We know that it's still far too common for people to focus on women's appearance instead of- or at least more than- their performance in many professional situations.
Now, I should preface this, perhaps, with the fact that I like dressing up. I like make up. I like heels. And, clearly, this has no bearing on my love (or practice) of science. And, I've been known to pick out an outfit for a presentation or professional event far in advance. It is, in fact, about as important to the prep to me as practicing the talk. I don't feel ready without it. I'd never change this. This is me.
At the conference I'd mentioned in that other post, as I was presenting my poster, I had two women compliment the dress I was wearing. I have to admit, I was surprised. If I had been walking around during the session, I would have been quite flattered-- but somehow, I'll admit it felt very out of place to have my dress commented on, when I was looking for feedback on my science. I don't fault these women-- but both the compliment and how I felt about it was surprising.
That said, I find it easy to connect with other women this way. Paying a compliment is a lovely way to start a conversation or make a friend.
At an event for the young women I mentor, there would also be a poster session. The women were to present in groups. We'd been preparing for weeks, designing the format of the poster, adding content... In my last session with them, they started to coordinate, as I finished some formatting: What would they wear? Dresses? Nice pants? I smiled to myself. Yes, this is a thing (some) women do. I thought back to my a capella days, when we'd coordinate our outfits before a show- agree on a color or style. And how the first time I played with a campus rock band (where I was the only female), they looked at me like I had three heads when I asked what I should wear to our first gig.
When the day of my mentoring group's event arrived, a group I'd mentored in the past came up to me, excited to see me after several months. They were all close friends and were presenting a poster together. They were dressed so sharply in black and white, that, while I try not to comment on such things, I had to mention how wonderful they looked-- and asked if they had coordinated. They told me in the most bubbly way possible that they had, in fact, gotten ready together and decided to match.
I was overjoyed. Imagine the thrill of women getting ready together, the sisterhood-- borrowing each others' earrings or shoes- maybe music playing, anticipation gathering- not for a party or date, but for a poster session, for science.
Should we focus more on people's appearance than their work? Never. But perhaps it is just as wrong to ignore the creativity and joy found in a keen sense of style-- male or female. We are individuals. And our creative expression is just as much a part of that as our scientific prowess is.
Should scientific conferences be red-carpet events? Should "who are you wearing?" be appropriate at the Q-and-A session? Certainly not. But am I a better scientist, a better role model if I neglect my or my students' sense of style-- or femininity? No.
In fact, I have come to believe that it's integral to providing the kind of representation that I have written about in the past. Feminism is about options. The question of balancing scientific pursuits with "traditional" femininity comes up, from time to time, when I'm mentoring younger women-- and I'm always proud to talk about the fact that there is no conflict between the two. But this needs to be modeled.
I have been taught that women are not becoming scientists because they think they are not smart enough. Because math is hard. Because they are not encouraged. Because of stereotype threat, and the like. Now, there are probably many reasons. A combination of "social, cultural, and psychological factors" says a 2014 article by Rotem Ben-Shachar. But the women I mentor know they're intelligent. They know they can do the work. They understand the opportunities they have. They are motivated and engaged. But they are sometimes afraid-- they are sometimes afraid that to be a scientist means they will become socially-awkward. They are sometimes afraid that to be a scientist they cannot be pretty, or feminine, or wear things other than lab coats.
We need everyone. We need women wearing jeans, and pants suits, and party dresses. We need both women and men. We need people who learn differently, and see the world differently. We need people who think all different ways about all different things.