There are a lot of questions I feel are highly inappropriate, yet are asked almost daily of most women. I’m sure we all face them – ranging from what our salary is to what dress size we wear to when we’re getting married to when our womb is going to start busting out children. Statements that are made to clearly tell us the things we should have. Should want. Pointing us towards what is normal, with the implication being what is most certainly not normal. And although many of us have found ways to pivot when those questions arise, there are others that I have yet to provide an answer to.
There is a particular question I’ve been asked relentlessly throughout my career, which doesn’t seem to fall as neatly into the inappropriate category as the ones above, yet is still just as bothersome:
Well now, I sure hope you didn’t dress up for me?
I can almost hear the sharp crack of the question mark above your head. “That?!?” you wonder. “Is that really a question to be offended by?” On its own, perhaps nothing to get too bothered by. Just small talk. But asked repeatedly, from set meetings to chance encounters, with numerous variants that twist and turn and arrive at the same conclusion, start to send a message: There are unending subtleties in science that calmly, persistently tell me that there are ways in which I don’t belong. Ohhh subtlety is a cruel mistress.
Here’s my truth: I’m no shrinking violet. I don’t dress in a way that intends to blend into the background. And some may say that invites comments. But I think we need to be very careful of the boundaries we inadvertently put upon our friends, our colleagues, our acquaintances through our comments. And – more importantly – we have to remember that we do not have to own those comments or give them any power. I pulled out this most stunning Marjorie Montgomery dress from newly discovered vintage wonderland Downtown Designs on Jay today to remind me of that.
If you are a scientist or a woman in another male-dominated profession (or, let’s be honest, a woman who puts any effort into herself whatsoever), you get used to it. The jokes you have to brush off and the constant litmus test and risk assessments: is it worth fighting over? Is it worth making a fuss? This was such an innocuous comment, I know they didn’t mean any harm, and on and on. But they’re always there – “I hope you didn’t dress up for me…” yet again. (Because surely you must be making a special effort – no smart girl looks like that without a reason, right?) Or sometimes more blatant, “I never would have guessed you’re a scientist” as they shake your hand, their surprised eyes returning from looking over your vintage-clad shoulder, wondering who’s assistant you were. Or yet another one ribbing me, cackling and asking, “Do you wear those dresses in the field?” as if they were the first to do so. From men and women alike, year after year, these comments burst forth like gentle, quiet reprimands. Chortle chortle, all in good fun right? Wrong.
If there is anyone out there who has said this kind of thing to a woman in your profession, here’s what it does: It tells a woman that there is a certain way a scientist should look. There’s a certain look and a certain attitude, and you don’t fit it. It’s women telling other women that there are rules, and you don’t play by them. It’s men telling women that being feminine and smart aren’t possible, so pick a side.
Do I wear dresses in the field? Of course not! If mud and shark goo went anywhere near my vintage I would throw a complete fit. I have gear that I’m happy to get messy in and don’t think twice about. And can I hold my own in the field? You better believe it. I lug my own gear and wield my own machete and can get the brain out of a 300kg mako shark in 100 degree heat. And do I come back to the lab and do the science and the analysis and write the paper myself? Yup. And is that science any less awesome because I do those last 3 things in a dress? Don’t think so.
And it certainly isn’t all negative – lord knows I have received so many lovely compliments about my style. I have daily rituals with colleagues where we exclaim in mutual appreciation over each others’ outfit, before getting down to science. I meet colleagues (men and women alike) at conferences who admire my dress and ask if it was one I made myself. Enquiring about my passion with the same enthusiasm that they ask after my latest published paper. And so many women over the years who tell me that they wear whatever they please to the lab because I made it safe to do so. And that is amazing and those women should be celebrated for claiming their power.
But the truth is: we shouldn’t have to claim our power. It should be there all along, not scrambled back into our arms as if we misplaced it. We shouldn’t have to weigh in our minds what we’d like to wear against the comments we may have to endure.
We’ve fallen into a time where a lot of professional societies and universities are having very serious, vital discussions about sexism in the workplace. And I think we’ve all become very tuned to flag the Big Things. The blatant harassment and the assault and the salary inequities. I feel we flash a neon sign at those things and say WRONG! Before carefully separating ourselves. But, the reality is: we all also need to be aware of the micro-aggressions. The way we contribute to a culture that tells anyone – woman, man, gay, straight, cis or transgender, every ethnicity – the ways in which they are wrong. The ways in which they don’t fit in.
And I have to say, I’m fortunate that I face more of the micro-aggressions than the Big Flashing Neon Sign stuff. I haven’t had to ward off advances from someone in a position of power over my job or have had to deal with the trauma of an assault. But, I believe I have successfully pivoted away from them, in a preemptive strike. And I’ve had to hear my colleagues over the years tell their stories with tears in their eyes. Some who battle through the Neons Signs, and some who walk away from a field that is the poorer for it.
Every time one of these questions (or worse) pops up in my orbit, I weigh and balance and consider every comment and reaction and time when I should take a stand, wondering if I’ll choose wrong. Then there are many times I roll with it. If I’m being honest, most of the time.
But, then I hear them making these same comments to my students. The fledgling researchers who are just emerging into the field, learning how to be scientists. And I can see them being given their instructions. Daily comments of “You’re always so fancy” or “What are you so dressed up for?” shot like miniature, instructive darts. Said aggressively and with accusation. Didn’t you get the Scientist memo?, they wonder – there’s a dress code and girlie isn’t in it. “Do you think she wears that in the field?” her fellow students whisper as they walk away, secure that they are following the rules about the way a scientist “should” dress, in a daily uniform of t-shirts and yoga pants. And it makes me furious. And sad. That they, as young students themselves, already have a limited idea of what a scientist is supposed to be, a club where only tomboys belong. But, then I feel a surge of hope when I see my student as she takes in these comments, but comes in the next day regardless, resplendent in glorious florals and flowing skirts, quietly taking a stand.
Maybe that’s all we can expect of ourselves sometimes: quiet resistance. But resistance all the same. And there are the days when I will waiver in my conviction. Where I will pause with the red lipstick inches from my cupid’s bow and doubt. Wondering if I draw too much attention to myself. If I won’t be taken seriously. There will be so many moments and so many comments when the words of defiance die on my lips. Where I simply don’t know what to say. Where I will weigh what I should say for my students, my niece, for every woman, against what damage I may do to my career. And times when I will walk away and think of the perfect way to handle a situation far too late.
But, most days I stage my own resistance. I will go to a casual restaurant and wear two crinolines. I will wear the rhinestone necklace on a Tuesday. I will rock a dress under my lab coat and killer heels to board meetings. I will get elbow deep in chum and then be ready for a night at the opera in 10. I will twirl in my garden in a 1950’s violet-embroidered dress of dreams. Because you don’t get to tell me where I belong. Or what I should wear.
I will do all of those things. And I will have regrets. But I will never give up. And I will never fit inside the box you make for me.
Oh, and to answer your question: No, I didn’t dress up for you. I dressed up for me.
Dress: Downtown Designs on Jay (similar modern or vintage here, here & here)
Necklace: Vintage (similar)
Handbag: Bettina Darling (identical vintage bag here)
Shoes: Poetic License (similar here & here)
Lip Color: Schiap