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We probably all remember last summer when Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, made if nothing else, sexist comments about the distraction of having women in the lab . Almost immediately, female scientists and engineers showed just how #distractinglysexy they were. What alarmed me most was Tim Hunt’s defense saying OK, maybe its not women’s innate sensuality…but women were the cause for his “emotional entanglements that made life very difficult.”
Fast forward one year, and New York Times posts an article speaking on the complications in relationships a female professor encounters with her students, colleagues, peers, mentors. In the article, Dr. Hay speaks on how women in academia have to be extremely conscious and careful on what roles they take on. One of the fears is being labeled as too assertive and bossy or alternatively too nurturing and nice. (BTW women across all fields should agree to #banbossy)
The threat of being labeled as bossy, motherly, a tease and more forces us to be aware of the message we send in our every interaction with our peers, mentors, mentees, and students.
And the first interaction is our appearance. There is no dress code in academia. This gives us the freedom to wear comfortable sweatpants and t-shirts to work. But shouldn’t it also give us the freedom to be as trendy and fancy as we want?
A lot of the photos posted as #distranctinglysexy showed off the lab coats, goggles, gloves, and hazmats suits that cover women up in the lab. For experimentalists, PPE (personal protective equipment for our non wet-lab readers) is bulky and covers as much skin as possible for our safety.
Even I have received the comments such as: “Oh, why did you get dressed up so much today?” after putting on a skirt rather than jeans. Even worse, was that I felt so embarrassed that I quickly responded with “Oh yeah, its laundry day! Haha…” The truth was that I just wanted to wear a skirt that day. And I’m right there with those of you draping a scarf over exposed shoulders (gasp!) before walking into a meeting dominated by male professors.
There is a fear of achieving success for the wrong reasons…not because we do good science, but because we get attention for being women. So, a lot of women choose to dress more androgynous than they would like to. Many of us even carry a spare outfit in our bags for casual dinner with corporate girlfriends —because that lace top is just too fancy.
I admit that it’s scary to overcome the threat of being labeled. I’ve changed my outfit before walking out the door thinking it was too trendy. I’ve put down the cute skirt and leggings and traded in for my pair of trusty black jeans. Does it ever feel that even though there isn't any type of dress code in academia, we’ve created a dress code for the female graduate student?
If rocking jeans and a hoodie helps you reach your best in lab, rock it. But maybe take that “risk” and wear that lace top and skirt to lab if you want to. Embrace the feminist in you and don’t stifle your inner fashionista, whatever she may want to wear. Let our science speak for itself. It shouldn't matter if the scientist or engineer is wearing jeans, dress, skirt, hazmat suit, lab coat. In the end, our kick-ass science will speak for itself, regardless of what we wore when we made the breakthrough discoveries.
OK but PPE is STILL IMPORTANT…So how can you stay safe in the lab??
- Store pajama pants in the lab with your goggles. My lab does this with super bright obnoxious cartooned PJ’s especially during the summer, but they’re easy to slip on/off whenever you’re rocking something short.
- Have fun with make-up! One of the BPC editors uses this trick to stay true to her self in the lab by playing up her bright lipstick.
- Cotton over Nylon: If you’re wearing tights, look for cotton tights/leggings. Nylon can melt to your skin when exposed to fire and chemicals. Or, see option 1!
- Have a spare set of shoes: You probably already do this during the summer, but its valuable year round. A spare set of shoes to take you into the lab so you can rock those open flats/heels. I definitely have a collection of shoes at my desk if you ever need a pair!