Flirt harder. I’m a physicist

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 17, 2008

So, I’ve got this bumper sticker, which has sort of become my little badge of fame, “Flirt harder. I’m a physicist.” I love it — I’ve had motorists pull up beside me, motion to roll down my window, and yell “What kind of physicist?” I once saw the driver of the car behind me taking a picture of it while we were both stopped at a stoplight. I’ve had numerous pedestrians stop to ask me about it. Several don’t get it, like this blogger:

the confusing ones say “flirt harder. i’m a physicist.” i really don’t get that one. do i have to be a physicist to understand it? i’ve only taken high school physics so i have no idea what flirting has to do with anything physics related.

I’ve had some guess that it means that physicists are more desireable, so you should flirt harder to get one (I don’t mind that interpretation). But Jen Oullette gets it:

One of my favorite physics buttons/bumper stickers reads, “Flirt Harder — I’m a Physicist.” There’s a certain degree of truth to this stereotype, although it must be said, most physicists, computer geeks, etc., seem to end up married or in relationships at some point, so they can’t be as clueless as they’re generally believed to be.

The reason I love this bumper sticker, for myself, is partially its irony (I’m known to be an incurable flirt, and certainly not among the clueless when it comes to picking up on romantic signals). I’ve also often wondered how much of people’s confusion about its meaning comes from the fact that it’s on a woman’s car. The stereotyped clueless physicist/geek is a guy — women aren’t generally known for being socially inept. The opposite — we’re supposed to be the ones holding the fort together. So, is it a bit of cognitive dissonance to think “geek” along with “woman”? The two words hold some conflicting stereotypes.

Which brings me to the real reason for this post, which is to comment on a very interesting thread over at Cocktail Party Physics on what happens for women occupying the overlapping states of smart & sexy? This was in response to the 81 (and counting!!) varied comments on Phil Plait’s posting about Nerd Girls. Jennifer says:

Phil Plait is taking some heat from commenters over at Bad Astronomy after posting about the Nerd Girls: a Website, blog, and collection of curricula aimed at celebrating “smart-girl individuality” and challenging “stereotypes and myths about women in science and engineering.” … Apparently this site is controversial because it depicts smart women who are pretty, have a sense of style, and like to wear heels and a nice dress in the evenings when they go out dancing (at least a couple of them do). … The audacity! How dare smart women engage in such frivolous matters! They’re supposed to be dour, humorless, scruffy dressers, I guess, in keeping with their seriousness of purpose, so they can prove to the world that they don’t care what people think of them. Or something. Who knew that wearing makeup and wanting a pair of nice shoes automatically made you shallow and a slave to our appearance-obsessed society, no matter what your other brainy accomplishments

In graduate school, I worked in a lab full of other women.  I wanted to put up a website called “chicks in science” and have us all wearing short little lab coats with plunging necklines, posing coquettishly with erlenmeyer flasks.  I was the only one who seemed to get a kick out the idea.  (Now, of course, it sounds like the Nerd Girls site capitalized on a great idea).

I personally have always liked romping in this fun little playspace between girly and geeky. I certainly revel in all things science, and play up that part of my personality. And I wore my hear in pigtails for years, and had fuzzy little pigtail holders with stars on them. I use glittery nail polish. My cell phone case (which drew a gasp from my ex) has little blue and pink hearts on them. I like a good manicure, though I’ve also had sort of wimpy tomboy tendencies since I was a kid. I have a giggly bubbly side to me, and often times I get that sort of wide-eyed “really?” when folks find out that I’m a physicist. Of course, that’s not necessarily gender specific (plenty of physicists, male and female, are too familiar with the “hush in the conversation” that follows the admission of one’s profession).

