No, not this again…

Leslie of ClutterMuseum has posted a roundup of the discussion of science and gender, and her take on it, that occurred here in the blogosphere a few months ago (this post is cross-posted at BlogHer). If you are interested and are not terribly burned out on this topic you might want to wander by over there and have a read. There is something about this topic that’s been weighing on me, despite the fact that the initial conversation was months ago. Perhaps this post finally crystalized what it is that’s been niggling around my edges about this. First read:

Must women abandon whatever cultural beliefs and habits and attitudes they cultivated in favor of homogenizing themselves into the milky white fluid coursing down the pipeline of American science? If a woman is a herpetologist, is it acceptable for her to argue against biological determinism in humans even as she publishes papers about such determinism in frogs? Is that hypocritical? (I say of course not, but others may disagree.) And must this woman wear sensible shoes and forgo hair products in the name of blending in?

Ah, NO. It is not even possible for women to abandon being women in order to be scientists as well. I’ve been here a while and I’ve still got breasts. But who said that academic women who wear sensible shoes, keep cleavage and leg to a minimum, and don’t use hair products, are doing this for the purpose of blending in??? Now, I’m not sayin’ that I do any or all (or none) of those things-… but I’m pretty sure that whether I’m memorable or not doesn’t depend on how much leg I’m showing. As Juniorprof and Isis have very rightly pointed out- confidence is more memorable than superficial appearance could ever be.

Anyway-… Leslie continues:

Or should women take the opposite tack and argue that women, culturally and perhaps to a lesser extent biologically, do bring a different–and valuable–perspective to scientific theory and practice? Feminist theorists and philosophers Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding have both, in slightly different ways, argued for this approach–that starting from women’s lives (be they the scientists’ lives or subjects’) makes science more democratic because it makes visible the various oppressions faced by marginalized peoples. There are, of course, perils to such an assertively feminist approach, particularly the defense mechanisms from more traditional scientists who can’t see that the ways they have been practicing science are marginalizing. Who, after all, wants to admit that he (or in some cases she) has been asking the “wrong” (in a culturally valuable sense) kinds of questions for decades?

I couldn’t agree more, women DO bring a ‘different and valuable’ perspective to academic science. To me, however, the ‘different and valuable’ perspective might mean bringing a different skill set or other substantive difference. For example, this  ‘different and valuable’ perspective may be in the way women conduct research-  are more likely to have a novel way of looking at a problem,  more likely to be independent as they have forged their own way with crappy mentoring more often, more likely to put together broad based collaborations with researchers from other expertise, or more likely go off the beaten path into more under-investigated or high payoff areas?  I have no idea if these off-the-cuff examples are actually things academic science women excel at in real life. My point, I suppose, is that if we want to draw attention to ourselves in some way- perhaps we should do it using our unique abilities irrespective of what we are wearing.  And I want to point out that this is not the same as saying science is a meritocracy… just so we get that out of the way.

Anyway, the final salvo was….

Certainly there is a middle way. For example, is it permissible (from the perspectives of science or feminism) for women to dress in ways (be they stylish or sexy or some combination thereof) that may draw attention to their bodies as well as their minds?

BUT, here is the part that what’s been bothering me in the plainest language I can muster.  I am a woman. I have certain assets, or anatomical features if you want, by virtue of my gender. I KNOW that I have them. My family, friends, and colleagues and just about everyone else (including you all),  know that I have them. There are very few situations in my life in which I feel I need to either ‘draw attention’ to or hide said assets. There is a difference between leveling the playing field for my gender at work, and displaying my sexuality.  I’m great with the former, but for myself I’m not comfortable with the latter.

Does this make me less of a woman? Does this make me a person that’s ‘less visible’ and attempting to ‘blend in’? Does this do a disservice for the promotion of women in science?

I have a hard time seeing that.


18 thoughts on “No, not this again…

  1. dammit, I have to turn on my brain AND my tits for this one. I posted a comment on Isis after she linked to Leslie’s take. Need some time to stew – I got good shit to say on this one. Funny that, I taught an intro class today and 2 women students (juniors) came up to me to tell me they enjoyed lecture and I’m the first woman science prof they ever had.

  2. Permissible?? That’s the huge problem I have with that last excerpt. This is basically rhetorical, but: Are we even asking questions about how men may permissibly dress to maintain their scientific credibility while still being fully men? “Displaying” or hiding the apparently unavoidable and innate sexuality of my female body should (in my magical fairyland world) be irrelevant to my job as a [woman] scientist. This question of what is and is not appropriate attire for women in the workplace is far too tied up with assumptions of it being a male workplace with a male gaze, and I wish it didn’t keep coming up. Why the hell do we even need to talk about what is and is not okay for a woman to wear at work, beyond the contexts in which we talk about dress codes for men employees (i.e. “The dress code in this workplace is business casual attire” vs. “Will she be too sexy and distracting if I realize she has boobs???”)?

