This is What a Scientist Looks Like

Three years ago I began working with teachers in an intensive externship. Over three-week periods, they would train alongside me every day, developing lesson plans for classrooms based on my research. One of my teachers, not expecting me to look the way I did, called me fancy. The name stuck as I am now @FancyScientist on Twitter and Instagram.

Being fancy in science is rare, especially in my field of ecology where the common attire is T-shirts and field pants, even at professional conferences. In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship in attire; the more accomplished you are in your career, the less dressed up you are, presumably because you are so busy with your science, that you couldn’t care less what you look like. Across the board, stereotypes of scientists are nerdy white men in lab coats. So when this teacher saw me every day with make-up and jewelry on, she was taken aback, and I was given my name. I get the same reaction from students when I visit classrooms. Some times when I wait in the back of the room before I am introduced, students think I am an assistant or substitute teacher, and not the visiting scientist.

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Me visiting a classroom.

For these reasons, I found this recent study to be completely unsurprising. When people were asked to judge photos of real female scientists on what they thought their career was, women who were more feminine-looking, were less likely guessed to be a scientist. So who cares? Maybe people are just bad at guessing women’s careers. Seemingly benign, the results reveal some societal perceptions with important implications.

Within the study, the authors cite several studies that support the notion that people are attracted to careers where they feel they belong and are similar to others. STEM-careers are already dominated by men, which likely deters women alone, and if there is an underlying perception that women must not be feminine or have to act a certain way, women’s interest may be further dampened.  In other words, they are afraid of being judged. I have personally felt this judgement, whether it was real or perceived, that because I looked a certain way, people didn’t take me seriously or think I was smart. When I first began in my career, at professional meetings, I would actually tone down my appearance, dressing down (but surprisingly still dressier than most other people), avoid wearing heels, and limit make-up. I fit in more, but I was a sad panda. And I still felt judgement. While make-up and heels are frivolous, those things truly make life much more fun for me and taking them away wasn’t allowing me to be my best self. After about a year of doing this, I decided I didn’t care anymore and started embracing my old and authentic self.

Although I have not suffered consequences for my appearance (to my knowledge), the consequences are definitely there. Nobel-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt got in huge trouble for saying this about women in the lab: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” In response, female scientists tweeted out photos of them in dirty field clothes and hazmat suits saying they were #distractinglysexy, ridiculing Hunt’s remarks. Yet the reality of the situation is that most female scientists on most days do not go to work looking like this. You pretty much dress normal. Hunt’s remarks revealed it is difficult for him to have female scientists in the lab, because of sexual undertones. I wonder how many male professors feel the same as Hunt, yet are not vocal enough say it. In such a case, a feminine appearance, or feminine styles of dress may not get you a job. In fact, the Banchefsky et al. 2016 study discusses other studies where women report feeling unable to present themselves in a stereotypically feminine manner because they will be perceived as unsuitable for a STEM career.

So if science is not feminine-friendly, why not just conform? I already mentioned that I myself would be sad, but there are also consequences beyond. When little kids are asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” like it or not, they are using societal perceptions to construct visions of themselves. To a young girl potentially interested in a STEM career, if she doesn’t see anyone that looks like her or that shares her interests, she may doubt her abilities to pursue that career. She might not even know that that this career is even available to her. Imagine Bill Nye and I walking into a classroom. Who do you think the girls are going to relate more to? Other studies show that presenting role models that challenge STEM stereotypes does increase interest in STEM (Cheryan et al. 2012). Therefore, in order to have a diverse STEM workforce, you need to show a diverse STEM workforce.

The subtext behind all of this is that STEM careers are perceived of as being hard, and you can’t be pretty and smart. Make-up and jewelry are frivolous and a great mind should not be wasted on them. In addition to staying true to myself, I chose to play into my femininity as a rebellion to this stigma.

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