Recognising Sexism: Boobs to ‘Broteomics’

A few days ago, UC Davis Professor Jonathan Eisen raised a provocative question in his blog post, “Is Sexxing up your scientific journal okay? The Journal of Proteomics seems to think so.” He was referring to a graphical abstract published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Journal of Proteomics, depicting a woman holding up two coconuts against her presumably bare chest, linked to a paper titled “Harry Belafonte and the secret of the coconut milk proteome.”

Science: You're doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism

Science: You’re doing it wrong. When scientists use a provocative picture of a woman hoping to make people pay for article access, the marketing gimmick is sexism

The scientific community responded, and there are many excellent summaries of the events that took place. Scientists established the fact that this Journal has engaged in this sexist behaviour multiple times, leading entomologist Alex Wild to satirise the publication’s title as the Journal of Broteomics.

This collective protest led to the graphical abstract eventually being removed. But this incident highlights a larger issue at hand. We want to take a broader perspective on the sexist culture within STEM, with a special focus on scientific publishing. This latest example from Journal of Proteomics raises two key issues: 1) Scientists do not have a clear understanding of what sexism is. As such, sexism is reduced to a subjective understanding, divorced from its legal definition and its accompanying institutional practice. 2) Science publishing needs to have in place better safeguards against sexism.

How Sexism Affects STEM Culture

We can see from the responses by the lead author and editor of the Journal of Proteomics that sexism has both influenced their graphical abstract and their reactions to the complaints. First, let’s think about the meaning behind the image used. Second, we’ll review the position of the author and editor. The article and image were unrelated. The article was not about women and coconuts (and even then, the image would still be inappropriate). The idea behind this is a standard marketing gimmick – it’s the idea that sex sells. The graphic is presented with text: “Here is your coconut woman, as perhaps envisioned by Harry Belafonte. For its proteome, though, have a look at the report inside!”. The fact that the graphical abstract was open access while the rest of the full text article was pay-walled indicates a marketing gimmick on the part of the editorial team. That is, the hope that a provocative picture of a woman would make people pay for article access.

Proteomes are the set of proteins expressed in cells, tissues and organisms. The graphic combines a scientific study (proteomes) with a sexualised image (a naked woman) and enthusiastically (denoted with an exclamation mark !) asks us to click on the image of a thin, young, naked and conventionally attractive woman holding two coconut drinks over her breasts. This woman’s looks and her sexuality are meant to entice readers to click beyond the abstract.

Email Prof Rajini Rao to Prof Juan Calvete

Click to enlarge: Email Prof Rajini Rao to Prof Juan Calvete

Professor Rajini Rao, one of the Managers of STEM Women, wrote to both the lead author and journal Editor-In-Chief (left). The author’s response is pictured below left.

Email Prof Righetti to Prof Rao

Click to enlarge: Email Prof Righetti to Prof Rao

Professor Pier Giorgio Righetti is both brief and dismissive. Her starts by saying, “I wonder if you have been trained in the Vatican.” This line is meant to demean Rao’s concern using sexual innuendo. Righetti evokes the idea that Rao’s concerns are puritanical, and his words attempt to slight Rao’s sexuality, as if only a highly religious person who has taken a vow of chastity would take offense. This conflates the private enjoyment of sexuality (no one’s business where it concerns consenting adults) with the inappropriate use of women as sexual objects to sell science (this is everyone’s business as it hurts STEM). In a professional context, this is never okay, whether intended in jest or otherwise.

The next line dismisses Rao’s complaint on a professional level, “As you claim to be professor of Physiology, let me alert you that this image is physiology at its best!” (our emphasis). In other words: Righetti is at once saying that because he is not offended and he works in the field of biology (as does Rao), she should not be offended. In fact, she should laud the brilliant representation of physiology. Righetti seems to presume that his expertise is therefore more valid than Rao’s.