But guys (of course, I surround myself with nerdy guys) are generally not dismayed to find out the “smart + sexy” equation applies to me — there’s generally this sort of “hey cool, that’s hot” look that passes over their face. But one thing that strikes me is that my smartness seems to play second fiddle. I can’t think of a single time when a man has looked deeply into my eyes and said breathlessly, “Stephanie, you’re so smart!” But they have said that I’m beautiful. Plenty of times. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart they are. Why this seeming double standard, even among men who value the fact that I’m smart? I’m with Phil Plait on this one — how can we expect ourselves to “rise above” millions of years of evolution? Men are attracted to me for the traits that we’ve been bred to be attracted to — those which signify fertility and health. You know, big hips, rosy lips, symmetric facial features, etc. I’m attracted to them because it seems they can outsmart the antelope. We’ve got these big ponderous brains that let us think about the nature of consciousness, the universe, and gender differences. But that doesn’t mean those brains can completely override those gender differences, even if we’re aware of them.

The unfortunate result is that I’m much more confident of my looks than my brains. I accept compliments about my appearance much more gracefully than those about my smarts, where I tend to minimize, “Oh, I don’t really know physics that much.” Internally, I know I attribute my successes in science to extrinsic factors (“the exam was easy,” “I talked my way into graduate school,” or even “They let me in because I’m a woman”) than to intrinsic factors (“I’m smart”), though I do admit that I worked hard. I don’t see guys do this. I’m not blaming them (or anyone), it just seems a shame. I do feel angry that I’ve gotten so much more positive feedback (interpersonally) over my life for being cute than for being smart. I even know that being cute has probably helped my career (research shows that attractive women have many advantages in career, as do tall men.)

Jennifer’s post continues:

The mistake many people make, however, is to over-compensate too far in the other direction, wherein anything remotely “girly” is somehow exerting undue pressure on young girls, with no thought to the possibility that maybe some girls genuinely like this stuff. Maybe this is part of who they are. Maybe they also like science and math. Ergo, we are putting a whole different kind of peer pressure on them that also squelches their individuality, by insisting they simply can’t be both interested in science and in clothes and makeup. (“Accessorizing is evil and will turn you into a bubblehead! Put down that Coach handbag and back away slowly! Do it for science!”)

That attitude is showing up a lot in Phil’s comment thread; I’ve heard it before. Danica MacKellar was sharply criticized when Math Doesn’t Suck was published last year for using math problems involving, say, shopping for school clothes.

I’ve seen this too, this “girly stuff is demeaning” attitude. It bothers me. A lot. Because “boyish” stuff, like trains and hunting and barbeques, doesn’t have that same negative connotation. To me, the embarrassment we’ve got about girly stuff has to do with our negative attitudes towards women. Period. We think that handbags and high-heels don’t belong in a textbook (or anywhere serious) because they’re related to women, and we don’t value women.   I don’t usually state such strong opinions, but there it is!

Back to guys’ interest in the “sexy+smart” coincidence. One thing that’s curious is that they often seem to cling to this hope that I’ll “get” them, that I “speaka their language.” Which, to some degree, I do. I speak geek. I like talking about this stuff. But to a large degree, I DON’T understand guys any more than any other girl. Stereotypically speaking, I have a woman’s desire to talk deeply about how I feel, to examine issues from many sides, to seek connection and to listen and to build community and all that crud. And I still have all the communication problems with men than most other women do. And yet, men talk about topics that I find much more interesting, in general. I straddle these two worlds — of nail polish and emotional conversations, versus differential equations and debunking astrology.

Where’s a geekgirl to call home?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Pann August 17, 2008 at 10:36 pm

I think I know how you feel. There’s a lot of research about how children are socialized. As a parent of two girls, I often find myself marveling to myself (silently) “My god! that child is so beautiful!” I think that happens more often than I marvel “she is so smart!” even though I think she is a seriously bright kid.

In the course of my education, I come across much concerning the differentiation of genders. Recently, I read something that suggested that you should praise effort rather than results; praise kids for things that they control and do, rather than things that they just are. My kids just are good looking; that is not something they control. Instead I should be praising them for things like, say, learning to swim, or making a cool piece of art. And I do. But it is startling and interesting that their physical attributes attract my eye and my mind often. They are so, so, beautiful to look at that it hurts sometimes.

Sigh… they are doomed to be smart and beautiful!

