I have worn a dress to the lab precisely once. When I arrived, my normally chatty lab manager went silent. His eyes started at my face, searched down to my heels, and back up again. He took a breath and exclaimed, “Wow. I never knew you had legs!” Stunned, I quickly walked back to my desk and put my sweater over my legs. What do I wish I had done instead? Pushed my shoulders back, held my head high, and smiled, knowing that I was preparing for a great day of research, because what I choose to wear is unrelated to my abilities to expertly perform my job.
As women in science, we have expectations from our male colleagues and from ourselves: about how to behave, how to best do our research, and how to look. In fact, there is a stigma associated with being a stylish female scientist: a woman who spends time on her appearance cannot also spend time thinking seriously about stem cells or quantum entanglement.
To make matters worse, women occasionally receive incredibly sexist, offensive and inappropriate advice on how to be seen as an equal and succeed in science. Below I’ve listed three of my favorite pieces of “advice.”
1. Don’t wear heels higher than 2 inches. Certainly women should be wearing heels. But please, ladies, keep the heels under 2 inches. Anything higher than that is both intimidating and unprofessional.
My response: This was a real piece of advice from a career seminar I once attended. I was wearing my favorite purple, 3-inch heels at the time. There has been a great movement as of late, started in response to a young girl who wanted dinosaur shoes and could not understand why they were made only for boys. #inhershoes began as a way for women scientists to show off their shoes, because you can wear any shoe you want and still be an awesome scientist.
The takeaway: When you are comfortable in your own shoes, you will exude a confidence that cannot be rivaled. You will be able to better express yourself because you are able to be yourself.
2. Wear makeup, but not too much makeup. As a woman, you have a particular physical standard to maintain. Ponytails are acceptable, but don’t forget to put on some makeup to look your best!
My response: Let’s focus on my research and not on my face/hairstyle/clothing choices. The most important thing regarding appearance in the lab is whether you are dressed to work safely. If you work better when dressed comfortably, go ahead and wear jeans and a sweatshirt to the lab. If you get a confidence boost by wearing a dress and heels (so long as you can still safely do your research), more power to you!
The takeaway: I don’t like makeup. Most days I don’t wear it to the lab. A colleague of mine comes every day with the world’s most perfect eyeliner. The point is that we both choose to be comfortable. Be comfortable, be confident, and then you can focus all your energy on being the awesome scientist you are!
3. Have at least one male co-author, so you look smarter. Sadly, in the past few weeks we have seen this advice from a male peer reviewer. He not only suggested that the two female authors add a male author to improve the quality of their manuscript, but also condescended to tell them that male researchers work longer hours than female researchers “due to marginally better health and stamina.”
My response: How ridiculous! There is no single way to look like a scientist. Be original. Be authentic. The best way to rise above these outdated ideas is to continue being the awesome scientist that you are.
Dear women in science, everywhere, and at every career stage: We are worthy! We are capable! Our ideas are just as important as any one of our male colleagues’!
Dear men in science: Women in science are a force to be reckoned with. We are rock stars. Our research is important, regardless of how #distractinglysexy we choose to look while in the lab. Five women were named in the TIME100 list of STEM pioneers. Among those are the professor and postdoctoral researcher who made one of the most important biological breakthroughs in the last decade. So prepare yourselves, because no matter how we choose to look, we can do anything!
Courtney Thomas is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Cancer Biology at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. She received a B.S. in Chemistry from Furman University in 2007, and a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry from UCLA in 2012. While at UCLA, she developed a passion for communicating scientific ideas and for scientific outreach. She has developed scientific lectures for ages 5-adult, educational handouts, and a hands-on lab-based workshop to introduce high school students to academic research. When she’s not working in the lab, Courtney enjoys cooking, photography, and exploring Europe.