Beauty and the Geek: Being Feminine in STEM
Updated: Jan 19
“That’s one thing I always admired about you, Claire,” my colleague said. We were having lunch, commiserating over our love of Mexican food, dark humor, and aimless conversation.
“What do you mean?” I muttered between large bites of my burrito.
“You've somehow managed to maintain your femininity here at Caltech, despite the fact that this place does everything it can to discourage you.”
As I pulled my glittery Kate Spade compact mirror from my purse to survey the damage the burrito had done to my hot pink lip stain (which could never live up to Loreal's promise of 12 hour hold), I realized there might be some truth to what she said. That’s not to say that femininity necessitates pink, glitter, and makeup. However, from where we were sitting in an outdoor eating area on Caltech’s campus, the contents of my bag were the most traditionally feminine items in sight.
As an adult, I strongly identify as female. I use the pronouns she/her/hers. I wear clothes that emphasize my female form, dramatic jewelry, and makeup that most men don’t wear. However, I was not always this proud of being a woman. Growing up, I always had reservations about being perceived as feminine, an idea too often equated with weakness. However, there were still aspects of traditional femininity that appealed to me. As a result, I was the girl who cried in the children's bootery when my Mom refused to buy me the sparkly red Dorothy slippers for everyday school wear (still not over it, Mom), and the girl who refused to brush her hair for weeks at a time because boys didn't need to waste their time with such frivolous tasks.
Muddling this even further was my choice of career. I always wanted to be a scientist. At my pre-school graduation, I was furious when everyone thought it was cute that I wanted to be a paleontologist. When I was in middle school, I rolled my eyes when the overbearing guidance counselor couldn't comprehend that I wanted to be a physicist, not a physical therapist (I have nothing against PT; it’s just not my thing). It didn't occur to me that I was witnessing a gender bias towards young female-presenting individuals entering STEM fields, a bias that could often descend into blatant sexism.
I figured that out the hard way when I was sixteen, when I was disqualified from the local science fair. It was the type of science fair where students conducted experiments and presented their results to a panel of judges, who then scored their work on a rubric. I did a cute little experiment on radioactive decay. You know, the kind of thing most cool eleventh graders are into. Modesty aside, my work was far beyond the level of a high school student. I put a lot of time into it, and I kicked ass.
I was so excited to present my research that day. I wore a cute tunic with leggings and even let my sister french braid my hair. The day was so important to me that I even put on makeup.
My presentation went well. I explained my research and fielded every question that the all-male panel sent my way. Then I got my rubric back, along with comments from the judges. The only comment my teacher actually let me see went something like this: "There is a major question of whether this student actually did the experiment herself.”
I'm not going to lie. I did a lot of ugly crying before I was ready to stand up and defend myself. It was later explained to me that there were several elements at play here. By far the most influential factor was that, to the panel of male, middle-aged judges, a petite, blonde, high school girl didn't look enough like a scientist.
They weren't the only ones then, and they still aren’t now. The Draw-a-Scientist test was designed to assess the influence of socio-economic factors on children's perceptions of what scientists look like. While kids are more likely to draw a female scientist than they ever were in the past, it is still widely skewed towards drawing old white men.
This all still just speaks to the difficulty of being female in STEM. We haven't even touched on being feminine.
Along with my love of science, I also love fashion. Bold fashion. In college, I had a bit of a reputation in the computer science department, where I was usually one of just three females. I would typically show up to class wearing a miniskirt or dress, bright red lip stick, and dripping wet hair (because I was too lazy to use a blow dryer). I looked out of place, and sometimes I suffered because of this. I was forced to sit docilely while the men in the room talked over me and mansplained basic concepts so my class participation grade didn’t suffer. When I got the top grades in the class, it was not because I studied or understood the material rather I must have been sleeping with the professor. One male classmate did everything in his power to delegitimize my success. When he failed, he resorted to the kind of moves that make the not so gentle gentlemen of Mad Men look like progressive feminists.
There are a bunch of studies (seriously, google it) you can spend your time reading that reinforce my experience with measurable metrics. Personally, I think this one is a particularly good read. I'm not going to hash through all those studies here because really, they all come to the same depressing conclusion: the more feminine you look, the less likely you are perceived as a serious scientist.
In my experience, I found that when you don't quite fit in to your professional environment, you really only have two options. The first is to adapt so that you fit in. The second is to stay different.
It’s a choice that female scientists make everyday, even before they step foot in the lab. It starts as early as when you get ready each morning. You could pull your hair up in a messy bun, brush on a touch of Glossier products, throw on some loose fitting Levi's and a generic shirt. Tie it all up with your Allbirds, and you can be fully assimilated. No one really questions this outfit. I myself have donned it on more than one occasion. It is safe, sustainable, and devoid of any particular sex appeal. You don't have to deal with long, creepy stares from that colleague with the staring problem. You don't need a pithy reply to the coworker bold enough to comment on the color or cut of your top.
One easy solution here would be for everyone to shut up and stop commenting on other people's appearances. In my opinion, it isn't that simple. This is all begs a larger question: Why do we place more focus on a woman's appearance than we do on her ideas? I don't have a good answer. Here is what I do know: We start enforcing this idea young.
Take the story of Lizzy Martinez. One day in April of 2018, Lizzy decided not to wear a bra to school. The reason why doesn't matter. What matters is that her teacher said her bralessness was a distraction to the boys in her class. As a result, she was pulled out of class, made to put bandaids on her nipples, and told to put on another shirt before she could return to class. I think Lizzy says it best in her tweet:
Yes, why is Lizzy not wearing a bra a distraction to boys? Why is the education of boys placed above the education of girls? And why are we using sexism disguised as a formal dress code to accomplish this? I'm hardly the only person to ask these questions. In fact, there are many articles that talk about how school dress codes police femininity and take girls out of the classroom unnecessarily. There are also a bunch of great articles on how students are fighting back.
All this comes back to the bigger question: Why do so many female scientists try to hide the fact that they’re female? Because we care more about what a woman looks like than what she’s thinking about. As a society, we need to tell girls that they are smart instead of pretty, and take the focus from their bodies to their minds. Until that day, I’ll be here, unabashedly applying my Chanel Lipstick in Indépendante in my battle against the patriarchy.