Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporati...

Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, Calif. Shown checking electrical assemblies (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The following guest post was a comment from another WomanOfScience, but I thought it was worth bringing up again, in case 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. Enjoy!

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.

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