All of My Faults Are Stress Related

Geologists are quirky and interesting. We study this planet we live on (and others), we get to think about volcanoes or earthquakes or landslides or floods, we can tell you a gazillion ways that the earth could kill you (and then say that they’ll all happen tomorrow… on the geologic time scale). We know how water flows through rock. We know how oil flows through rock, too, and what’s likely to happen if we keep burning oil and coal and natural gas. And our employment prospects look good (though again, remember we think on the geologic time scale, and mega-recessions are too short for us to resolve).

And we take fun stuff with us into the field. Some of us, at least, look pretty silly:

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Note the very stylish baggy nylon pants, the oversized nylon shirt, the classy handlens necklaces, and the oh-so-hip belt with field pouch and Brunton compass accessories. Oh, and in case you are laughing, there’s that rock hammer in my hand. Not so different from other descriptions in the field gear meme that’s going around.

That was me when I worked in Vermont ten years ago. The baggy clothes were useful for protecting me from mosquitoes, stinging nettles, and blackberry bushes, and the nylon dried fast after a morning pushing my way through wet leaves. The pouch has my field notebook, my ruler/protractor, my Sharpies, my pencils, my erasers, and my chisel. I’m not wearing my backpack – I take it off when I’m not walking – but it’s there, and contains food, water, first aid supplies, sunscreen, raingear, sample bags, and a camera. Today I would add a small hand-held GPS to my belt, a different shirt for Colorado weather, and wrinkles, but other than that, this is me in the field. When I did my field work in Alaska, I would have had pretty much the same gear, except I would have been wearing the raingear and carrying a gun.

My gear’s suited to somebody who looks at rocks, especially deformed metamorphic rocks. I would use different stuff if I were doing volcano monitoring, or stream hydrology, or environmental consulting. But I still look like the stereotypical geologist (at least as much as possible for someone who can’t grow a beard).

And that’s gotten me thinking a bit about what it means to be a visible role model. Undergrad geology departments in the US are currently about 40-45% women (data from AGI). Mine is more like 30% women, and I don’t think the situation changed much when I was hired eight years ago. (I was the first woman professor in my department.) There are a lot of times when, as far as role models go, I’m just not enough.

For example, last week I was part of a Women’s History Month panel about issues facing women in science. Afterwards, the biologist and I joked about how we had dressed. See, I don’t normally wear dresses. I bought a skirt last summer to wear to a former student’s wedding, and I wore it for my AGU talk last December, but that was unusual. And as for shoes… well, we started joking about shoes, and I said that I hadn’t bought a pair of heels since 1985.

And then I remembered that there were women geology students in the room. I backtracked and told them that there aren’t any rules that say that a female geologist has to lack fashion sense, but I wonder if the damage was already done. (One immediately confessed that she loved shoes.) When I embrace the Cranky Prospector geologist image, am I alienating people who like to shop? I mean, I know that there’s an incredible diversity of women geologists out there. Classy dressers and slobs, single and partnered, straight and gay and bi, mothers and child-free, beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers and equally-attractive-non-alcoholic-beverage drinkers. (Ethnic diversity is something that needs work, unfortunately, though I know a number of women geologists who aren’t Anglo.) And even when we’re doing our work, we aren’t constantly scaling cliffs or thrashing through brush. I know people whose field areas are on Venus or on the moons of Saturn, people who do field work from ships, people who do field work in a sandbox to see if they can validate their numerical models, people who do experiments so that all of our field work makes sense. But when geologists joke about dirt and beer and bags full of rocks, we hide the diversity that’s possible in the profession.

We brought another women geologist to the college as a visitor for Women’s History Month. My department needs to do this more often, because I’m just one person with lousy fashion sense, and I can’t do the role-model thing alone.

Comments

  1. #1 Garry Hayes
    March 26, 2009

    Thanks for the link, and for the excellent rundown on the state of diversity in our science. It has always bothered me that geology often seems like one of the last of the good-ole-boys fields, and I joke about it a bit in classes, but not without a serious discussion of stereotyping (all scientists are old white bald men in white lab coats…). I can remember that it was ASTOUNDING when the graduating class of geologists at Pomona College in 1981 was eight women and one man. I’m glad for the improvement over the years, but certainly more work is need to increase diversity.

  2. #2 llewelly
    March 26, 2009

    I know people whose field areas are on Venus or on the moons of Saturn, people who do field work from ships …

    If only the latter group and the former group were the same group …

  3. #3 Silver Fox
    March 26, 2009

    A great post, getting into diversity from field gear. I’ve joined the meme with an equipment list and such, but didn’t post a photo of me in field gear.

    As far as non-field clothes go, I see women at meetings wearing a variety of dressy to non-dressy clothes. And I like to shop, I just buy different stuff! Haven’t bought heels, though, since one sister got married in the early 80’s. Wearing them was traumatic.

  4. #4 Katie
    March 31, 2009

    Thank you! I am one of those stylish (or I like to think that I am anyway) geologists and it’s strange that I sometimes feel that weird reverse discrimination based on how I dress. I’ve gotten several scoffs by other women scientists on my attire. Am I not allowed to wear heels or like pink?

    Recently, I heard a talk by a woman who charged classroom students to “draw a geologist” to which the majority of them drew the typical male stick figure with a rock hammer. Isn’t geology so much more than rock hammers? Anyway, I can’t find that study (and my google search for it has brought me here). While I don’t think that there is a need for a fashion reform (I’m a firm believer that everyone has to do their own thing and be their own person – clothing included), but we do have an image problem based on the lack of diversity. And not just in gender and race.

  5. #5 gill
    June 23, 2009

    thank you! so refreshing! i’m a female geology student finishing up my course, and i’ve always been a girly girl. I love dresses and heels and even on a day to day basis i’m in a skirt rather than jeans (coming from a long line of curvy italian women skirts are in my genes…pun intended!). However everything has its time and place and when i’m in the field there is nothing better than wearing the appropriate clothing for hiking and getting dirty! that’s where half the fun is!

    in my 5 years studying i have experienced a lot unwarranted discrimination becuase of the way i dress, including comments about my vanity, my body, and loads of speculation of my fitness, my like of geology, my motives for studying science, and my intelligence (and unfortunately much of this has come from lecturers/supervisors, male and female, who feel they can say it to my face).

    At the end of the day, these comments are wrong and I worry about them being made to other students who may not be as obstinate as I am. It is very much my hope that through my persistence and that of others such as yourself, women geoligsts will be accepted in every form and style. It would be a total shame if geology’s reputation of such a backwards attitude continued into the following decades.

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