists, one new-gen, one establishment, to give their opinions. Where do you stand?
The student blogger
Sophie Arthur, 26, @soph.talks.science
Currently studying for a PhD on stem-cell metabolism and writing an award-winning science blog
The selfie debate has become quite a hot topic among young scientists. Meghan Wright argued that female scientists shouldn’t use their femininity on social media to get their message across, but everyone nowadays has a phone glued to their hands, so social media has become a tool to reach a different audience. I’m in touch with Samantha Yammine, 27 [the selfie-ing scientist @science.sam who was the target of Wright’s criticism], through Instagram. We’re all part of a group of female scientists and engineers called Stem Squad (#wearestemsquad), an online community that networks, collaborates and supports each other. Our wider science community goes by the hashtag #scicommunity, and we organised a hashtag campaign, #strongertogether, in defence of Yammine and selfie culture. We call ourselves science communicators, which means that we find ways to communicate science to people from a non-science background, or to change policy. My account is directed at a public audience, and I use it to get people more excited about science.
Sharing selfies doesn’t come from a “Look at me, I’m pretty” perspective, but more, “This is who I am and this is what I do.” Some of my online peers are super-fashionable and like taking time to do their hair and make-up. That doesn’t mean they’re any less of a scientist; all it reflects is that they like make-up. Instagram is about being yourself. If I’m going to take a selfie in the lab, I just wear whatever I wear normally because my Instagram is my brand. I obviously need to look respectable, and I’m not going to do that if I’ve got hair pulled in all directions. If that comes across as glamorous, so be it. I mostly post on Instagram because younger girls tend to use it more, but I also share on a Facebook page to reach different audiences.
It’s true that there are so many more female scientists than male who post selfies, but in my experience females are more inclined to take selfies generally — even just going on a night out. Research shows that using an image of your face increases engagement by 38% — a selfie is more relatable. Also, selfies add variety. If I only showed the things on my lab bench, it would get a bit samey.
I use my Instagram account for both science communication and general personal use, which is the case for most female sci communicators. This helps to break down the stereotype that scientists are always just in the lab, so there might be photos of us having a good time at the weekend, or at a music festival. Showing who you are as a scientist is just as much about what you actually do in a lab as who you are outside.
Putting a face to things makes such a difference. If you said to someone who wasn’t from a science background, “You need to go and have a chat with a scientist,” they’d probably feel very intimidated, whereas I hope my Instagram communicates that I’m a friendly face and you can ask me any questions you want to. I get lots of messages every day from people asking me advice about being a scientist.
Dame Athene Donald, 65 @AtheneDonald
Professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and master of Churchill College, Cambridge
This issue is not exclusive to science — think about Mary Beard, think about female MPs, think about Theresa May’s leather trousers. Women are always judged on what they look like, whether good or bad. Boris Johnson’s hair is commented on, but that’s about the limit of it, whereas whatever a woman does, it’s taken to pieces. What’s more, women are just as likely to judge other women as men are — on whether a woman looks appropriate, or nice, or if she’s taken enough trouble. If female scientists don’t take the trouble, then they are accused of not making it look like a career that a younger woman might want to enter, but if they dress up, that’s wrong too. We need to stop judging by appearance and concentrate on the content.
I think selfies are not a bad idea at all, though if you’re trying to reach your fellow professionals, then it’s probably less relevant. And if you are a scientist trying to portray that you are serious, then you probably don’t want to be standing there in a bikini. But beyond that, it shouldn’t really matter. You shouldn’t need to put on a white coat to say, “I am a scientist.” Scientists come in all shapes and sizes, attractive or unattractive, and we should not be using appearance as a measure of anything. Think of the iconic image of Einstein, or Darwin, or Hawking — our images are incredibly limited and the tradition of scientists not being terribly conscious of their appearance has gone on for years. The only way to move on from these images is to put out different ones. We need diversity in science and if selfies are the way to demonstrate that, then that’s great. There should be room for everybody.
We’ve come a long way — it used to be that women just couldn’t be scientists. Mary Somerville was an early 19th-century scientist who wrote books about celestial mechanics, but if visitors came to her house, she’d leave what she was doing and return to being the society wife. There are far more women in science now, which in many ways makes it easier. But this feels like a particularly modern vice where women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Judgment is far more explicit these days, because people can just put out a tweet and say, “My God, did you see what she was wearing?” They might have thought it previously, but it wouldn’t have permeated in the same way.
What’s also relevant here is age — the more established you are, the more licence you have. I’d be surprised if anyone was worrying about what I wear. When I was young, I never wanted to stand out — I just wanted to look tidy and respectable so would err on the formal side (not that anyone would comment one way or the other). Nowadays, I try to wear something bright to make me stick out — usually red, even though I’m a blue person. When female students give their first conference presentation, they really worry about what they should wear, because they know they are being judged. My answer is simply to be comfortable, because that will give you confidence.