STEMinism Sunday: What Not to Wear

February 23, 2020

Lindsey Carmichael wearing a lab coat

The only picture of me wearing a lab coat in existence. Ironically, it’s not my lab coat. It’s not even my lab. This photo was taken specifically for my book Fuzzy Forensics, which was written several years AFTER I finished my PhD and left academia! Notice the sweater – it was cold in this lab, too.

Welcome to STEMinism Sunday! As a former woman in science, I have a deep and enduring interest in the experiences and representation of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). This series will be an opportunity for me – and you – to learn more about these intellectual badasses.

So, you’re a woman in science. Good for you! Have you thought about what you’re going to wear?

Nope, I’m not talking about latex gloves, hip waders, or safety goggles, although you do look very cute in those. I’m talking about what’s under your lab coat – those outfits you’ll wear to work, or during class, or at a conference…. all places where, I’m sorry to say, you will be judged on the presentation of your femininity far more than the presentation of your results.

If you’ve been a woman in science for more than five minutes, you know this already. From this hahahsob piece of satire about planetary bodies bold enough to go #nomakeup to a professor friend’s recent quest to find a safety pin for raising the neckline of her dress, to the entirely serious online articles offering sartorial advice to the lady scientist, to the offhand comments of male students and colleagues, we all know that we’re going to be judged on the way we look.

And though we are disappointed, we are not surprised, because we’re women. Being judged for the way we look is a defining experience of femininity. And it’s exhausting in all contexts, but especially in contexts where women are outnumbered and therefore operating at a disadvantage.

Such as STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) fields.

It wasn’t as bad for me as it was for some of my friends. Because genetics is a biological science, there tended to be more women around than there are in “hard” sciences that were and continue to be dominated by men. I spent most of my lab hours in jeans and t-shirts (or sweaters, because it was freezing in there). But when I needed to assert my authority – for example, as a TA instructing a room full of students – or my credibility – at conferences – I was (and still am) intensely aware of my clothing choices. I need to look professional, but approachable. Authoritative, but not intimidating. And, every woman’s favourite – “appropriate.” Heaven forbid my heels are slightly too high or my neckline an inch too low and suddenly become #distractinglysexy

Because of my own experiences and those of many of my friends, I was particularly fascinated by this article by Canadian scientist Eve Forster. Forgoing her usual bun and letting her literal hair down ONE DAY resulted in such an egregious example of mansplaining (by one of her students, no less), that she decided to run a short experiment – tweeting exactly as she normally would for a week, using a female avatar, then tweeting exactly as she normally would for a week while using a male avatar. The results are a female scientist’s working environment in miniature. It’s a longer article, but pretty eye-opening.

As a white woman, I can’t even imagine how much harder it us for women of colour, or indigenous women, or women with disabilities, or anyone in the LGBTQ+ community to be taken seriously. All I know is that I was interviewed for this article on gender equality in science back in 2006…. and we still have a long, long way to go.

Your turn. Have you been told what not to wear at work? In school? In public? How do you handle these kinds of issues in your own life? Share your storied in the comments.



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