I originally wrote this as a comment to my interview over on Page 3.14 and then decided it ought to be its own entry. I thank BSCI for raising this issue, and admire BSCI’s prescience, for lauding my role models and mentors is, indeed, the subject of a forthcoming post.
BSCI, regarding the role model thing: role models can do many, many different things for a person. One of the things they can do is model for the person a particular way of being a particular kind of person in a particular field of endeavor. Men have many, many, many models to choose from of how to be men in science. They have so many models to choose from, that they are not even conscious of the fact that they are choosing a model of a way to “be” a man in science. They don’t think about what it means to be a man in science, because they take it as a given that you can be a man in science (or engineering). There are a plethora of models to choose from, so it’s not a problem.
There are, however, precious few models to choose from of how to “be” a woman in science or engineering. And as we know, it is not assumed by many to be natural or normal to “be” a woman in science/engineering. On top of that, because there are so few of us, whatever one of us does, is taken to represent what ALL women would/should/could do or say in a given situation. We are often, simultaneously, ignored AND under a spotlight. We shouldn’t be there – but since we are, we should be conscious of that fact that we are representing ALL WOMANKIND.
Now, this is a lot of pressure for any one woman to deal with. It is nice, under such circumstances, to see once in awhile some other woman who has made it through the mill and is still somewhat functional. To observe how she carries herself. What she does in public. How she dresses – because we know the way women dress is much more important, much more noticed, than the way men dress*. We want our female role models, not just for scientific inspiration, but just to know that it can be done. They don’t even necessarily have to be our mentors – a lab supervisor, or someone we go to daily or weekly for advice. They just need to exist somewhere nearby, in our orbit, telling us by their lived presence that OUR existence is not an anomaly, not an impossibility, not a joke – but a real, true, possible, wonderful thing.
*See below the fold for the asterisk.
*I wish those two Chronicle of Higher Education articles that the links will take you to did not require a subscription. Here are two good quotes, the first from the link to the article by James. M. Lang, “Looking Like a Professor”, and the second from the link to the article by Pamela Johnston, “Dressing the Part”.
Professors are both blessed and cursed with the lack of a standard uniform. That we have no dress code — either of the coveralls-and-name-tag variety or of the suit-and-tie variety — gives us a sartorial freedom that, unlike some of my colleagues, I’m not sure I enjoy all that much.
The colleagues who seem to take the most pleasure in our fashion freedom fall at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
On one end sit the sharp dressers — the tailored, the natty, the formal, the chic. Male sharp dressers wear ties to class every day. The ties match the shirts, and the shirts are sometimes in bright, bold colors. They wear brown and black shoes; sometimes those shoes are shiny. The most extreme wear suits — not khaki pants and a blue sports coat — but actual suits, in which the pants and the coat have been cut from the same material.
I’m not quite as educated about the nature of the female sharp dressers, but they seem to wear things like scarves and pointy shoes. Suit jackets cross gender boundaries, so I see some of those on women as well.
I will confess that I wonder about the motivations of the sharp dressers. I wonder whether they use sharp dressing as a means to establish their authority with students: “Within these pointy shoes are contained the wisdom of the ages. The pointy shoes make me the boss.”
Mr. Lang is not as educated about the nature of female sharp dressers. He can afford this ignorance. Women, on the other hand, cannot. In a world where you will receive student evaluations with comments like “I could not learn in this course because Professor X’s bra distracted me” or where your thesis advisor might say something to you like “how nice that you wore a skirt today. That really brightens up the lab,” – you know, as if you were a walking potted plant – a woman has to be ultra-conscious of every fashion choice. Perhaps pointy shoes DO make me the boss, if they frighten you into thinking I’ll kick you in the balls with them if you make any more stupid-ass comments like that brightening-up-the-lab bit. (oh dear. I can just imagine how upset the friends of the un-named fictitious threatened man are going to be about that. )
Ms. Johnston tells us:
…extreme casual means different things for men and women…It should come as no surprise to readers that numerous studies confirm what many of us have known for a long time: Students respond differently to male and female professors in the classroom, and evaluate us differently as well.
During class and on their final course evaluations, students comment on the clothes I wear and see nothing odd about that. My husband, also an academic, has yet to hear a single student comment about his wardrobe, which I’ll call “guy casual.” Usually he wears khaki pants and a polo or button-down shirt. That’s the same outfit he wears out to dinner or on a trip to the zoo with our children. If he tended to wear jeans, I suspect he would wear “all jeans, all the time,” as Lang writes in his essay.
My point here is that “guy casual” is neutral: It says nothing more than “I’m a guy,” and that’s all it needs to say. There’s a presumption of respect that comes along with being a guy — specifically, a white male professor — and that allows for a certain disregard where the question of classroom dress is concerned…There is, however, no neutral position for women. If I go “extreme casual,” I’m making a statement eschewing the fashion industry and its hold on me. If I opt for a more formal style of dress, I’m making another sort of statement. In fact, Lang implies, I may be seen as trying too hard, of seeming absurdly authoritarian: He writes that female professors who are sharp dressers seem to wear things like scarves and pointy shoes to establish their authority with students. “The pointy shoes make me the boss,” as he puts it.
But there’s no presumption of respect or authority accorded to me when I walk into a classroom — no matter what shoes I’m wearing. I have to convince my students, every day, that I know something about the subject matter and can manage the class effectively. I also have to convince them that they can’t push me around, because they’ll try to, but they won’t try as hard if I’ve persuaded them that it will be a challenge.
Classroom dress does, then, help to identify the person who is in charge, and that’s an important consideration when authority can’t be presumed…
Female professors are supposed to know how to dress; it’s part of the gender performance on which we’re evaluated. Failing to dress well suggests an incompetence that might undermine a woman’s authority in other areas. If she doesn’t even know how to dress, the student thinks, how could she possibly know that this paper deserves a C?
Male professors aren’t expected to have any fashion sense, so relying on that old standard, “guy casual,” can’t hurt them. Professor Lang goes so far as to say, “I wear the clothes my wife buys for me,” suggesting that there’s no need for him to think about his wardrobe at all, unless he chooses to.
I suspect he means that line to be facetious, but let’s imagine a female professor saying the same thing, telling her colleagues or students, “I wear the clothes my husband buys for me.” That professor is not only incompetent (she doesn’t even know how to dress), but also submissive. There’s no way she can garner the respect of her students or her peers.
A professor’s choice of classroom dress is far more complex than Lang suggests. It has much more to do with gender, race, and cultural privilege than teaching style.
So, yes, we need our role models, if only to take a look at how they dress. Any decent man can teach us how to shim a 500 MHz spectrometer to achieve kick-ass narrow linewidths (well, maybe not ANY decent man. There is only one Bill Hull.) Any man, who is a decent human being, can teach us to do good science or good engineering. And thank god this is so, because there simply aren’t enough women to go around. Not yet, anyway.