Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

The following guest post addresses a particular woman’s issue that most men probably spend little time thinking about: what to wear. I know I have a couple of close WomenOfScience friends who I discuss my wardrobe choices with for teaching, going to conferences, or going on an interview. More on this in future posts.

As a woman and a scientist, finding the right balance between my masculine side and feminine side is no different from anyone else. However, the balance I choose to display can significantly influence others’ perceptions of both me and my work. As a student, postdoc, and assistant professor, I felt that I had to work hard to fit in with the boys. My uniform was jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. Make-up was anathema. More importantly, when I had children I took the minimum time off and did not take advantage of extensions of my tenure clock. I was certain that any childbearing-related exemptions I asked for would be viewed as a weakness.

As a professor with tenure, I now feel that I am freer to be myself. Some days that means high heels and makeup. Some days it means announcing that I am leaving early for child-care duties. My perception of freedom does not come from a change I see in society, but rather because I now have power. I do wonder, though, whether societal expectations of what a scientist should look like and act like have broadened. A recent conflict that played out on LinkedIn suggests that women who display stereotypically female outsides get judged as delegitimize scientists.

This article from The Daily Dot summarizes the events well, and I won’t try and repeat them. It is disheartening to see people conclude that an attractive, well-groomed woman is not a “real” engineer. I believe we should take this opportunity to discuss diversity with our trainees and explore our own openness to talent that doesn’t come in the expected package. I think each person needs to make up their own mind about how to respond to prejudice; I’m not sure I would know how to advise a female trainee about how to present herself. It is essential that trainees have the information they need to make self-presentation decisions, however, and if we don’t tell them, who will?

Do you feel that you could not wear or look how you wanted because you are a WomanOfScience? Does it matter what field of science you are in? What subfield? Theory vs. experiment? Comment or guest post.

Comments on: "Women’s Issues: What Not To Wear" (6)

  1. Robin Selinger said:

    My REU student, a female physics major, plans to compete in a beauty pageant this Saturday. She is a dancer and choreographer and is very relaxed about performing before an audience. She has no angst about it at all and I am thrilled for her.

    She is not the first physics major to compete in a pageant. I once interviewed another physics major who made it all the way to runner up for Miss America, Kara Martin who reigned as Miss Georgia in 1993.

    What does it say about American culture that we are surprised when a woman who is intelligent also looks good in a bikini or evening gown?

  2. […] And thongs are sexy, so I should wear granny panties, because that is what WomenOfScience wear. By Robin Sellinger is right. WomenOfScience can be sexy. And funny, and cute, and wear high heels, and bright […]

  3. CourtneyLannert said:

    This post made me realize how often the question of what to wear (and not to wear) comes up with my female friends who are professionals in STEM fields — it’s fraught (because there is no choice that can’t be criticized in some way) and it’s irritating (because it’s something that we spend time and energy on that men just don’t have to think about at all). The question: “can an attractive woman be a scientist/engineer/gamer?” is provocative and my first reaction was to think: we need more examples/role models out there until the answer is “yes”, but something about that doesn’t sit right. I think something is revealed if we gender-switch the question: “can an attractive man be a scientist/engineer/gamer?” It’s not that the answer to this question is “yes”, it’s that this question doesn’t even really make sense. And I think I know why.

    In our society, the top-level of evaluation of any woman (by both women and men, I think) is whether she is attractive. All other evaluations (is she smart? funny? a good skateboarder/guitar player/scientist) fall below this one on the decision tree and that circumscribes the possible results of evaluation. As a woman you can’t be just a scientist, you have to be a hot girl scientist, or a dowdy girl scientist, or a neutered girl scientist; your scientist-ness needs to be qualified by an assessment of your appearance (and by your gender). I think the primacy of the question of whether a woman is attractive or not is the problem. This makes me depressed because I think that’s a much harder problem to solve than just making it ok to be a sexy female scientist. 😦

    That said, I think one thing that helps is having there be more ways to be a girl/woman. Growing up, the examples I saw for how to be a woman were so much more varied than my mom saw, and I think that girls growing up now see more ways of being a woman than I did. Ideally, this could keep growing exponentially. I have found that the more space there is for being my unique self, the more I feel like I am being evaluated as a whole person, rather than on a “hot-or-not” scale.

  4. […] others didn’t see it. It was a comment on a recent, very popular and stimulating post about WhatNotToWear, and this is a very interesting take on the question of how women scientists should dress. […]

  5. […] public speaking about science. And I also have given advice about what types of clothing to wear (here, here, for the men: here), and I typically say to error on the side of modest. There is also advice […]

  6. […] for young men, as well. I have had a number of prior posts about clothes (here, here, here, here, here, here – OMG, that is so many!), but I really love this one!  Thank you for your […]

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