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?