There’s a strategic reason why some women scientists look “frumpy”

Image: National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress/Handout via Reuters
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In 2006 I finished my PhD in economics and received a lot of career advice. I was told to not dress too nicely during interviews. I was told when I made distinctly feminine gestures (like touching my hair) during seminars it came across as “flaky.” Outside of graduate school, people often remarked on how feminine I was—for an economist. I was offended at the time, but it probably wasn’t terrible advice; if you want to play the game you have to look the part. And while there are more women than ever in STEM fields these days, people still have certain gendered expectations about how women scientists should appear.

There is no shortage of blog posts and articles on the internet advising young scientists how to dress. For both men and women, it’s often: don’t look too good or like you are trying to hard. Marc Kuchner says a biophysicist wrote him, “I’m more likely to believe the science of somebody wearing a nice pair of khaki pants and a shirt than somebody wearing the whole ‘CEO costume.’”

Writing for Science Magazine, Adam Ruben advises casual dress for men and after googling “scientific clothing” the only feminine reference he could find was for women to have a pencil-bun.

The argument for frumpiness is as follows: anyone who looks fashionable signals a lack of dedication to science, or worse, a preoccupation with money. For women, this translates to not looking feminine because a feminine look is often associated with being stylish and well-groomed.

And while the frumpy standard seems to apply to men and women, there may be more harmful effects for aspiring women scientists. A group of researchers studied if being feminine was a career liability after the San Francisco tech firm OneLogin posted pictures of their engineers, including one of their employees Isis Wenger. People thought she was too attractive to be an engineer and doubted the veracity of the campaign. Hoping to repeat the experiment in a more scientific manner, they took the photographs of 80 scientists at top universities, 40 men and 40 women with varying characteristics thought to be more male or female. Male appearance includes short hair and strong facial features. Feminine features include long hair and fine features or could mean makeup or traditionally feminine dress. They asked 265 American workers—equally divided between men and women in one experiment and skewed toward more women in another—to rate the femininity or masculinity of the people and the photos. Next they were asked if the people were scientists or early education teachers.

The respondents assumed the men and women were equally likely to be scientists. But the more feminine a woman rated, the more respondents presumed she was a teacher. When it came to feminine-looking men, respondents were equally likely to assume he was a teacher or scientist—or even journalist (a supposedly gender neutral profession). The researchers conclude that a woman’s gendered appearance effects career perception in a way it does not for men. If femininity is not associated with science, young girls who identify with those values may be dissuaded from STEM fields every time they are told they don’t look like a scientist. The bias also devalues femininity can lead women to be cruel to each other because it justifies judging looks and dress.

It is not clear how much of this is sexism or a need to see scientists as asexual. We like to think of science as being clinical and sexless, but your point of view always features into how you conduct and interpret experiments. Some people are more comfortable and confident when they feel put stylish and put together. A more diverse population, some who embrace femininity or masculinity, can only add to our knowledge.