Wednesday, August 31, 2005

How feminine should I be?

Maybe I'm a little too fashion-conscious, but when I go to meetings I'm always faced with the same problem. Dresses are fine for some occasions, but mostly I have trouble taking myself seriously in a skirt. It's especially weird since, where I live, women tend to wear very little clothing, and everything very tight-fitting. So it's a strange place to be a scientist. I can never seem to really strike a balance between dressing appropriately for work and wearing something that's not too frumpy.

I had a friend in grad school who always wore short skirts, and you can bet that everyone noticed and nobody took her seriously. I tended to go the opposite direction in that environment- baggy sweatshirts and jeans, mostly. But I'm tired of being a slob, and where I work now is less male-dominated, so I feel like I should be allowed a little more self-expression. But that's at home, where I have options.

When I go to a meeting, I have to decide ahead of time what to bring, and I'm never sure about the weather or how formal people will be. I feel more confident in pants, maybe because I lived in a pretty dangerous city for a few years, and I prefer to wear comfortable shoes. But at these meetings where it's all men, I feel like there's nothing I can wear that will help me blend in while still feeling confident. There are definitely some weird identity issues associated with this phenomenon of having a bunch of men in suits visibly notice that you're not one of them.

I have never been one of those people who wanted to flirt, or manipulate the situation by looking a certain way. I guess I have been lucky, for the most part I've worked with people who looked me in the eye when we were talking. But having a PI who perpetually addressed my chest has made me much more self-conscious.

I read a poem yesterday by this guy James Tate, it's about how his friend's breast falls out of her shirt at dinner and he has a polite little conversation with it, how nice it is to see the breast, etc. It's kind of funny, because it's surreal and somehow he manages to make it almost respectful, but it still made me squirm. I can't help thinking that all of these guys, despite being scientists, are still thinking that way about every woman they meet. I know this isn't true because I'm certain that my boyfriend, my thesis advisor, and most of my co-workers are not that way. At least, I don't think they are. Maybe I just want these older men to learn to be more discreet!

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At 3:03 PM, Anonymous BWJones said...

Developing a personal scientific persona is tough. I sort of kept my punk DIY ethos and can get away with riding my bike into work when I am in the lab and wearing Chuck-Ts around the department. Of course if I am teaching or presenting, I have to clean up in a tie or even suit or tux if we are fundraising. I have always tried to be approachable, but at the same time maintain a very professional and serious attitude. While I have gone out for beers with the students/colleagues and had a good time, I have never stepped over the propriety line and am pretty much all business at work saving my personal life for my wife and friends outside of work. I also have a very specific rule: I will not dine with anyone that I would not consider a friend outside of work. This gets around certain issues at work that may or may not be appropriate to your situation.

It's a double standard that I have talked about with my wife on more than one occasion. But we've found that for women (particularly those that could be considered attractive) a similar cultivation of an attitude along with dress tends to work well. The attitude should be no-nonsense and the attire can be described with one word...... "suits". Know your science and wear your suit with an attitude that you will not take any shit and will simply kill anyone who tries anything inappropriate. The risk of course is that some immature people will call you a bitch, but hey....if that is their attitude.....then its ON! and you have grounds for a different kind of "suit".

At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems to me most of us guys have the goal of spending as little time picking our clothes as necessary while avoiding looking ridiculous, while women sometimes actually dress to make a good impression.

I've noticed that I have to reach a certain level of formality (no sneakers or jeans, button-down shirts are better than polo shirts) to keep the attention of students and other faculty. But such blind, unimaginative rules of dress are probably anathema to anyone with a modicum of fashion sense.

This doesn't address your main point of being treated as a scientist rather than an object for oogling. No easy answers for that, better to look good than bad, better to look sensible than hamstrung by huge heels and uncomfortable fashion statements, but one doesn't want to disappear in the woodwork, either. Good luck.


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At 4:19 PM, Blogger utenzi said...

I thought you studied biology? Of course all men are that way. You sound like that cute little pig in "Babe" when he can't believe that his owner would eat animals.

Males are programmed to want sex. The limbic system is in charge and our cerebral cortex just rides on top and gives guidance from time to time. Add to that males being visually oriented for obvious reasons and you have men looking at breasts. Try to pay more attention in class.

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Five said...

You are getting a whole lot of spam... so sad.

My girlfriend is in a similar position to you and she seems to have settled with "the suit" or a dressed down version of it (pants and button up shirt).

Good luck.

At 6:46 AM, Blogger Jane said...

We had a very prestigious person visit our department for a week last year. Everyone raved about how wonderful this person was, how nice, how great it was to have him around....while I studiously tried to avoid him, after he spent our entire first meeting very obviously checking me out. Ick, ick, ick!

It's for reasons like this that I very rarely wear skirts when meeting with people I've never met, or meeting with people where there's any potential of "ickiness". Pantsuits are great, and you can cover up as much or as little as you'd like with them. That won't prevent all of the ickiness (some guys just won't ever get a clue), but it does cut back on the "isn't she a cute young thing" factor a bit.

Good luck!

At 9:56 AM, Blogger KaneCitizen said...

I can't help thinking that all of these guys, despite being scientists, are still thinking that way about every woman they meet. I know this isn't true because I'm certain that my boyfriend, my thesis advisor, and most of my co-workers are not that way. At least, I don't think they are.

I have some bad news for you...

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous Big Shot PI said...

Don't worry, wear what you want, it doesn't really matter so much. All heterosexual male scientists have years of experience paying attention to what women are saying and engaging in appropriate conversation regardless of how sexy their conversational partner's clothes are. Admittedly there are pros and cons each way, but all told I'd say it is pretty much a wash. (Unless you're talking to a real creep. And why should you care about a creep?)


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