This exchange is made possible by sexist beliefs. Moreover, Righetti’s words are tantamount to an exercise of sexism. Righetti does not see a problem with the image, so he presumes others should not have a problem. He immediately shuts down the conversation. Righetti seems to suggest that sexism is about individual discretion. In fact, it is an exercise of power. Not only is Righetti the corresponding author of this paper, he is also an Executive Editor of the Journal of Proteomics, yet he sees fit to dismiss a colleague’s concerns about sexism, rather than take on board the argument put forward by Rao.

The response from the Editor-In-Chief arrived after the “Twitter storm” of comments attracted the attention of Elsevier representatives, who quickly announced that the images would be taken down.

Email Prof Calvete

Click to enlarge: Email Prof Calvete

In Professor Juan Calvete’s “Dear Colleague” email addressed to the scientific community (left), he makes sure to note that he does not “personally” find the images to be sexist (adopting a subjective definition), but he assures that he is adhering to equality in his judgement “(as well as I would not consider it sexist if a man were represented).” Even if someone else finds the images sexist, he claims accidental sexism may be at play, “this was neither the intention of the authors nor of the editor.” As editor, he pulled down the images, but not because they were sexist, you see, rather because the images “may be inappropriate for illustrating a scientific paper.” So while they’re not sexist, they’re not appropriate science. But only because it’s causing “unwelcome publicity.” What gives?

Sexism is perpetuated when it goes unexamined in everyday exchanges and by silencing its critics. By acting as if this editorial decision is just a misunderstanding, sexism is erased as the issue. The problem is that people who complain don’t have a good sense of humour. They must be religious zealots. They’re taking things out of context because no sexism was intended.

Our collective imagination has moved to a (mis)understanding of sexism. We see it as an interpersonal exchange where one person physically or verbally attacks another using sexualised violence. Sexism becomes the problem of two individuals, rather than a societal issue that institutions need to monitor and address. People have erroneously come to see that sexism may be subjective. It is not. Sexism is not in the eye of the beholder – it defined by law.

Sexist beliefs, whether voiced publicly or unexamined or “unintentional” is a trap. Sexist culture makes it possible for a team of researchers to publish not just one paper using women as sexual commodities to sell science, but to do this several times. The editorial board and Elsevier have not published an official apology. But the head editor’s apology speaks volumes about the unwillingness for some publishers to take responsibility for sexism.

The Problem with The Non-Apology

A non-apology is a “sorry but not sorry” statement, when the responsible party feels obliged to make one due to mounting public pressure. It is a statement that has the form of an apology, but there is no contrition or acceptance of wrongdoing. These are typically issued by politicians and public relations departments, and sadly in increasing frequency by editors of scientific journals.

The non-apology

The non-apology

At the start of this year, a Nature editor “outed” Isis the Scientist, a pseudonymous blogger, on Twitter. The scientific blogging community called this out as a sexist abuse of power. The Nature editors then proceeded to issue a non-apology that was succinctly summed up by Red Ink’s Let Me Fix That For You. A few years earlier, Nature published an extremely controversial ‘science fiction’ story in their Futures section titled ‘Womanspace’ and the author proceeded to issue a non-apology when the scientific community reacted with outrage.

A non-apology is damaging because it demonstrates a lack of understanding for the problem at hand. The crux of a non-apology is that it indicates that the individual or organisation issuing it are not taking responsibility for their actions. Often, we hear defensive statements such as “That’s not how it was meant” or “Oh it was just a joke.” It is vital to understand that intention does not matter when it comes to sexism and discrimination; there is no such thing as “accidental sexism.” Refusing to accept responsibility for the grievance does nothing to reassure those of us who are concerned that these incidents won’t happen again. Indeed, as evidenced by the repetitive nature of these incidents, a pattern emerges and we see that it does keep happening.

When people cannot recognise sexism in themselves, they cannot see it in others. An unacknowledged problem is an unsolvable problem. It creates an environment where certain types of behaviour are excused, and implicitly encouraged. By fostering a culture of casual sexism, the connection to the broader context of discrimination is ignored. Numerous studies have shown us that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. Many surveys have shown that women are underpaid when compared to their male colleagues. There is sexism in STEM. Non-apologies create a culture where sexism is allowed, and indeed, thrives. This needs to stop.

