April 30, 2015 / feminism, News, Sexism

The psychiatrist and the headshot: A tale of unintended objectification


The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

I am a first year medical student, and today I attended a lunch meeting hosted by the Psychiatry Club that welcomed a guest speaker from the Psychiatry Department at our teaching hospital. He spoke about addiction management services. His slides were laden with bar graphs and statistics. Suddenly, a woman’s professional headshot appeared on the screen. “Does anyone know who this attractive lady is?” the psychiatrist asked. No one knew. It turned out that she was a medical doctor and the head of a national addiction center. “I wanted to show that picture to you so that you would be inclined to read this quote by her,” he said, as he flipped to the next slide which contained her quote about the science of addiction.

Immediately, I texted my mother and asked what to do. In an attempt to calm me down from my feminist fury, my mother suggested a few possibilities: “He was just being nice. He is from an older generation. Maybe she is a friend of his. Maybe it was a very weak joke.”

These possibilities may have all been realities. The problem is that it doesn’t matter if he was joking or if that woman is his sister or if he was born in 1900. The fact is that he blatantly objectified a woman in a room of 30 future physicians, many of whom were women. Objectification of women, even if that comes in the form of a joke or compliment, leads to dehumanization of women, disrespect of women, and ultimately violence against women.

Dr. Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at UNL and the lead author of “Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias,” highlights the dangers of objectifying women. “Objectifying behavior – things like checking out women and commenting on their appearance – has direct negative consequences such as eating disorders and negative sense of self.” One of her previous studies found women perform worse on math tests after being ogled by men.

Reducing women to their body parts is dehumanizing. When you stop thinking of someone as another person and think of them as an object or a thing, violence often follows.

This was all going through my head as the psychiatrist continued his lunch talk. My mother reminded me via text that “Not many people will respond well to being told they are contributing to violence against women,” and that I shouldn’t publicly embarrass the guest speaker. She also coached me in how I could broach the subject tactfully and respectfully with him after the speech.

Armed with my mother’s advice and her lifetime experience of battling sexism in the professional workplace, I approached the guest speaker after the question and answer period. I thanked him for coming to speak to us and said, “I noticed you were joking about us needing to see that this woman was attractive before we would take her seriously. I just thought that you might consider that such joking is not entirely innocuous because it lessens her importance. I would not want my LinkedIn headshot presented as incentive to read my quotes or publications.”

The lecturer was extremely receptive and apologetic. He was grateful that I pointed it out to him. And then, the kicker: He said, “What I SHOULD have said is that she is one of the most brilliant women scientists I know.”

Could he have just left out that qualifier and called her “one of the most brilliant scientists” he knows? Unfortunately, even the best intentioned people can objectify women and make harmful sexist comments without meaning to. I am so happy that I spoke up and that the psychiatrist was receptive to my feedback, but it’s just the start. To whomever reads this, please be conscious of instances of objectification around you and find polite ways to confront it. This is not a matter of political correctness or feminist overreaction. This is one avenue toward ending violence against women.scientist