Ben August 17, 2008 at 11:02 pm

Yeah, but does the sticker get guys to flirt harder?

sciencegeekgirl August 17, 2008 at 11:27 pm

You know, Ben, oddly, it does. Perhaps it sounds like a challenge? 🙂 Works for me.

sciencegeekgirl August 17, 2008 at 11:29 pm

And Pann… Yes, I’m familiar with that research. It’s called Fixed vs Growth mindset (Dweck writes a lot on this). I’ll post a quick post on that article.

tomd August 18, 2008 at 12:08 am

Found this blog via the comment at Cocktail Party Physics. Looks interesting. Subscribed! 🙂

“To me, the embarrassment we’ve got about girly stuff has to do with our negative attitudes towards women. Period.”

There is of course some truth to that, but I think that’s over-simplifying things, at least for some circumstances. I think a lot of the negativity around girly-pink-barbie-ponies stuff targeted at young girls is because it was associated with the old girls-should-only-be-homemakers attitude. So it was seen as explicitly discouraging girls from pursuing academic achievement and careers requiring brains and education. Barbie saying “Math is hard”, lots of dolls and not enough Lego, etc.

There’s an interesting question around how to have traditionally girly (or indeed boyish) stuff around without making kids feel like they have to conform to the stereotype.

Ironically, part of your complaint, that girly things are seen as bad while “boy stuff” isn’t, has another symptom: far greater freedom for women to break stereotypes than men. It is quite acceptable for women (and not just those stereotypical nerds) to, for example, wear pants, and yet how many guys can wear a dress and keep their stock market job? It’s sad that the reason for that is, as you pointed out, probably negativity towards women in general. Guys can’t show any traditionally female sides without being labelled not masculine or gay.

tomd August 18, 2008 at 12:17 am

Oh yeah, on the bumper sticker: I just took it to mean that a potential flirter should come up with *smart* flirts, and that stupid lines or whatever wouldn’t work, which is no bad thing. I suspect that the main reason that it “works” though is that it very clearly sends out an explicit message that it’s ok to flirt with you. There are probably a lot of shy and / or nerdy guys out there who would kill for such a clear signal from a potential flirtee. 🙂

FFFearlesss August 18, 2008 at 6:37 am

reposting my response to your comment over on Cocktail Party Physics:

(((I can’t think of a single time when a man has looked deeply into my eyes and said breathlessly, “Stephanie, you’re so smart!” But they do tell me I’m beautiful. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart *they* are. )))

And the real irony is, deep down that’s really all THEY’RE dying to hear from YOU! Well, maybe not ALL they’re dying to hear, but as a man it makes our day a lot more when a woman comments on our attractiveness more than if they told us we made a great catch in the lab… or in my case brought the Avid back online after a particularly horrific crash (I’m a TV engineer)

sciencegeekgirl August 18, 2008 at 8:58 am

Tomd — I really like your point. It’s true, the girly stuff has a negative connotation, in some part, because of they signify ye olde negative attitudes towards women (that *all* they’re good for is girly makeup and home cooking).

And it’s true, I have much more freedom to break gender stereotypes than my male friends, which is too bad. When I strap on my climbing harness, or Jennifer O. goes to juijitsu, we face some barriers but overall it’s “cool.” Badass girls have some toughness quotient that’s seen as positive.

Men who wear skirts? Less so (except in some of the circles I run in).

sciencegeekgirl August 18, 2008 at 9:00 am

And to FFFearless… You know, your comment reminds me of something. I *do* tend to compliment men on their looks a lot (I’m just a complimentary person), and *their* reaction to my compliments on their looks is often very similar to *my* reaction to compliments on my smarts. Embarrassed, a little shy, not sure how to deal with it. Minimizing it.

