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The "Boopsie Effect": Gender, Sexiness, Intelligence and Competence

TheBeautyBias Last Thursday, I heard segments of a KUOW interview with Deborah Rhode, Stanford law professor and author of The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law, in which she spoke of the Boopsie effect, wherein women in upper-level positions in historically male-dominated professions find that "attractiveness suggests less competence and intellectual ability". One of the references she associates with this effect is a study on Evaluations of Sexy Women in Low- and High-Status Jobs, by Peter Glick and his colleagues, in which they segment women's roles into traditional, non-traditional and sexy, and suggest that while attractiveness is often associated with advantages, sexy self-presentation is a disadvantage for women in high-status jobs.

Boopsie I had not heard of the term before, but I presume it refers to the Doonesbury character, Boopsie, who is always drawn with a sexy self-presentation but is rarely portrayed in contexts demonstrating intelligence or competence. I've long been aware of the phenomenon, and believe it is helpful to have an evocative label with which to describe it. A couple of subsequent encounters later in the week with professionals' reactions to being designated "sexiest" prompted me to think (and write) a bit more about this effect. It appears that the effect can also apply to men - who were not studied in Glick's article - and that the negative effect for women may be diminishing, at least in some areas.

MonicaGuzman On Friday, I read that Mónica Guzmán had been voted Seattle's Sexiest Blogger by Seattle Weekly. I've met Mónica, read her writing and seen and heard her speaking, and consider her to be extremely competent and intelligent (and yes, sexy, as well). Although she expressed some awkwardness about receiving the award - given her recent resignation as a blogging reporter at the Seattle PI - her posting of a photo of the award during the ceremony, accompanied by a ":D + *blush* + ;)" caption, suggests that she did not find the award to be a significant diminishment.

SanjayGupta In contrast, on the Saturday NPR news quiz show, Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me, host Peter Sagal introduced Sanjay Gupta as "CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent, a practicing physician, a teacher of medicine ... and one of the Sexiest Men Alive" (given his having been featured as one of People Magazine's sexiest men). Dr. Gupta reacted negatively to the last part of Sagal's characterization, and said that if anything, he believes his "sexiest" designation tends to undermine his professional credibility. He did not say whether it diminished his standing in the medical community or the media community, but I suspect it applies more to the former than the latter.

After reflecting on Professor Rhode's observation about disadvantage that attractive women experience in historically male-dominated professions, and the different responses by these two professionals, I decided to do a little research:

So Dr. Gupta is operating at the intersection of two male-dominated professions - medicine (72% male) and mainstream media (67% male) - and finds the designation of sexiness to be a detraction from his professional standing. I don't mean to imply that the effect is the same for men and women, but it does appear that the Boopsie effect is not the sole purview of women.

Ms. Guzman has also been operating at the intersection of two professions, one of which is has more women than men (though it may be a stretch to call blogging a "profession"). I don't know the gender breakdown on new media journalists, but suspect the field is considerably less male-dominated than physician journalists, and it certainly doesn't have a long history.

Reflecting further on histories and traditions, it strikes me that one of the elements factoring into the Boopsie effect may be the credentialing process. Fields dominated by those with advanced degrees - MD, JD, PhD - may have a narrower view of what counts as intellectual ability ... and perhaps a stronger, if subconscious, view of what counts against it. Like medicine, Computer Science research is a field dominated by males with advanced degrees. I don't know the specific gender breakdown, but a recent NSF report shows that while over half (50.2%) of Science and Engineering PhD degrees were awarded to women in 2007, only 20.5% of those receiving Computer Science PhDs were women.

I have several female computer science research friends who are both brilliant and very attractive - and, yes, if I have to admit it, sexy ... though I'm keenly aware of feeling awkward even acknowledging this, perhaps further reflecting the negative effects that such designations may impart (which is why I'm intentionally not naming names). I know that they sometimes feel compelled to cloak their attractiveness to minimize physical distractiveness when they are presenting their intellectual insights to their mostly male colleagues. One particularly brilliant and attractive woman friend was explicitly criticized on review forms following a conference presentation for not having dressed more conservatively - to better conceal her attractiveness - during her presentation ... and this was in a subfield within computer science where the gender distribution is among the least skewed of any I've been associated with.

I recently wrote about de-bureaucratization, and described some of the ways that health care, education and science are starting to embrace platform thinking and empower a broader spectrum of stakeholders. I believe that journalism and journalists are at the forefront of de-bureaucratization - perhaps not entirely by choice - and the effective utilization and integration of new media platforms has played an important role in Monica Guzman's success.

BradyForrest Another intelligent and competent champion of platform thinking and doing - in fact, the co-chair of the premier conference on such matters, Web 2.0 Expo (most recent theme: The Power of Platforms) - was recently named the sexiest male among Violet Blue's Top 10 Sexiest Geeks. I'm not sure how Brady Forrest feels about this designation, but I imagine he does not see this as significantly undermining his credibility. I assume this partly due to his easy-going nature but also as a reflection of the stylistic differences between the relatively highly bureaucratized domain of traditional computer science research and the more democratic - or perhaps anarchic - culture of geeks.

As intelligent and competent people in traditionally bureaucratic realms adopt platform thinking - and new media channels - to reveal more of who they are as well as what they do, I'd like to think that the conflict between perceptions of attractiveness - or sexiness - and intelligence will be diminished, for both men and women ... but we shall see.

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