I was quite taken aback when I saw the article this morning as well, although not for quite the same reasons as +A.V. Flox
. I've spent most of my life in these fields – first as a physicist, and now as an engineer – and this surprised me because it so violates the cultural norms of the fields. Scientists dedicate their lives to being known by their work; towards a work which is supposed to be greater than they are as individuals. And the fields can be utterly brutal; scientists quite literally dedicate their entire lives to what they do, often at the expense of nearly everything else, and their success among their peers is defined entirely as the reputation of their name – generally their last name alone.
So a "sexiest scientists" column is deeply disruptive in a few ways. First, it tries to establish "sexiness" – and despite the various things +Jennifer Welsh
listed as factors, it's quite clear that simple media-worthy attractiveness was the lead factor – as a legitimate arena of competition. When people are already stretched to their limits with a competition over the field they have dedicated themselves to, to add a new one can be deeply unsettling. (Most of all for those who don't feel like they could win at such a thing – and that's the overwhelming majority of scientists) This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the science community, by and large, has never heard of Business Insider,
and this entire thing is likely being taken as a joke within the community; but (as with most jokes in that community) it has a sharp edge to it, where those who were picked now have some extra bit of "edge" over the others.
The consequences in this regard are potentially more serious to those outside of the community, and wondering if they should join in. I find it hard to read this as saying "oh, you can be a scientist and be sexy, too!;" it reads more like "want to be a scientist that people talk about? You have to be sexy, too!" I wouldn't show this article to a high school student or a middle school student, or even to an undergrad, considering a career in the sciences.
There's a more deeply insidious aspect to it, though, around gender. As a few commenters have already pointed out, while there is a rough gender parity here, the selection of men and women was very different: the men skew significantly older, and are of a range of levels of physical attractiveness. They all share a certain rugged look, and all of them are certainly people you could feature in print, but they have the "established" look about them, a look which conveys power and authority. The women skew significantly younger, skew less senior in their fields, and skew much more physically attractive. And that's, fairly roughly, the power dynamic in most of these fields: older, very established men, with considerable power, and young men and women, trying to work their way up. And in a lot of these fields (not least string theory, my own former field) there's an unsubtle theme of sexual predation going on; but a woman who ends up in a sexual relationship with a more senior physicist has permanently been branded as his extension, as one of his "girls," and has basically shot her career to hell. This is not a field known for its subtle power imbalances.
And in that context, to see the women as overtly sexualized – women who are every bit as competent as their male counterparts, but who are struggling to define themselves in a field which is simultaneously viciously competitive and trying to push them out by redefining them as purely sex items – to signal to them that their power comes, at least in some measure, from their appearance – is deeply irresponsible, something which threatens their careers and their futures. It's subtle, but it's the sort of thing that (now that I have a large team of my own) I have to work hard to repel and make clear is not
a part of how we play the game.
(And to understand this fully, it helps to understand another unspoken rule of the sciences: You must be utterly and solely dedicated to your particular field. The mere possession of side interests, unless you are extremely established in the field, is enough to effectively disqualify you from your career; if you can be something else, by the cultural norms of the field, then you are
that something else, and not a scientist. This is considered one of the major means of filtering people out from the levels of grad school through assistant professorship. Being good at being sexy is no less of a threat – to the junior people)
I completely understand why BI would want to run this column, as well as parallel columns of "sexiest CEOs," "sexiest actors," "sexiest PR representatives," or the like. But it's a very different matter to run those about fields where the presentation of one's public face is core to the work, and where "sexiness" has a rather specific (and career-aligned) meaning, than to do it in the sciences or in engineering.