Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The conundrum of being a female scientist

I am a slow thinker, so sometimes it takes me a few days (and an insightful conversation with General Disarray) to figure out exactly what I think about something. I've been watching and mulling over the extended conversation about Isis that has been occurring around the blogosphere. This conversation has inspired me to talk about an issue that I have been pondering for a while: feminine scientists. My thoughts on this should not be seen as a direct comment on what anyone has said - it is the equivalent to those soundtracks which contain songs "inspired by" the movie, rather than songs from the movie itself.

In my field, it is not uncommon for female full professors to look like men. I'm not saying they look like Pat from SNL, but they are often as androgynous as possible: boy hair cuts, no make-up, and nondescript clothes which frankly could have been bought in the boy's section at JC Penny.


For those of you too young to get the reference, this is Pat from Saturday Night live. The joke with Pat was that no one ever knew whether Pat was male or female.


I understand why these women look this way. They came through the ranks at a time when it was hard enough being a woman in science, god forbid you actually looked like one too! Those of us who grew up with this older generation as our role models have been inoculated with this belief that to be taken seriously means we need to look like our male colleagues. I made a joke in August about the hordes of Teva and fleece wearing ecologists descending on Milwaukee for our annual meeting. It was only partially a joke. There is a strong phenotypic convergence in the male and female ecologists. I suspect that this is true in other fields as well.

I suspect that the response to Isis by other women is confounded with this training so many of us have received (I have to admit to my own twinges of uncomfortableness on occasion with the Isis-persona for just this reason). How can someone who is so blatantly female be taken seriously? Doesn't she know she is breaking the unwritten code that men will pretend we aren't women if we dress like men? What if one of us is seen wearing Naughty Monkeys? Will this cause the rest of us to have our "honorary male" statuses revoked? Afterall, most of us do not work in a department where the men are strolling around in these:


(Though if you do, please let me know. That's one of those pieces of knowledge that really makes life worth living)

Will women dressing and acting like women erode the decades of progress we've made?

Let me pause and tell a story that at first will seem like I've had a seizure and lost the thread of my post. A few years ago, when I was a beginning assistant professor, a bunch of current female Ph.D students from my former graduate school cornered me at a bar. The program they were in (and I used to be in) was pretty seriously lacking in young female representation in the professorial ranks at that time. The full professor ranks had several women, all of whom fit the mold of the androgynously dressing woman with male mannerisms and modes of interaction. These young women were deeply concerned about what it took to be a successful woman in science and wanted to know if women could be women and still succeed.  They were all very very clear that while they had deep respect for the female full professors, this was not the type of person they wanted to be.

So, I ask again: Will women dressing like women erode the decades of progress we've made?

I think that, in the end, women being women is a necessary step to increase the number of women in the academic scientific ranks. If young women cannot see someone in the department whose life they would want, who is the type of person they would want to be, then why should they take this path? They can make more money and wear nicer, feminine clothes by going into the corporate world (a sad message, perhaps, but true). If the message we are sending is that the only women who can succeed are those who dress and act like men, then we end up with only a small subset of the female population who think they can be scientists. When young female students can see female scientists confident in being themselves, then they can see themselves in that role too. I think it is the responsibility of those of us who feel that we are in secure positions to start breaking down this old era of women pretending to be men. I believe, in some fields at least, there are enough young women entering the faculty for us to start doing this. I believe that is what Isis is doing. If women cannot be women and scientists, then we will always have a retention problem with women in science. Isis' message (IMHO) is that it is possible to be a successful scientist, a mother, and a woman who loves her shoes all at the same time. And when I came to all these realizations over lunch today, it almost made me want to apply for Isis' Naughty Monkey giveaway - despite the fact that I'm very sure I would break an ankle if I tried to walk in them. I guess I will just have to find my own way to make it clear that I am a woman and a scientist. Not all of us will have a hankering for glamorous shoes, afterall....and that's okay. In fact, that's the point.


Isis the Scientist said...

My dearest Chaos, thank you for this. I think this is exactly the point of how and why I write. If we want to encourage young women to become scientists then they need to know that women are valued in science -- that they don't need to conform to a mold in order to do brilliant work. At the heart of the current scientific crisis in the U.S. is the lack of brilliant new talent. I have argued, and continued to argue, that the way to solve this is to recruit new talent based on the brilliance of their ideas and not because they fit the form of the stereotypical scientist.

Odyssey said...

Ultimately what I would like to see is an academic system where people can just be themselves. We're a long, long way from that ideal.