Both behaviors, of course, are pretty indicative of hearing something we want to hear. 🙂

Matt August 18, 2008 at 10:43 am

Now here is a question that I face often. Since I sell science products aimed at kids I often get both praised and criticized for carrying certain kits that seem more ‘gender aimed’ than most. An example of this are the wild science kits:

http://www.wildscienceusa.com/index.php?link=laboratories

They are chemistry kits with bend toward a female audience. With kits for incense, soap, perfume, and whatnot. The good is that they are fairly popular with girls who might not be of a ‘geek’ bend in the first place. The bad is that they are in some fashion re-enforcement of gender stereotypes. What’s a retailer to do?

On the other hand, for some reason the ‘Grow A Frog’ kit is very popular with the 8-12 year old girls. Don’t ask me why, it just is.

(Turns up the flirting dial)

sciencegeekgirl August 18, 2008 at 11:01 am

Matt, this harkens to the guff that Danika MacKellar got for including math problems about shopping in her book. Heck, if it appeals to girls, go for it. (Whoda thunk that frogs were girly? 🙂

One of the funniest Iron Science Teacher shows that I ever saw (like Iron Chef, but ‘teach a science lesson using this secret ingredient’) was the one for Crayons. A teacher showed us how to make lip gloss using crayons and a little chemistry. What made this one a gem was:
1. The teacher was male, with a delightful british accent
2. The cute little girl in the front row who was given the choice of what crayon color he should use for lip gloss (which *he* put on at the end of the show) chose *black*.

Priceless. You can see the RAM of that episode here: http://www.exploratorium.edu/iron_science/iron060707.ram

And more Iron Science Teacher here: http://www.exploratorium.edu/iron_science/

bioephemera August 18, 2008 at 5:00 pm

I loved Jen’s post, too. I also really like your response to it. . . I am not as confident in my looks as you seem to be, but like you, I do downplay all my academic honors – it’s a bad habit which at this point, I should really be over.

As for lip gloss. . . I once had my students expose petri plates to “the dirtiest things you can think of” (doorknobs, toilet seats, toothbrushes, etc.) to gross them out about ubiquitous germs. The next day, we opened the incubator and pulled out the plates -all pretty run of the mill fungi and bacteria, except for a group whose plate was covered with the most sinister bright red glossy colonies I had ever seen. I was about to call our microbiologist at home, when I saw their next plate, which was covered with various shades of pink glitter. Apparently lip gloss was “the dirtiest thing” they could think of!

AlpineBob August 19, 2008 at 3:13 am

I wear a skirt every so often, but it still feels strange except when I’m contra dancing. Never felt any desire to try it on the job though…

One reason guys tend to compliment about looks vs smarts – it’s easier (plus we’ve been trained that way by movies, TV, you name it). Your face is right out there in public unless you’re wearing a burka or skimask, but your smarts are harder to discern without a bit of conversation.

I’m speaking generally, of course, not having seen you in a burkha!

But now that it’s been pointed out, I’ll try to remember to compliment for intelligence when I’m smart enough to remember to…

Coturnix August 19, 2008 at 10:29 am

I went to see Iron Science Teacher last year when I was in SF.

Also, google “femiphobia”….

I tend not to come out with compliments right out of the starting stalls. After some conversation, if I am impressed, I may make a comment about her brilliant smarts. I guess she already knows about her good looks from all the other people who MUST have told her that many times before.

And Bioephemera is beautiful 😉

tercel August 21, 2008 at 11:25 pm

I’m an engineer, and I got my undergraduate degree in physics, so I’ve met and been attracted to women with that combination of “smart+sexy.” In response to the complaint about getting more compliments about your looks than your intelligence, I just want to defend us guys for a second:)

Keep in mind that the men in question here — geeks, nerds, and typically awkward people — are not very adept or confident in general when talking to women. Some are worse than others, but as you said yourself, we all have a less than complete understanding of the other sex. So we are strongly influenced by what we have been trained to think women want to hear. Men also, as you alluded to, have more confidence in their intelligence, whether it is deserved or not, and we assume this is true of women. We are also aware of the stereotype that smart women are not attractive, so it could seem reasonable that your genius girlfriend might like to be told she is pretty.

