June 16 Newsweek musings

Newsweek isn't really my mag - I'm more of a Ms, Mother Jones, Yes! magazine reader, or would be if I didn't have so much other stuff to read too - but I got a subscription as a gift, and it serves in lieu of conversation as my breakfast companion. Two articles of note this week:

  • A great piece on why biology should be a general education requirement for everyone, by Sally Hoskins, a professor at the City College of New York. She writes, "Science isn't old information pressed like crumbling fall leaves between the pages of forgotten books. It's alive - growing and shifting and blossoming."
  • A more problematic piece called "Revenge of the Nerdette" about how women ("girls") are reclaiming and transforming the moniker of nerd by being girly and "hot" while being smart and techy. The article does cite Annalee Newitz, co-editor of She's Such a Geek, a book with a contribution by our esteemed Zuska, but the rest of the article leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I'm all over us problematizing gendered categories such as "nerd," but I don't like sexualizing (as well as infantilizing at the same time, an odd combination) women in order to do it. Are smart women (those profiled are undergrads and grad students at Tufts, huzzah!) less threatening if we call them "girls" and they show a lot of skin or wear pink high heels? I guess so - if they're challenging one gender stereotype, at least they're conforming to others. This all being said, I'm glad women feel like they can dress how they want, look "girly" and all; when I was in school (not that long ago!), it seemed to me that women tried to blend in in how they dressed rather than stand out (undergraduate engineering education is still 80% men, after all). I just challenge that now women are experiencing a simple choice for how to display themselves, and that they just happen to choose to do so in hegemonically feminine ways. Note that the photo of the women profiled portrays them as classically beautiful - light skin, long hair, wearing skirts. Note also the article doesn't discuss race, even though all the women have pale skin and even though one student's last name is "Sanchez." An article of contradictions.

(Sorry the links don't go to the whole article. I haven't linked to Newsweek before - do the articles appear online after they've come out in print for a while, or are those links doomed to never being useful?)

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I remember a speaker at ASEE talking about how it took her a decade before she felt brave enough to wear a colored blouse to an ASEE conference. I was amused, astounded, and intrigued all at the same time. 10 years to get up the gumption to wear something purple around a bunch of men who probably never noticed what she was wearing! I'm glad women feel like they can dress how they want, too. I've taken to wearing really sassy shoes with my suits. I love the way my female students' eyes light up when they see them.

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

We have general education biology, but it is not required for physicists, chemists, or engineers. Given the overwhelming importance of biological knowledge for the educated person in the 21st century, it is incongrous that a music major will know more of biology than many scientists.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

OK, I'm going to commit the mortal sin of commenting on an article I have not read. :) But I wonder how much of the "freedom to dress however we want" is because these women are at Tufts, which has a pretty supportive environment for women in engineering/CS. I suspect that most places, women students do still feel like they have to "blend in", because the environment for them is still not comfortable enough for them to truly express themselves. I'm surely not seeing our women majors flaunting their femininity, in their dress or otherwise.

Freedom to dress like a girl is a positive thing until it tips over into renewed pressure to dress like a girl. I'd hate to see a return to the social climate I grew up in, where I got no end of hassle for not dressing like a girl.

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

10 years to get up the gumption to wear something purple around a bunch of men who probably never noticed what she was wearing!

I disagree here. It only takes one man to notice what you're wearing and give you crap about it to make you double-triple think every single think you wear to work/school when you're in a STEM field. As a professor now, I am thrilled to bits that I can wear basically whatever I want (within reason, of course... no thigh high boots or anything) and have no one give me unwarranted attention over wearing (gasp!) a knee length wool skirt and earrings. In order to stay under the radar in grad school, I kept my hair very short, wore no makeup, and lived in jeans. For a prissy fashion plate like myself, this was stifling and depressing.

I am so thrilled that women are beginning to feel like they can retain their femininity if they want to. I've been on the other end of it and it sucks. It sucks just as much as when a rough-and-tumble girl who is happy to live in fleece and hiking boots is told that she needs to wear skirts and heels in order to be taken seriously.

I'm taking back my heels and skirts and dammit, I earned the right to wear glittery eyeliner if I want to. People who don't take me seriously because of it can suck it, and I'm finally strong enough to say so and more importantly - recognize it when I see it. I mean, heck, I won't be taken seriously even when I'm wearing carhartts and a ratty T-shirt by a sizeable contingent of my colleagues simply because I have breasts, so it's not like this is going to be that much different. It only means that I'm happier and more confident because I'm dressing like myself.

By another female… (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

I really dislike the diminuitive 'girls'. I've been in physics my whole career and have always dressed like a woman. But a casual one -- I am from Northern California :-). Anyway, the article was ok, but again, I really don't like the use of 'girls' (it's like they are pin-ups or something) to describe these women.

