Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Sequins_macroToday I have a cool post from another WomanOfScience. It is once again on clothing choice, which is difficult to decide for many women, and is becoming more confusing for young men, as well. I have had a number of prior posts about clothes (here, here, herehere, here, here – OMG, that is so many!), but I really love this one!  Thank you for your post!

Our department’s Women’s group has been having a discussion today about femininity in STEM professions. Many women feel they need to masculinize themselves in order to be taken seriously. This seems like a great forum to continue this discussion and hear the perspectives of other brilliant and successful women scientists.
My view is that this presents a three-fold problem in attempts to achieve equality in STEM professions. On one hand, it sends a message to young women that they have to check their femininity at the door — they shouldn’t wear dresses or makeup. This discourages young girls from wanting to be part of this field because a significant part of their identity is manifestly not valued at best and unwanted, or deemed inappropriate, at the worst.
Worse than sending the message to the next generation that they are unwanted is that current students, postdocs and faculty may feel that they have to deny part of themselves for the sake of their careers. That can wreak havoc on the mental state of women and deeply impacts their career satisfaction. Feeling that they are not accepted and have not community, no support system, is one of the leading reasons women leave STEM careers.
At the highest levels, making people feel like outsiders for not being white or male or western reinforces a dangerous stereotype that there is only one “correct” point of view in science. That leaves no room for creativity or thinking outside the box. How many of your biggest breakthroughs have come from tiny iterations on a single project? None of mine have. They all require creativity, ingenuity, hard work and moreover taking many other perspectives into account. When we dictate the singular validity of an established point of view, we negate the insights and perspectives to be had from listening to women and minorities. A broad diversity of backgrounds leads to better critical thinking. Yet, the insular culture of the status quo suppresses the very essence of what makes for good science.
Having role models who feel the need to cloister their femininity, nullify their gender, or conform to other people’s ideals does not bode well for the future of women in STEM.
As some of you know, I am unabashedly, unashamedly feminine. I wear dresses, stilettos, makeup and perfume. I do it because it is who I am and that makes me feel good about myself. I get a secret kick out of being a science version of that famous quote about Ginger Rogers “sure he [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels”.
I know that sometimes people don’t take me seriously. That is sad, but ultimately their loss because they won’t be able to appreciate good work that has been done by someone with a different background. The flip side is that me being me is something that resonates with my female students, particularly in my intro physics for engineers course. They get to see someone who isn’t much older than them and looks like them confidently doing physics and calculus in front of them, and they realize that despite what they’ve been told in high school, perhaps they too can succeed and do well. Female students have come to me in my office hours saying that they had expected they couldn’t do better than a middle B, but we’re thrilled that they had earned an A. The best part is I get to see the confidence they have in themselves growing over the semester.
I am by no means advocating that everyone be ultra feminine. What I am advocating is to inject a bit of your personality into your work uniform — wear a bright color, that funky pair of shoes you only wear on special occasions, some cool science earrings, or any article of clothing or jewelry that you love. The confidence that comes from being happier and more yourself sets a great example for your students and colleagues.
Thanks for that insightful post! I wholeheartedly agree. One idea is that we can stick to discussions of “professional” attire. I think we can all agree that it would be inappropriate to wear a bikini to give a talk at a conference! So, there must be a line somewhere, and that line is different depending on what you are doing that day, who you are talking to, and the venue.
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Comments on: "Rolemodeling Femininity" (4)

  1. Hi! Thank you so much for this post, I actually just wrote a post on similar topic but haven’t posted it yet. I think it is important to remain feminine and to show that no, science is not a male-only world and that it is also the place for young girls.
    Maybe it would be easier if I send you what I wrote? I am not sure writing all on comment is the most appropriate place? (let me know, I can reshape it as well 🙂 )
    best

  2. I really enjoyed your comment about professionalism differing by day and venue! I am a female scientist working in agriculture with much of my data collected outdoors in crop fields. I tend to rock steel toe boots and muddy jeans (stereotypically masculine) when I am doing field work because that’s most comfortable and then dress very feminine on days when I am working in my office because that’s comfy for me too. I enjoy demonstrating I am no less a scientist or a woman when dressed similar to a construction worker on campus than I am on days when I am wearing a lab coat/PPE for lab work or makeup/skirts to sit at my desk and run stats.

  3. I have witnessed female faculty selectively enforce/call attention to PPE dress code violations of women (skirts/dresses) versus men (shorts). Additionally, I’ve witnessed female faculty criticize the effort some women put into their appearance, such as complaining that they should be spending more time in lab instead and that they must not be taking their science seriously if they are so concerned about their appearance.

    I usually will reassure the student/postdoc that they are not crazy for thinking that they are being treated unfairly and tell them that the faculty member really has no business criticizing their appearance.

    I never really know what to do in these situations – the best I’ve come up with is pointing out male students wearing shorts as a subtle way of bringing the double-standard to attention. Any ideas?

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