Rosie Redfield said...

Here's a simple null hypothesis: Many good scientists, male and female, have decided that putting more than a minimal effort into one's appearance is a waste of time that could better be spend doing science.

Male and female scientists thus converge on basic practical clothes and grooming: shirts and pants but not suits or dresses, deodorant but not perfume, haircuts that require minimal attention.

One of the things I really like about being a scientist is that I don't have to bother getting dressed up!

Becca said...

"If young women cannot see someone in the department whose life they would want, who is the type of person they would want to be, then why should they take this path? "
Another question is "If young women cannot see androgenous, or less-than-totally-hot women as living a life they would want, then isn't something terribly, terribly wrong?"
I think that for some of us (younger people?), it's mainstream to say some women can be scientists. It's liberal to say women can be feminine scientists. But it's only transformative/revolutionary/impressive to say casting humans (scientists and otherwise) as feminine or masculine based on their genetalia is inherantly oppressive.

"They can make more money and wear nicer, feminine clothes by going into the corporate world (a sad message, perhaps, but true)." This amused me. My Mother (the Teamster) specifically listed not having to wear high heels (or skirts) as a reason for her career choice. I think some of my values systems are affected by this. Like the idea that dressing first for function, second for comfort, and 3027th for sex appeal is wise.
@rosie redfield- I think my mother would like you. Though it's difficult to take someone with such awesome hair seriously when they say they don't put effort into their appearance (yes, I know it's all relative, just had to point it out, cause I'm contrary like that).

JaneB said...

I'd agree, NOT having to conform to what have always seemed to me to be restrictive and somewhat unnerving 'highly feminine' stereotypes of dress and grooming is a POSITIVE of science. Heels - wreck your feet over the long term, make you unable to run properly, emphasise your legs and a wiggly walk, gain you a few inches of height - not all of these seem positive to me. Make-up - expensive, spend a substantial chunk of time every day putting it on and taking it off, much of it has a negative effect on the skin (well, on sensitive skin anyway), unnecessary consumption - and largely aimed at making eyes look larger, lips look flushed and swollen, cheeks flushed... somehow this also seems to be about SEX, and I don't see many MEN even looking after their skin, certainly not making up their faces (moisturiser/sun block = good thing, full painted face = not exactly necessary or attractive). Skirts are good. But not all day every day. And suits... well, SOME people clearly find them comfortable, or at least bearable, but in a field where you're physically active during normal in-the-office days they aren't always that comfortable, and I don't like restrictive clothes. Short hair - I actually find a short cut more of a pain (needs cutting more often, cannot deal with the odd scruffy day with a pony-tail or up-do) and it doesn't suit me.

So the whole 'corporate look' thing was a definite driver AWAY from those roles for me. I liked the fact that in academe minds seemed to matter more than the bodies they were packaged in.

You want to be girly, go for it! As long as you aren't adding to the look some of the less attractive 'girly' behaviours such as behaving distinctly differently with men than with women of the same status, criticising and judging other women on the way they choose to look, making excuses for men being boorish because that's 'how men are, the poor dears' ::flutter eyelashes::.

Isis being a goddess needs none of these tricks, I'm sure, but I'm very very tired of a couple of women (girls!) I've known who do.

Incidentally, even with short hair and practical clothes, it's damn clear I'm female - even at a perfect weight I have a very hourglass figure and far too much boob to hide even under a squash-em-in sports bra. I'm envious of some of the androgynous women around in science mostly because I'd love a flatter chest and less of a hassle with finding trousers that fit at both waist AND around the hips! :-)

Eugenie said...

There is a male biology professor who walks around the bio department wearing heeled red clogs stolen from his ex-girlfriend who is also another professor.

Not only is the professor a raging alcoholic (everyone knows this, he's gone on "mini sabbaticals" during the semester for rehab a few times) but the shoes don't fit at all.

However, you can hear him from far away clogging down the hallway....

yolio said...

I think it is great to see this issue being hashed out in the blogosphere. I want to talk about this old chestnut stated upthread by Rosie:

"putting more than a minimal effort into one's appearance is a waste of time that could better be spend doing science."

While there is a certain literal truth to this, the idea that dressing plain is a time management strategy is both odd and pervasive. I have never seen anyone suggest that being a sports fan is "time that could be better spent doing science." Or how about time spent on other hobbies such reading novels, watching movies, following politics, cooking. While these activities certainly can take away from time spent doing science, one usually assumes that the person in question can manage a balance. One usually assumes that one can't work every second of every day.

