Growing up my parents could not care less about the type of clothing I wore and how I did my makeup or styled my hair. There were really only three major rules in my house: do well in school, don’t do drugs and no talking back. I pretty much was able to experiment with my clothes as much as I wanted to. I went through a goth phase (but hey who doesn’t), I wore cardigans exclusively for quite some time and then I refused to wear pants unless it was at least -30 degrees Celsius and even then, I had to really think about it. Through these fashion faux pas and disasters, I learned a valuable lesson and was able to figure out what I felt comfortable wearing and what I didn’t.
And because of the outfit choices I make, I’m going to describe a scenario that has happened too many times to count. I’ll be sitting with classmates, explaining a concept or answering a question and I get a look, you may know the one, - it oscillates between saying, “Are you sure? Can I trust your answer, your explanation? Do you really know what you’re talking about?” or “Wow, that’s impressive. She’s actually kinda smart.”
Sometimes, when I reply incorrectly to a question or simply ask a question for clarification (there are no dumb questions, right?), I get another look. This one says, “Oh poor thing. She tried.” or even worse “See? She really doesn’t know anything.” Of course, someone will ultimately end up answering my question, but the tone drips with so much condescension that I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut.
I’m not oblivious to these tiny moments - the looks, the confusion, the surprise, the ‘talking to me like I can’t possibly know anything’’. All of these are a result of the decision I made that morning to wear the pink furry sweater over the white t-shirt or the jean skirt over the leggings.
I find myself, some mornings, looking in the mirror, and thinking, “Is this outfit too feminine?” which is inevitably followed by “Do I look dumb? Do I look competent? Credible? Scientific? Will I be taken seriously? Will people listen to what I have to say?”
All of this over my choice of clothing and yet, I know I’m not alone. Women go through life feeling as if they must choose between looking feminine or appearing smart. It is as if society has told us we cannot be both. Women are told to check their femininity at the door and deny a part of themselves for their careers in order to be taken seriously. I assure you this is not an exaggeration. Paige Brown Jarreau’s article “Being Female in Science” details the various experiences of women in STEM and the measures they must take to maintain some level of authority in their fields. Disguises such as wearing baggy clothing to hide their bodies, plain underwear instead of frilly ones, or even steering clear of bright clothing, the list goes on and on.
The truth is that while many efforts have been done to increase the visibility of women in STEM fields, it can still outwardly appear to be very male-dominated. The problem isn’t that women are not allowed to dress any way they wish. The problem is that it can feel as if a woman’s place in male-dominated fields is such that she must try and convince her colleagues to treat her as an equal. The problem is women, overtly feminine women, are not taken seriously unless they remove the lipstick, tuck away the heels and act like a man.
Sharon Mavin from Newcastle University Business School is an expert on gendered media representations of female professionals. She states that “women remain extra visible as women and invisible as professionals/managers/leaders” and thus are frequently told to avoid makeup and high heeled shoes by their colleagues. Women actively try to hide the parts of us that identify us outwardly as women in order to increase our visibility as scientists, to highlight our research and to demonstrate that we are as capable and as competent as our male peers.
Why do we agree to tone down our clothing? Why do we let society define what it is to be a woman, to be feminine and what it means to be a scientist? Isn’t it up to us to establish the fact that we shouldn’t have to choose between our careers and our self-expression, that we can be smart and ambitious all while dressing the way we want? Doubting our own ability to be leaders, to voice our opinions and thoughts and our right to be taken seriously solely based on what we choose to wear in the morning validates the idea that the quality of our work is tied to how we look, which is not only harmful to us, but to the generations that look to us as leaders.
So, where does this leave us and ultimately, how can we change the way society often views women in science? For starters, we can increase the number of visible female role models and mentors in male-dominated sectors. We can teach male colleagues to speak out against micro-aggression and subtler forms of sexism. By raising awareness of the different struggles women face in science, academic institutions and companies can implement the necessary resources and regulations to deal with these issues. The #MeToo movement is only one example of how we can give a voice to the victims of such issue and it’s expanding well beyond the Hollywood ecosystem. By amplifying voices of those who haven’t been heard and offering them safe spaces to tell their stories, we can begin to dismantle toxic work environments.
Most importantly, as women in STEM, we need to speak up against the patronizing attitudes and rude remarks and refuse to tolerate that our choice of clothing, whatever that may be, is a direct reflection of our work. What you wear is not an indication of what’s in your head. A tight skirt or a frilly blouse does not mean you are dumb or incompetent. It does not mean you can be talked down to or cast aside. My colorful shirts may be the tattoos that you have on your arms and my skirts may be your ripped jeans but no matter what we wear, we should never feel afraid to ask more questions, answer more questions, raise our hands a little higher and confidently speak our truth. It’s important to never forget that we are brilliant in pants and sneakers and we are brilliant in a dress and heels. We need to stand up for our right to be ourselves, dressed however we want to be dressed, so that when we look in the mirror, we no longer doubt ourselves and can say, “I am smart, I am competent, and I will be taken seriously.”
Nektaria Riso is an undergraduate student studying Physiology at McGill University. She is currently enjoying her program and exploring research opportunities within her faculty. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering at the MUHC, painting, writing short fiction, and shopping!