When I was in high school I was the only woman in our chemistry class. I never was allowed to do any of the experiments. Too dangerous! “You can burn your hair, face or clothes!” For the record: My classmates had hair and they weren’t naked. And yes, they also had faces!
When I was in college all but one of our teaching assistants were male. Do I have to mention that she was a mathematician and math was considered as a field suitable for women? Nevertheless, she always tried to dress to be invisible among her male peers. Of course, none of our professors was female. This means there were no role models that one could use to get clues what to wear as a women engineer or female physical scientist. At that time there was only one female meteorology professor in Germany. However, she worked in aeronomy, which was as close as none.
When I studied atmospheric physics in France, it was even worse. In my class of 11, I was the only gal. One day, on our way to lunch, one of my classmates said “Nicole, you aren’t a woman.” I asked him “Why do you say that?” Then another classmate answered “You don’t wear nail polish, you drive a car, fly a sailing plane, study atmospheric physics, and you don’t dress like a woman.”
Back then, I literally lived in my black leather pants – a hand-me down from my brother. I loved my leather pants. I wore them with kitten heels or with pumps with up to 2 inch (5 cm) heel. Depending on the weather I paired my leather trousers with a button-down shirt (solid, plaid or striped), T-shirt with cotton scarf (I couldn’t afford silk) or a cotton sweater. My favorite outerwear was my suede bomber jacket. I loved to wear my hair in a long braided pony tail that reached to my upper hip. Huge DIY and plastic earrings (e.g. planes, cars, geometric figures) were my thing. It was the Rock’n Roll phase of my progress of my style evolution.
In 1987, I went to my first professional conference as a speaker. One professor said that I should wear a midi skirt, a blouse and pumps on the day of my talk! No, I hadn’t asked him what to wear to a science conference. needless to say, my male classmates weren’t told how to dress when they headed for a congress. The closest to a “dress code” that was given to one of them, was that he was forbidden to travel to the conference local on his motorcycle. It’s my understanding you can’t have large baggage on a bike, right?A suit and shirt will wrinkle when carried in a backpack. Click To Tweet
When I was a visiting graduate student at SUNY Albany, my roommates explained me that I am overdressed for an atmospheric chemistry student. “You don’t fit in with your fellow graduate students!” who of course were male. At that time, surfing was the big thing. All the guys wore surfer inspired gear. It was the late 80s, when I was in my power dressing phase. Only on weekends, I would put my jeans on, and yes, with high heels, please.Keep your standards and heels high. #quote Click To Tweet
When it came to field experiments during summer jobs or lab classes, it never took long until I was assigned the logistics like taking notes, doing the protocol, writing the report, designing the sampling network, determining how many samplers go into which truck, writing the road plan for these trucks, mapping the locations where to put the samplers, etc. While the experiment run, I analyzed samples at the gas chromatograph in the lab – a tedious boring task everybody hated. I rarely got outside. I could have done my tasks in a fancy dress and strappy heels – if only – the sampling bags weren’t covered with pollen, soil and coal dust. Despite I and the two other women in my class dressed like the guys in jeans and T-shirt, we weren’t welcome to schlep equipment “Too heavy, you can break it.”
It was during my time in graduate school, when I started regularly wondering about my work attire. It dawned to me that dressing nicely/stylishly, being female and interested in fashion/style is not associated with being intelligent while at the same time, dressing like the guys wouldn’t help to fit in. It seemed like a no-win situation.
At conference dinners, I felt like a nice table accessory. Nobody would discuss science with the few female attendees at a conference dinner, reception or ice-breaker. On the contrary, we young women were introduced asap to the accompanying wives to entertain them! They, of course, told us that sciences isn’t right for us, and we should have kids asap!
At scientific meetings, I tried to look professional and dressed in a conservative corporate style. This dress code is still today the best choice what to wear in this setting as a female scientist. Why? The “important people” dress like such. Wearing this dress code, helps that you get at least approached and talked to. You could be a program director, right? Another reason why I wore suits was to not be mistaken as someone’s accompanying wife.Women aren't accessories, they only wear them. Click To Tweet
When you are following the blog already for a while, you know that I have a challenge of finding my size in Alaska. I always get send to the youth department and I learned how to deal with body discrimination! Thus, I shop when I am out of state. One day during a lunch break between conference sessions, I left the congress building to browse a nearby mall. I went into a store of a well-known bridge brand that also makes very stylish, fashion forward career clothes. When I browsed the merchandise, a salesperson asked me very friendly what I am looking for. “A straight skirt that hits about 2 inch (5 cm) above the knee and a fitted blazer in size XS.” I replied. She looked at me and said “When I look how conservative you are, you better go to Macy’s.” I thanked her for the advice and just left. I was fully aware that my clothes were lying about me. I wore the wrong clothes for the setting I was in.
It is frustrating that today young women in physical sciences and engineering still worry about what to wear. They said the other day that they regularly wonder about appropriate work attire. One said she tries to not be visible at all. Another one said that “when a guy dresses up in a suit, shirt and tie for a presentation, it’s fully accepted. It’s considered as a sign of respect for their audience. When a woman dresses up, no one listens, but stares.” An international female student said “You can’t win, just wear what gives you confidence and get over it (the talk).”Everyone should have the right to dress up when they want to. Click To Tweet
It took a while to accept that all we can do is to work on changing the mindset about dressing up, fashion and women and their abilities.A scientist can be female, intelligent and stylish all at the same time. #womeninphysics Click To Tweet
Changing the mindset of societal perceptions is hard work and a long time consuming journey. Remember, Marie Curie had to study in Paris, France as there female students were allowed. Remember when back in the 30s of the last century, female musicians had to sit in the back in black suits so nobody would see that there are women in the symphony orchestra? In the 60s, female teacher had to leave when they were pregnant. Prior to the mid 80s, women scientists weren’t allowed to overwinter in Antarctica. You can find more on the history of fashion and women over the last 80 years at the link.
There is this sayingThe first impression is the most important one. Click To Tweet
Does a woman engineer or physical scientist make already a bad impression, when the client or audience expect a guy to show up? What about the outfit for a job interview?
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Photos: G. Kramm
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