    And yeah, I’m totally sick of this topic, too, but unfortunately we don’t have the privilege of just deciding not to think about or consider it until we’re ready to think about it again.

  3. JC- I must have missed Isis post. I’ll have to go check it out.

    Volcanista- Just for kicks. I’ve never seen a male colleague dress in a way that accentuates their sexuality. If I did, I think I’d feel quite odd about it.

  4. I suppose that’s a good point. Except what would that mean? Tight shirts? That I’ve seen. Very tight pants? Definitely rarer, but also not in fashion right now so it would be especially out of place. I guess I don’t see many shiny party shirts around the lab!

    But aside from just being the wrong question, I think it’s a really tough catch-22 for women. Dress in a way considered too effeminite: not taken seriously because it’s too girly or sexy; dress too conservatively or in a way considered too masculine: you can be punished for not fitting your role as a woman. This line is pretty difficult to impossible to walk.

    I want to support women to dress however is most comfortable for them. If that means not being really feminine or conventionally hot, that should be totally okay. You’re doing your job and it shouldn’t be necessary to conform to a gender role to be a good scientist. And if it means being really femme and hot and sexy, because that’s what you like and feel most comfortable with, that should be okay, too. It shouldn’t be considered to detract from the seriousness of your work if you happy to like Dr. Isis’ Naughty Monkeys.

  5. “I’ve never seen a male colleague dress in a way that accentuates their sexuality.”

    I have, and it’s kinda CREEEEHHH-PEEEHHY! Depending on the dude, though: there’s this one young, relatively famous chemistry guy who I saw at a conference once wearing hot trousers and a leather suit jacket type thing, and it was HAWT. I would TOTALLY have made out with him, but would it have had anything to do with science? Only in that his awesome science increased his attractiveness to my geekyhott self.

    Although I like feeling hott myself, I also get kind of uncomfortable thinking about my male colleagues thinking about the fact that I am hott. I am extremely paranoid about cleavage or ass showing, I always have been. I just don’t need to increase the level to which those things are on guys’ minds when talking to me, ya know?

  6. Arlenna-

    Although I like feeling hott myself, I also get kind of uncomfortable thinking about my male colleagues thinking about the fact that I am hott. I am extremely paranoid about cleavage or ass showing, I always have been. I just don’t need to increase the level to which those things are on guys’ minds when talking to me, ya know?

    Yes, I do indeed.

  7. letting it rip…
    As an undergrad and grad student, my gender and my sweats/tshirts/hats made no difference in how I was treated or graded (at least I don’t think so). There were about equal numbers of male and female students. I had one class with a female prof in grad school. When I used to think about why the profs were old men, I just thought it was because they were hired in the 60s when women were just starting (and allowed!) to get PhDs. It never dawned on me that the young profs were also men. I didn’t see the pattern until I started interviewing for faculty jobs and I was treated like I was being interviewed for Assistant to a Prof, not for Assistant Prof. Being in the minority drives and reinforces women being in the minority. A woman can’t help but stick out – it’s the pink peg in a sea of blue pegs.

    We work our asses off in ways that men don’t understand. I have to fight for papers when I’m first author and I mean, fight. When I’m co-author with the same group of people, papers sail. I get what I call “sexism by inbox” regularly. My work gets slammed because I’m a girl, not because of the work. I go round and round with my male mentors about this. I beat the sexist pulp out of the “moron of the day” and then my mentors kick the corpse to back me up. It never ends. It has nothing to do with what I’m wearing. Hell, I’m in my bath robe with my giraffe slippers – my brain functions just fine in boots, flats, and sandals too.

    “Being a scientist” is about my ideas, data, results, conclusions, communication of those things… it’s not about conforming to some schmuck’s idea of a scientist. Unfortunately, the schmucks are in the majority and they like being in the majority. And the problem with Juniorprof and Isis’s confidence stuff is that confidence is downright scary shit to incompetent morons in the majority who get hand outs and pull ups as part of their male privilege every step of the way. The confidence is indeed memorable… as in, remember to “keep away” and “beat her down” because she’ll blitz our asses. We do work twice as hard to get half as far. We do make slackers look like slackers. Women have found their own ways of getting things done – I don’t even bother going to the front door and ringing the damn bell anymore. It’s broke. It doesn’t matter if I am dressed to the nines or wearing a wetsuit.