This ties into one of FSP's recent posts about not looking like she should be upgraded on a flight. I am upgraded frequently, and I *am* generally in 'business attire'. However, my reading material consists of engineering documents and 'Physics Today'. The looks and comments I get from that are equally as fascinating.

@ another female -ologist-
I'm glad you're wearing what you like now. You come across as very authentic, and given that knowledge I'd never hold your clothing choices against you.
Still, I can't help but wince a smidge at the "prissy fashion plate" attitude. I can't decide if it's all because I'm the rough-and-tumble sort who does not fit that mold, and is sick of having others suprised by that, or if it's some kind of unfortunate inverse snobbery. I think I'm totally missing the framework for understanding why one would wear glittery eyeliner unless one is attuned to societal expectations regarding appearance.
It's one thing to say "look at me, I am liberated, I can wear whatever I want!" and another to say, "Look at me, I am liberated from the nerds, I can wear what Cosmo tells me to!". I think you are esposuing the former, but the later is unpleasantly common. I think the failure of the article may have been to sound too similar to that.

I had a flashback to when FSP was called a "starette."

There really is a BIG difference between being a grad student (in a pool with more women, say 50%+, like the current trends are showing that women earn more degrees than men across the board for BS, MS, PhD) and being a faculty member (in a pool where women ARE in the minority across the board). Call it a leaky pipeline, whatever, I call a spade a spade and discrimination, discrimination. Men don't mind hiring a woman to work FOR them (as in be a TA, be a grad student or postdoc, do a project) - the problem comes when men (which make up the majority of administration and current faculty, therefore search committees) *have* to hire women. The little things DO matter... our voice, our tone, how we dress, how we appear not to be a threat to their egos, etc. I hope the Nerdettes keep going - they will make great contributions. I hope women in the whacked pipeline actively recruit women faculty (which requires the scary speaking up), support career development training that specifically deals with gender issues, and that by the time the nerdettes get their PhDs, that they won't battle like we do now.

By Scientistette (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

Your response to my self-proclaimed "prissy fashion plate" description is interesting, Becca. The glittery eyeliner isn't so much something that I'd recommend other people do... it's not really something that I do with any regularity, honestly. I work in the field, and I get dirty. I certainly don't wear glittery eyeliner then (or any makeup, or anything besides my field clothes). But sometimes you just need a little kick of color, is all, especially in winter.

In terms of "I can wear whatever I want" and "I can wear whatever Cosmo tells me to" - how is it really different? In high school, maybe. To aspiring 18 year old Hollywood starlets, maybe. But already we've come this far... I figure that by the time you're a professional female in science, you've gone through so much crap one way or another that Cosmo/Vogue/Patagonia/LL Bean/whatever isn't going to make anyone feel like they have to dress a Certain Way. By now we know our tastes and know who we are enough to say "OK, this is me and how I'm most comfortable." I think the best thing we can do for our students (if we work with them) is show them our true selves, and that involves how we dress. It's good for them to see that you don't have to fit X mold in order to succeed.

By another female… (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

@ another female -ologist:
Our ideas of style, and even "our own tastes and ideas of who we are", are influenced by our culture in a myriad of ways. How else does one come to see glittery eyeliner as "how I'm most comfortable"? Is it fabulous? Sure! Is it intrinsically a comfortable thing? Not really (else it would be more of an asset in the field).

If glittery eyeliner makes you feel good, relish it.
However, as a rule of thumb, I will not assume individuals wearing glittery eyeliner have evolved beyond caring what people think of how they look (though female scientists may have had to evolve past caring what old stuffy male scientists thought they should look like).

In any case, although I'm not one myself, I'm glad there are people out there who like glittery eyeliner- it would be a duller (less sparkly!) world without them. And I'm very glad you value demonstrating to students there are lots of types of people who can succeed in science- I think that's something we can all get behind.

I'm interviewed in this article (I co-edited the book "She's Such a Geek") and I have to agree that it's a pretty depressing piece of work. It's weird to me that the author chose to focus on the idea that geeky women could be "hot." I did talk to her about the stereotype that geek women were ugly, but I hardly think we're breaking through barriers if we can prove that's not true. The point is to have more women claiming geekhood, not more geeky women claiming hotness.

Back in the 70's I shown around by an MS student at the University of Texas. We had research interests in common. She was your typical wholesome small town girl; less than shoulder length well-kept brunet hair, minimal makeup, probably bluejeans, a simple blouse, and comfortable shoes. A couple of years later I was at a meeting at Berkley and this striking girl with long straight blond hair, silver shoes, silver hose, silver mini dress, silver nails and some silver glitter came up and said, "You don't recognize me, but I'm . . ." She was working as a lab tech doing EM work in a fairly high powered lab at Berkley. We had a nice chat. Do you think she was a decade or two ahead of her time, or what?

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 12 Jun 2008 #permalink

So, in order for women to gain acceptance into the science field we must strive to look like we came off the "Sex and the City" set. And we call this advancement?