I am a women in a male-dominated field. You may have guessed that, considering I am a scientist. I think a lot about how I am perceived – a lot more time than my male colleagues do, and a lot more than males probably think I should. In fact, the typical male response when I try to explain this stuff is, “Why do you care what others think?”
Frankly, we all care. In fact, your reputation is a very important asset in science. Good reputations can get OK work into Science or Nature. Bad reputations can kill your funding, publication, or student acquiring opportunities. So, the advice to stop thinking about what others think is complete BS, in my opinion. People who don’t care about what others think aren’t making it in science. In addition, as a woman, there are a number of ways I think about how to carry myself and interact, even dress. I am going to share a few recent experiences and thoughts about interacting with others and representing yourself as a woman in a male-dominated field.
- What to Wear. I recently was part of a site visit from a funding agency. We already got the grant, and it only started a few months ago, so we don’t have much progress, yet. But, the funding agency wanted to meet us and see our plans. I had absolutely no idea what to wear. I am the only woman on this grant, and I am, of course, the youngest. I knew enough not to wear my jeans and Chuck Taylor’s, but how dressy? How casual? I also was self-conscious about asking the lead PI about it. Sometimes when you ask these types of questions, men think, “Why are you thinking about these things? What a waste of time?” So, I contacted some of my WomenOfScience friends, and they helped me out. I decided to error on the side of over-dressed and wore a full suit. I didn’t wear a button-up – just a nice shirt underneath. I also roped in the female administrative assistant to do some reconnaissance about what the lead PI was wearing. One friend suggested I wear make up (I didn’t) and to put up my recently purple-tinted hair (I did). One of my friends warned me that older, male program officers are likely to be patronizing. Luckily, of the program officers, only one was an older male. There was a youngish/middle aged woman, and a second young woman of color (woot!). They weren’t patronizing, and they weren’t as dressed up as me, but they were wearing blazers and slacks, so I was doing good. It turned out to be a pretty good visit.
- Looking young. I have had other posts about looking young (post). In the past, it was annoying, because I didn’t like being mistaken for a student. Now, I prefer to be mistaken for pre-tenure or a young person who needs help. Studies have shown that, as women get older, their likability goes way down. Now, I strive to stay young in people’s minds and eyes, so that they will continue to want to help a youngster succeed, and will be less threatened by me. Since society already thinks that women are incompetent, it is better to be young, and have a good reason to be incompetent, rather than old and annoyingly incompetent. (BTW – women are NOT incompetent – we all have strengths and weaknesses.) So, I decided that I prefer to stay young-looking for as long as possible. It’s isn’t a vanity thing – it is a survival thing.
- My voice. Recent studies have shown that when women are frustrated or emphatic, they are misconstrued for being angry or overly emotional. There was a recent edition of Lenny Letter that got a lot of press where Jennifer Lawrence wrote a piece about her wage disparity. She told a story in that article about how she was speaking her mind and was chastised by a dude. She writes “A few weeks ago at work, I spoke my mind and gave my opinion in a clear and no-bullshit way; no aggression, just blunt. The man I was working with (actually, he was working for me) said, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” As if I was yelling at him. I was so shocked because nothing that I said was personal, offensive, or, to be honest, wrong. All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive.” It seems that women’s words get misconstrued as angry and upset, when really they are stating opinions directly. I think it is because when men get angry, their voices go up in pitch. Women’s voices are already higher, so maybe we sound angrier than we are. I have certainly gotten this when even recounting stories of things that mad me upset. People worry that I am still so upset, but it turns out that I’m just trying to convey the story. I’m not actually upset myself at the time. I am working on trying to convey anger and frustration without alienating people.
- Comedy. There was a nice blog article recently on Tenure She Wrote about if you curse at work. There were some interesting scenarios, and actual positive reasons to curse and break the ice. I have to say that I swear like a sailor. I tone it way down for this blog, at the request of Robin. Cursing definitely breaks the ice. In addition, I diffuse a lot of tension about me being the only woman in the room using humor. I try to make a joke early in each meeting, so people realize that I am not uptight. Women who are successful are often seen as uptight. For me, this comes naturally, because I like comedy and try to be funny all the time. I understand that this cannot work for everyone, but even telling a bad knock-knock joke can help some people realize that you, surprisingly, are a person, and not a judge for the sexism police.
So, these are some of the extra things I carry around and constantly consider everyday. Exhausting. It reminds me of that scene in Harry Potter where Hermione is explaining to Harry why Cho is confused about her feelings for him. Ron can’t believe that someone would be feeling and thinking all these things at the same time. Frankly, I think women do this all the time. It is why I truly think women are inherently smarter than men. If we could ever not need to think about these things, and refocus all this mental space to science, we would dominate.
What do you think? What other things do you constantly consider? Comment or post. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.