However, fashion and beauty are treated differently. Effort spent on fashion and beauty must always be subtracting from effort spent being a "serious" scientist.

I would add, in our field of Ecology, there is an extra dimension to this. It is not enough to dress plain, one must also dress crunchy. If you fail, not only are you not a serious scientist, but you also run the risk of being branded as not a serious environmentalist. There is a whole weird can of worms in that too.

Ambivalent Academic said...

@yolio...actually I regularly hear that doing anything related to any of my hobbies is time better spent doing science.

My hobbies include: running, sleeping, cooking, growing my own veggies, and occasionally reading some good non-science literature.

My PI's hobbies are science, science, and science...I'm not sure that he sleeps but if he does it is not a hobby but a necessary evil that he will deign to particiapte in if only to ensure that he can get up and do more science.

I think that this has severely skewed his perspective on work-life bablnce, which is why I am all in favor of individual scientists presenting and promoting a more holistic and multi-dimensional projection of themselves. Let's not forget we're all people, and we should not apologize for being more than one-dimensional science-robots.

Citronella said...

I totally agree with Yolio. The fact that I like to pay attention to my appearance (most of the time) has nothing to do with my ability to do science.

I'm really dreading the day where I'll stop wearing make-up because the five minutes it takes me to put mascara and eye shadow on in the morning and one minute it takes to wipe it away in the evening will be too time consuming. On the other hand, I might decide to grow my hair long when I'll be really fed up with going to the hairdresser every six weeks...

Moreover, most of the guys in my lab take more time than me taking care of their appearance, as they work out a lot. And don't tell me it's strictly only for health and has nothing to do with good looks — they admit it without shame.

A funny thing is that I started being more "girly" in response to the whole "women scientists aren't supposed to be girly" thing. The more I heard about the topic (including comments of the "she looks too good to be smart as well" stupid, stupid sort) and the more upset I got, until the point I bought a pink purse with satin bows and flowers on it, started wearing heels (mid-low, but heels nevertheless) every day and realized I liked it.

EcoGeoFemme said...

This is a really interesting conversation!

I dress rather plainly, but not in an androgenous nor in a crunchy way. I'm not sure it would matter though, because based on my stature no one would every describe me as mannish. Anyway, I am the only person in my lab (of mostly women) who wears makeup every day. Or uses hair goo every day. But I LOVE being able to wear jeans and sweaters because that's what suits me.

I don't feel like I have a huge range of wardrobe options since there are certain practical requirements for working in the lab, especially with the sort of stuff I do. In fact, while skirts are not entirely prohibited in our lab safety guidelines, they are certainly discouraged and high heels or open toed shoes are not allowed. I suppose if I were strictly working in my office I could wear an evening gown if I wanted, but I'm never just in my office.

There are dress codes for most jobs, so it's a little funny that, although science has the flexibility of not forcing us to dress a certain way, the culture of the industry has developed an unwritten dress code.

Zinjanthropus said...

I'm so glad that this conversation is taking place. My girly duds sat at the back of my wardrobe for a long time after I started picking out my female science role models and trying to emulate them. I wear lots of grandpa sweaters and trousers, and overall a very menswear-inspired wardrobe. But, heaven help me, I still look like a girl! I've been venturing out into the world wearing my skirts and kitten heels a lot more lately (though I still can't bring myself to wear too much makeup), and this conversation has really helped me realize why it's important that I dress how I want to dress and not just so I fit in. I wonder how many other women have jumped on the menswear wagon, or worse, off of the science wagon, just to fit in.

Rosie Redfield said...

I was being a bit pompous in suggesting that the saved time would be spent on science. I spend it reading trashy novels and fabulous blogs.

@becca: My hair's natural colour is now mostly white, so the colour embellishments (light blue this week) don't take much time (Manic Panic, about 15 minutes every week or two).

Peanut said...

Chaos - Your comment about the hordes of crunchy types in tevas and fleece is dead on. I balance what I wear based on how well people know me and can judge my capabilities. For example, in situations where I spend days out in the field, I wear purple sparkly sequin flip flops in the "off" time. I get a kick out of watching my colleagues' brains trying to reconcile "highly competent ecologist" with "really over the top shoes" at the end of the day. At said Milwaukee event - tevas, because I'm not well known, and I want to be taken seriously. Said purple flips are not part of the standard ecologist "uniform" but tevas are.

Phagenista said...

