Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cheesecake and Engineers

The IEEE Spectrum writes about how female and male scientists have been judged differently when posing semi-nude. As an example they take a look at the "Girls of Engineering 2007" calendar. It all started when mechanical engineer Jennifer Wood and an anonymous male friend decided to create a calendar that would show that attractive women can be intelligent. While Wood and new partner Syed Karim claim that the purpose was to "challenge stereotypes" by showing that smart women are sexy too. It doesn't seem that they've achieved that goal.

Ask the models themselves, though, and their silence is eloquent. IEEE Spectrum e-mailed 11 of the 12 young women, but only one answered, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering major. Even she asked that her name not be revealed. She said she’d agreed to participate in the project mainly to contradict the stereotype of women in engineering.

“Most of the time when I talk to people and I tell them I’m in engineering, I can feel them treating me as one of ‘those nerds,’ ” she says in an e-mail. “When people think of engineers, they always think of something along the lines of, ‘stay in their own cell, never go out to meet anyone, never do anything for fun, their life revolves around a computer….’ For a female engineer it is even worse.”

She makes a point of contrasting her “nerdy moments” with such out-of-the-cubicle interests as playing guitar and drums, writing music, painting and sculpting, riding in bicycle motocross, surfing, wrestling, and hiking in her home country of New Zealand. Nevertheless, she says that she had hoped to show not just her beach-bunny side but also her engineering persona, and it didn’t happen.

“To be honest, I am disappointed in the outcome of the calendar,” she says. “The maker had a very sound concept to start with. However, when the focal point is sex instead of intelligence, the calendar itself lost its meaning. It is now another Playboy-ish calendar, with amateur models that happen to be in engineering.” She said she preferred a similar project at MIT for putting more stress on engineering and less on cheesecake.

As for the photos*, they are pretty run-of-the-mill cheesecake - undies or bikinis and attractive, but non-siliconized bodies. The trouble is that we live in a world where female engineers and scientists often have to work harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same recognition. The calendar seems to reinforce the stereotype that women should be judged by their appearance rather than their achievements. Judge for yourself.

* My initial reaction was that females over the age of 20 are not "girls," and using that term juvenilizes the models (one of my pet peeves). Would they be too scary if they were sexy, intelligent women?

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