Friday, October 12, 2012

How to dress as a woman.

This morning I wrote about how some women choose to dress in a style that I would call ‘sexy’ while they present their poster at a scientific meeting. I choose to ask it in a provocative way in order to get people to read and think about it. Understandably, this rubbed some people the wrong way.

So I said I would write another blog post about it, asking the real question. But is the real question: “why do women feel they should dress sexy for science?” or is the real question: “why is it so much harder for women to choose the proper outfit?” I guess the answer to the latter question really answers both.

Let me start with telling you about my own experiences:
My mom has a PhD in chemistry. When she was an undergrad, she was one of two women in her entire chemistry class. She made a point by showing up in miniskirts and cute dresses to show that she was a woman.  She even wore a lab coat with short sleeves, because she felt that that looked more feminine. That vanity has cost her the skin on one of her arms, because one day her distillation setup caught on fire and she had third degree burns on one of her arms. You can see exactly where the sleeve of her lab coat started on her upper arm. I was brought up with the price you can pay for looking feminine. And even thought my mom told me about how she wore miniskirts to her lab classes during undergrad, she told me multiple times how it was important to dress professionally, and to not have people think that you got somewhere because of your looks, but because of your brains. 

When I was taking my high school exams, we had a couple of oral exams and it was custom at our school to show up in suit. All the girls in my class wore skirts, but I choose to wear a suit with pants, because I didn’t want to be different from the guys. I did however wear high heels under my pants.

Fast forward to now: I like to dress feminine most of the time; I wear dresses and skirts, and wear a bit of make-up every day. I like to innocently flirt with people to make the day a little happier. But I also like to be able to just wear jeans and sneakers to the lab. Since I already dress pretty professionally I don’t have to think too much about what to wear to a conference. But I do realize how unfair it is. How as a woman, it is almost normal to be catcalled. Especially back home that happened on more than a daily basis (I guess Americans are more polite maybe?). And it’s unfair that for example Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton are judged about what they wear way more than their male counterparts.
So why is this?

Yes, I guess this is why. And I admit that I’m not helping by calling other women sluts. Or that the EU is helping by making the “science it’s a girl thing” video. Will this unfairness change now that more than 50% of neuroscience graduate students are female? Or do we need more than that?


  1. what we need is all people to be ok with others dressing how they see fit for an occasion. there is no one way to "dress as a woman".

    you do you, and let them do them.

    and please, stop the femmephobia.

  2. I understand what you're saying. However, I like to think that it's less to do with women feeling a need to "look sexy" and more that some women don't know how to look dressed up for scientific events while still looking professional and conservative. Especially younger gals.

    I recently spoke at a scientific conference and wore a knee-length pencil skirt and heels, with a drapey sleeveless blouse. I felt pretty and feminine, but it was in a classy way.

    In my daily life, I work with mostly guys and dress and act like I'm one of them, you could say I'm a tomboy. But now that I'm in my 30s, and already have a Ph.D., I want to start dressing like a woman at conferences. As a woman, I already stick out in an engineering conference, why try to hide my femininity as long as I look (and feel) good? Some older guys are always going to size me up and dismiss me for being female no matter what I'm wearing, but as soon as I start talking they're going to realize that I know what I'm talking about.

    That said, there are definitely limits with what you can wear at a conference and get away with. Probably avoid: stiletto heels, shorter skirts, exposed cleavage, and glittery club wear. But beyond that there are plenty of classy yet feminine options outside of pantsuits.

    I started a Pinterest board and might blog about this later. Thanks for the motivation!

  3. I've noticed that in women's suits, there are a lot of designs that somehow highlight cleavage and waistline. Sometimes it is in the cut of the breast panels, or the lines of the jacker are more form fitting, or the blouse isn't designed to button up all the way. The skirt is short or tight. If it has pants, they are tight enough that putting my keys and wallet in disturbs the fall. I've had a hard time finding something the matches the formality level and modesty of mens clothes, other than, well, men's clothes. But wearing a man's suit to a conference has it's own set of issues .....

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  5. the last time i presented at a sociology conference i avoided the glam look... i was heavily pregnant at the time and it was so hard to find smart, comfortable clothes that fitted.

    1. Oh yeah, it's the hardest thing to find good maternity clothes!

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