Roger August 22, 2008 at 7:05 am

Steph,

I always flirted hard with you but could never match your wit or intelligence. We both know how gorgeous you are 🙂

R

sciencegeekgirl August 22, 2008 at 11:25 am

Tercel –

Your point is well-taken: “it could seem reasonable that your genius girlfriend might like to be told she is pretty.”
And that is true, however, that’s not quite the point that I was trying to make. I’m interested in what happens for the complimentER rather than the complimentEE in these situations. When I find a guy who’s smart, I get weak in the knees, and just can’t resist telling him so. But from my observations, the same is not true of my interactions with men. When a man finds a woman who’s pretty, he gets weak in the knees and can’t resist telling her so. Regardless of what the other party wants to hear, isn’t it *interesting* that it (seems to be) smarts that makes women weak in the knees, and looks that makes men weak in the knees? That’s why I wonder if it’s biology. The things that make our hearts go all-a-flutter seem to be different.

Of course, this is all stereotypically speaking, and as a recent post at Swans on Tea said, why are we speaking about stereotypes? I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and my inclination is that we’re speaking about stereotypes because for many of us, the stereotypes match our experience. I can only speak for my experience in these matters. (And yes, of course, a pretty face also makes me weak in the knees, but it’s more like icing on the cake. Mmm, icing…).

So, yes, Tercel, your genius girlfriend probably does like to hear she’s pretty. We all do. In a way, saying someone’s pretty is a comglomeration of all sorts of appreciation, since people get more and more gorgeous to us the more we like them, regardless of standards of beauty. But I’m curious about what sorts of compliments we feel *bidden* to make about our significant others?!

Neutrino Mass April 11, 2009 at 5:35 pm

Oh gezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ! I think there is some truth to “Flirt harder I’m a physicist.” I am a physicist and looking back over the years I now understand that I turned down some romantic interludes because I was naive. I guess I must have been dense when it came to females. I must admit I was “afraid” of a pretty girl because I could never understand what “she” would want with me. Besides that I was sort of a shy kind of guy.

At the ripe old age of 60 I now understand that I was (keyword: was) a pretty good looking young man. And I am still an exceptionally intelligent human being. My last IQ test, if you believe in IQ results, was 162. I lost the beauty but I still have the brains.

After reading the comments above I do have one thing to say about a girl named Beverly. She said to me while gazing into my eyes, “I have always wanted to make love with someone as intelligent as you.” Unfortunately I walked away with all my brains still in not out.

Regrets, Particle T

Podblack April 15, 2009 at 5:10 am

Just in passing – what would be your response to an ‘unwanted’ flirt – or the feeling that you’re being pigeonholed because you happen to be physically attractive and intelligent and people might think it’s a ‘green card’ to dismiss being respectful on a professional (or even personal) level? ‘She’s alright with it, because I consider her to be smart enough to take an otherwise vulgar or leering comment as a joke’?

I don’t know if you’ve seen the following, for example:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/03/25/singled-out/

http://ambivalentacademic.blogspot.com/2009/03/scientist-or-fodder-for-sexual-fantasy.html

sandrar September 10, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

Lyn February 10, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Hey 🙂
You’re not the only girl, that gets surprised reactions when people find out about being a physicist (when I let people guess, they tend to think I’m a lawyer for some reason?!?).
But when it comes to this:
“But they have said that I’m beautiful. Plenty of times. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart they are. Why this seeming double standard, even among men who value the fact that I’m smart? ”
I’ve had a completely different experience. More than one guy has told me, that he thought me really smart and that he thought that was hot – I can’t remember the last time a guy told me I was beautiful. Maybe it’s a difference in culture or maybe I’m not pretty enough (or I really do fit that stereotype of being dense when it comes to flirting), I don’t know. Guess which compliment I’d rather get? In my experience, most people appreciate the rarer compliments more. Invert the situation above, how would a guy that always gets complimented on his intelligence react to being complimented on his looks?
Hope that made some sense 🙂 (English isn’t my first language)

Best regards
Lyn

P.S.: Where did you get that bumper sticker from? I think I need one of those…

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