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.