    Leveling the playing field at work from the male side ain’t happenin. They don’t value diversity. They value status quo. Therefore, some women conform to the male physical model – walk, talk, dress, behave like them. It’s about not being a threat to their status quo – not tilting their care bears party table. Sit, shut up, be the token female on committees, play nice with us and our rules, be polite, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t make waves. It doesn’t matter what clothes are involved.

    OR some women go “I’m here to BE the diversity, my ideas are different, my data is the bomb, can we get a nursing station on the 4th floor, I framed my Nature cover and it’s next to my kids pics.” It’s standing out, it’s being seen and being heard, demanding attention and getting action. It’s similar to the male model – stand out, get seen, be heard like the men. but in attitude. It doesn’t matter what clothes are involved.

    If I did everything like men did it, I would fail because I found a way to survive and be successful off the beaten path – jeesus, point the way to the beaten path, puh-leeze. Science is all about coming up with new hypotheses, new ideas, but not a new culture that’s open to women, however they want to dress, be, pipette, collaborate, and measure. Unfortunately, I’ve been to enough meetings to hear men mumble about what a woman wears to talk instead of what she talked about. And oh, they oggle. Skirts, slacks, blouses, jewelry, whateverthefuck. I’ve been looked up and down disgustingly by a search chair pig, I’ve been told “I’m surprising successful for how young I look” during the intro of a job talk, I’ve been groped at a meeting as a student, and I’ve been sexually harrassed by a prof as a student. No amount of modifying how I look would have prevented any of it. Just like no amount of modifying how I look would lead to hot science or the recognition of my accomplishments. How we look is just another shitty excuse for dismissing, abusing, and marginalizing women.

  8. jc- Perhaps I should have asked you to write the post! And I LOVE this…

    And the problem with Juniorprof and Isis’s confidence stuff is that confidence is downright scary shit to incompetent morons in the majority who get hand outs and pull ups as part of their male privilege every step of the way. The confidence is indeed memorable… as in, remember to “keep away” and “beat her down” because she’ll blitz our asses.

  9. jc, it sounds like you’ve had it really rough, and I think you hit the nail on the head. The clothes don’t make a difference in the end if you’re treated like shit either way.

    I think the point I was trying to make (indirectly, and not explained well) was that the woman scientist is not the one who is causing this situation – whether the way she presents herself is meant to blend in or stand out, to concede to the patriarchy or to fight it (see last long big discussion on this!), to adhere to her imposed role as a woman or not, to have agency over that presentation or not. Holding how she dresses up as acceptable or not acceptable misses the mark – because it’s lose-lose, because it misdirects the source of the problem and blames the victim, because it suggests that there is some way we can and should be managing the situation ourselves. It’s not that individual men are to blame (they largely benefit but can also be victimized by this system), either. But clothes don’t give you the ability to change this crappy situation.

  10. I could not agree more.

    JC: It is a very bleak picture… but I do agree on it… especially the confidence part. And that it does not matter why, the behaviour is just to “keep it down”.

  11. ladies, yup yup. When I saw “not this again” I KNEW, just KNEW, it was something about how women in science get screwed one way or another. ELEVENTY. This whole clothes thing just burns my shorts. sigh.

  12. Thanks for pointing out that some of us wear comfortable clothes because they are comfortable and not because we have to blend in. In fact, if I were feeling contrary (and I am), I’d point out that one of the appeals of being an academic scientist is that I can wear comfortable clothes. I can wear sneakers every day if I want. I’m wearing them right now (and they are totally hot).

    Seriously, I understand your point about hiding your “assets,” but you know that is really a loaded term. Do men even have anatomical assets that can be displayed or hidden? And why are they assets exactly? If we have them (whatever they are) do they make us better people, better scientists, more desirable to have around?

  13. Anonymous- I agree- one of the benefits of an academic job is not having to wear any particular uniform- dress up, or dress down, and I love that.

    Sure, of course I know that’s a loaded term. I also know that having said assets does not make us better people, better scientists, or more desirable to have around. But whichever set you have does influence the interpersonal dynamic, especially if the set you have is the minority set.

  14. drdrA, of course I know you know! There’s just something about the term asset that rankles me, I think because it implies a value judgement. I’m not arguing with you about their influence on interpersonal dynamics.

    Are there studies that demonstrate the influence of hair styles, make-up, clothing, shoes, etc. on how people perceive female scientists or other professionals? The equivalent of those studies that send identical CVs out with male or female names? I bet female trial lawyers have figured it all out, though I would imagine that the standards are different in biology/science.

  15. Anonymous- Yes, I believe that there are such studies. From my reading of them the better you look, if you are a woman that is, the less competent you are considered. For men the trend is that if you look better you are considered more competent. I’ll dig up references for you when I have a moment (which may not be today the way things are going!)

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