Safeguards Against Sexism

So how do we move forward? Clearly, we need better training on what constitutes sexism, and a system of accountability. The fact that a “graphical abstract” of this nature was published to begin with demonstrates a failure of the editorial process. The continued reluctance on part of the editorial team to accept responsibility does not help either. We need a better system for vetting manuscripts and their graphical abstracts. We urge Elsevier and other publishers of academic journals to provide detailed guidelines to Editors to avoid a repeat of this unpleasant incident.

Our institutions need to implement safeguards and provide training to prevent such incidents. If something like this had happened within the institution, for example with advertising a seminar, there would be repercussions. The same needs to be true of manuscript submissions to journals. There must be policies in place to prevent these incidents, and also to address these issues swiftly when they are made public.

Scientists need to be better aware of sexism and its consequences in academia. Mandatory sexual harassment training would be helpful. The objectification of women should never be used to sell science. It demeans the publication, the scientists, and science itself.

We have to be better than that.

Over to You

Did we miss any other safeguards to ensure this doesn’t happen again? Write us in the comments below! 

Catch our next STEM Women live event on Everyday Sexism on Sunday the 30th of March at 1pm Pacific/ 8pm GMT/ 31st of March 7am. Contribute to the discussion live via Twitter using #stemwomen or leave questions on our Google+ page .

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  • Jonathan Eisen

    I would just like to note that I did indeed ask the question “is Sexxing up your scientific journal OK? The Journal of Proteomics seems to think so.” … but this was a rhetorical question ..

    • STEMWomen

      Thanks very much for your comment Jonathan, and for raising this issue with the scientific community. We certainly understood that you posed this question rhetorically and that this is demonstrated in your linked article.

  • Kelsey Wood

    While the image was inappropriate and sexist, I don’t think the authors/editors were necessarily trying to “sell” the science with sex. The authors have a history of using “joke” graphical abstracts (for more see: and this one clearly falls into the sexist (& not funny) joke category. Most academics would have access to the article for free through their institutions library.

    • STEMWomen

      They absolutely were trying to sell this article using a woman’s sexuality – it is a marketing gimmick. The article is behind a paywall. Your presumption that “most academics would have access” is a null point. Not all universities have equal access to all journals in any given field. Plus these subscriptions are regularly reviewed by institutions. One factor that influences whether articles are renewed is how often they are used by academics in their departments. More people downloading these articles is one way to ensure that the journal is seen as relevant. *Two* of the article authors are also on the journal’s editorial panel. All of these issues are interconnected.

      All that being said, none of these issues excuse the sexism. The fact that they use sexist jokes repeatedly only makes the offence worse.

  • Ed Rybicki

    You write “A few years earlier, Nature published an extremely controversial ‘science fiction’ story in their Futures section titled ‘Womanspace’ and again proceeded to issue a non-apology when the scientific community reacted with outrage.”

    Ummm…Nature had nothing to do with the “non-apology” post – that was mine. It’s called “Tale of a Story”, and just relates how the story came to be.

  • Ed Rybicki

    Funny, I distinctly recall commenting here to correct a mistake – as in Nature never issued a “non-apology” over Womanspace. I did. Or didn’t, whichever. Ah, well: I suppose I don’t let Cde Physioproffe and the like comment on my blog, so…B-)

  • Ed Rybicki

    So: determined not to let me comment? Ah, well…B-)

    • STEM Women

      Apologies for holding up your comments. They were waiting moderation and we’re only just catching up on the backlog. We have edited the blog to indicate that the linked response to the Womanspace article was from you (the author) and not from Nature. Thanks for catching that.

    • STEMWomen

      Apologies for holding up your comments. They were waiting moderation and we’re only just catching up on the backlog. We have edited the blog to indicate that the linked response to the Womanspace article was from you (the author) and not from Nature. Thanks for catching that.

      • rybicki

        Thank you twice! B-)

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