More power to whomever wears naughty monkeys to work, but it means that you're no longer standing at your bench all day... you've arrived, and are spending all your time in meetings and writing grants.

For comfort heels, you can't go wrong with Israeli brands... Naot, Beautifeel. But I haven't seen sequins on any of their shoes yet :-/

Anonymous said...

Great post Prof Chaos. I agree with Odyssey though - and the problem for me is that when I have to fight battles on many different fronts in order to belong, it is simply easier to conform in at least some spheres. I don't want to "stick out" to the men in our department any more than I have to - they are the vast majority where I am, the ones with power eg to hire and fire, and the ones who most definitely judge female ability based on clothing and manner (not all of course, but there are enough. .).

There are only two women with tenure in our dept, one who is very fashionable, outgoing and also popular with students - and who the male staff put down regularly as being not serious about science; the other dresses very plainly and has a very nonsense approach/manner which is more accepted by her colleagues (although I find her manner very unhelpful personally). So where do we fit in? Frankly, I don't need the grief given to our fashionable professor - I already don't fit in (children, atypical in other ways) but I can't model myself on the older one either. I am not really into clothes, but I think it would be great if we could all be who we really are. And I think for me, manner is more important than dress in expressing the values that I hold important. All power to those of you who are ready to express yourselves visually in your work environment!

Anonymous said...

Forgot to ask -what the heck is a crunchy type? My mind is boggling!

Silver Fox said...

I'm not sure what "crunchy" is, either, but I consider my Teva sandals as "field sandals" - although I don't really wear them in the field as I need much better ankle support.

I work in settings where I could probably look more feminine if I wore different cuts of tops, but I need to wear jeans or other field pants because I might go outdoors at any moment for sampling or other field work, and the indoor places I've worked in the last decade are like warehouses and are places where clothes can get dirty easily. I also always wear field boots of some kind, and am often required to wear safety boots or shoes, even indoors.

When I've worked in real office settings, a long time ago, I paid more attention to what I wore and dressed nicely, though I've only worn more than one-inch heels on shoes at weddings and with great protest. I will also dress well, or not, at professional meetings. Jeans are always an acceptible option.

In my home office, I can wear whatever - and a lot of times that means a robe or some other house-only-type thing.

What people wear is variable, and many types of outfits can be considered professional, and ideas of what is acceptible are always changing. Back when I first started in my chosen field and career, women were a rarity, and I was careful about what I wore, but also felt awkward about the whole clothes thing until I got into my 30's.

What Rosie said about many scientists thinking that taking more than minimal time for dressing is a waste of time - I've noticed that same thing with *some* men and women at certain research outfits, at least in the geosciences - though maybe they are also dressing as though they might have to go into the field at any moment!

Eugenie said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't "crunchy" like "gronola-crunchy" types of people?

yolio said...

Sorry for the confusing slang: crunchy means organic or hippie-like. Except hippie implies tie-dye and other extravangances that aren't needed to be crunchy. I was thinking teva's, birkenstocks, fleeces, shorts, jeans, corduroys, bulky and patterned wool sweaters: your basic camping wardrobe.

Karina said...

Great thread, River Tam! I've got to put some of those NAOT shoes on my long-term wardrobe wishlist (just like those Dansko clogs that have been waiting for years).

This conversation is making me think about my wardrobe more than I have in quite a while. In general I feel free to wear whatever I'm typically inclined to wear (ok, except my leather pants. I need to find an excuse to wear them soon). Mostly my wardrobe is shaped by the fact that I ride my bike to school every day and what we're doing in lab if I'm teaching.

I usually wear jeans or capris (varying in their fashionableness) with some kind of knit shirt. Sometimes I wear tshirts with print, but mostly I try to wear my 'nice' tshirts because I think they are more flattering. I also have a few button-down shirts and some nice sweaters. I wear either my Chaco sandals or basic sneakers almost every day. I always dress up at least a little bit for a class presentation because it makes me feel better and more confident. I would wear skirts more often except that it means I have to change at school because my bike isn't skirt-friendly. I wear skirts a few times a semester.

I too was at the Ecological Society of America conference, and come to think of it my range of clothing there was pretty representative of my normal attire (I wasn't presenting). I mostly wore my chacos with capris or a skirt with a tshirt. I'd love to have a nicer pair of sandals that I can wear all day.

I think there might be a wider range of ecologist attire in my department than the sea of sandals and fleece at ESA. The most fashionably dressed person in the department is probably the full professor who wears designer jeans, nice shirts, and expensive looking shoes, even on field trips (a man).

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