Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fashion faux pas?

Before I get to the meat of today’s post… Traffic has been up to my little blog since one frequent visitor and commentator decided to make an example of me (but in a mostly constructive way). So, welcome to new readers. I hope you continue to drop by. If you want to know more about where I’m coming from, check here and here.

Now onto the main course...

For various reasons, I've been thinking back on a debate that I had more than once with a fellow grad student. She held that there's only one way for a woman in science to dress if she wants to be taken seriously. Her contention was that if a woman dresses in a feminine manner, if she shows any leg, if she wears a top that even hints that she has cleavage, then she'll get a male colleague's attention, but she creates a scenario in which he cares more about her ass than he does her science. Or male colleagues will just dismiss her out of hand. Her claim was that if a woman wants a man to respect her intellectually, then she has to hide her sexuality, her femininity--wearing pants, suits, and tops that are more masculine cut and that hide skin and curves. She shares the attitude of Ms. Mentor, which is frumpy is better than fashionable in professional interactions. This mentality is shared by many American-born female scientists in academia. I say American-born because I've seen many foreign female scientists--particularly European--who seem to be quite comfortable wearing figure-flattering dress or sleeveless top among their male counterparts.

Women want to be accepted as equals in science. That shouldn't mean that we have to imitate the men in our fields in attitude and dress. We shouldn't have to hide behind our clothes. A skirt shouldn't be a red flag, screaming, "Hey, there's a chic in the room." They know already! It's not as though we've been drinking Polyjuice Potion so we look like dude #1.

I think that this attitude holds us back. It is a self-imposed restriction. We are telling ourselves and other women that we can't be ourselves. It's true, that regardless of culture, gender, or occupation, most people behave differently at work than they do with friends or significant other, but some degree of personality comes across in professional interactions. For many people, personality is reflected in personal style. I happen to feel more confident when I feel good about my appearance and when it is representative of my personality. It wasn't that long ago that I really began to find my personal style and learn what flattered my figure, and it wouldn't have happened without a very good friend--a female postdoc who experienced a similar revelation months earlier. Giving my appearance a little time and consideration can change how I carry myself (especially if my day is starting off pretty crappy). Although I do it for myself, other people notice when I pay attention to my appearance. It is rare that I feel marginalized or objectified for wearing attractive, stylish, distinctly feminine clothing.

I selected a professional but distinctly feminine outfit for my dissertation defense: a black pencil skirt, a floral print top that just covered my shoulders, and three-inch heels. I did not get a single smart ass or derogatory comment from Bear (who is pretty notorious for saying what he thinks to his trainees without any filter). My committee--which was entirely over 50 men that day--did not treat me any differently. We had a very collegial, animated debate over the proposed model. I did not feel as though I was not respected for being an attractive, confident woman--quite the opposite really.

My aforementioned grad student friend would probably have been shocked and appalled by my choice of attire for my dissertation defense. In my experience, women take note when a male scientist dresses fabulously, but don't view it in a negative light. So why do some women seem to take offense when another female scientist chooses to show her style? Are perceptions of female scientists generally so heavily swayed by how they choose to dress?

I'm done with it. I'm a woman in science and I have decided that it's ok for me to dress like a young, confident, stylish woman (even if I'm not all those things all the time). And if anyone has a problem with that, they can bite me because I do good science and that's what matters.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Dress however you like. Anyone who doesn't like it can go fuck themselves.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

I am WITH you, BCB!! In grad school I was the only one ever to wear heels, and now if I wear a dress to lab people ask me if I'm "going somewhere" later. Why can't I just look nice?

I think there are a lot of women scientists out there who feel the need to prove themselves, who want to be respected for their science talent and that alone. Dressing frumpily is a way of removing a possible confound--in other words, they're not left wondering, "Did they really like my work, or is it just that my ass looks AMAZING in this dress?"

Candid Engineer said...

I am a woman, through and through. My attitude is that people have to accept that, or take a hike. Your friend would be appalled at how often my boobs show up in the workplace- they are nice-sized, and I have NO INTEREST in coralling them in a turtleneck. Despite this, men in my lab do not stare at my breasts and I don't think I've lost any respect that I would have wanted to have in the first place.

Anonymous said...

First off, awesome Harry Potter reference!
In my lab there was one female student who always dressed nicely - and people used to make snide comments behing her back that she was doing it to impress the boss. People also didn't like her. In reality she just has amazing fashion sense, and isn't afraid to hide it.
I regularly wear heels to lab, and sometimes even skirts (and am the only one who does so). I find that I actually get a little more respect when I dress nicer, and I think it's because I carry myself with more confidence, because I feel better when I look better. Anymore, the only time people comment on my clothes is when I don't wear heels!

biochem belle said...

PhysioProf-That's kind of the attitude I, and apparently at least a few other ladies, have decided to take.

Ladies-It's always good to hear others feel the same way.

I agree with you, Dr Becca, re: women feeling the need to prove themselves, and that it has a lot to do with lack of confidence.

CE-I don't have much in the boob dept, but I do have my own assets. Generally I feel that the way I dress has never lost me any respect with the people who matter).

Mrs. Chemist-I saw the same thing happen in my grad lab. Such criticism rarely has anything to do with how someone dresses, but more to do with an overall dislike for the person. I also think that some people-oddly enough, women in particular-are intimidated by women who carry themselves with confidence, so they try to find ways to knock them down.

As a positive anecdote on this topic-I actually wore a pretty smokin' hot outfit Friday. The next day a postdoc from a neighboring lab, who I've never met, actually commented on how great it was-and that it was nice to see someone in academia who paid attention to her appearance.