Mt. A women scientists #DistractinglySexy

Hashtag used to speak out against misogyny in science

Under very few circumstances would most people deliberately call themselves “distractingly sexy.” This term was recently abuzz on social media, however, as an empowering statement for female scientists speaking out against misogyny in their field. Female scientists at Mount Allison were among the thousands worldwide who took to social media to speak out against misogynistic comments made by Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt by posting photos of themselves doing not-so-sexy scientific work with the hashtag #distractinglysexy.
On June 8, Hunt took to the floor at a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea. In front of an audience of largely female scientists, Hunt made what he probably thought was a lighthearted joke: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
These words quickly spread through the Twittersphere as female scientists from many disciplines reacted to Hunt’s comments by posting #distractinglysexy photos. The photos displayed women in discipline-specific protective gear and were headlined with witty comments suggesting that their mere presence in the workplace was enough to distract male colleagues.
Beth MacDonald, a Mt. A graduate and current research assistant in the department of biology, participated in the #distractinglysexy campaign by posting an image of herself in bulky field clothing during winter fieldwork. Her caption read, “The layers are to prevent male colleagues from falling in love with me (also hypothermia) #distractinglysexy.”
“Whether he meant it in a malicious way or not, just the fact that he thought that that was a funny joke is indicative of an idea that it’s okay to make little sexist jokes at a conference,” said MacDonald. “The reality is that there are barriers for women in the STEM fields. [To] make a flippant comment like that, whether you think it is funny or not […] is steeped in these offensive cultural ideas of what being a woman is—and it’s not funny.”
Sarah Neima, a Mt. A graduate currently working on a master’s degree in the department of biology, posted a #distractinglysexy photo from when she did fieldwork in the Arctic and had to carry a gun to defend against polar bears. Its caption read, “Throw back to last year’s field season on Coats Island, Nunavut. So glad I could defend myself from all my co-workers who found me #distractinglysexy.”
“Even if [Hunt] had been joking, I did not find his comments humorous in any way. I think it displays very narrow-minded thinking to portray women as over-emotional creatures who can’t behave professionally,” said Neima.
Neima said she believes misogyny in STEM fields may discourage young women from pursuing a career in science.
“There’s still a lot of STEM fields [in which] women are really under-represented and I think that a lot of that comes from these cultural ideas of what women can do and what women should do,” said Neima. “I think that a comment like this contributes to that.”
While MacDonald and Neima said that they had strong female scientist role models both within and outside the Mt. A community, both have experienced sexism in the form of comments that perpetuate stereotypes about women.
After criticism from within and beyond the scientific community, Hunt resigned from his fellowships at the University College of London and the Royal Society, and apologized a few days later, stating that he had intended to be humorous. As there is no transcript of his address its exact wording is unknown, other than the quote which was thrust into international headlines. There are claims that he may have prefaced his comments with expressions of support for women in science.
Neima said she hopes that a positive lesson may be learned from the #distractinglysexy movement.
“I think one of the most important things to remember in light of the recent social-media uproar is that this is not a war between men and women,” she said. “This is a war between ignorance and understanding, with the prize being an environment in which anyone can achieve their full potential, and contribute to our understanding of the amazing world we share.”

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