December 23rd, 2013

old-skool: science!

Topic Meme: Day 10

jixel asked: How about commenting on the challenges of being a (pretty) woman scientist?

I wouldn’t say it’s actually a challenge to be a pretty woman scientist. It seems to be more of a challenge for other people to get their heads round.

Facetiousness aside, being considered pretty (by a certain set of people applying a certain set of standards, ymmv) has had complicated consequences with regard to my self-esteem and my behaviour. This is relevant because of the significant component of social interaction that comprises the practice of science - a thing that a lot of scientists won’t admit to, because they are far too logical and rational and therefore superior to apply the culturally reinforced biases that permeate society to their professional lives. [insert eyeroll here]

In many circumstances, I have found it as helpful to be pretty as it probably is for any attractive person in any line of work. A lot of people treat you in a particular way when you fit certain standard definitions of beauty. I’m relatively slim (less so than before I had the baby), wear my hair long, wear makeup, spend a certain amount of money on my attire, dress with care, have symmetrical features and smile a good deal (even when I don’t feel like it - hi, social conditioning!). This, I believe, tends to lead others to place me squarely in the “comfortably non-threatening feminine person” zone...

unless I start talking about science, or photography, or any technical subject about which I have a certain amount of knowledge. I’ve noticed that my tone of voice changes, as well as my demeanour. I’m more assertive, more likely to argue a point and I’ve honed a style of retort that does not come at all naturally to me in other circumstances. I’m a lot more thick-skinned in professional life than I am in my personal one. I’ve found it necessary not only to project an “I don’t care what you think” attitude, but to actually believe it. That’s has been hard graft. It is one of the reasons I opted out of tenure-track academic work. I can’t distance myself emotionally from my work. I would find it crushing if my evaluation were strongly dependent on the reviews of my peers and not just my ability to deliver good documents and data to strict deadlines. So I’ve chosen/fallen into a line of work in which other people’s opinions of my output (other than my immediate bosses) have little to no impact on its worth. It lets me get away with staying in the “comfortably non-threatening feminine person” zone as well as minimising the angst of agonising over dismissive put-downs.

Perhaps, then, my initial statement wasn’t correct. It is challenging to be a (pretty) woman scientist. If you’re going to excel, it requires the acquisition and development of the ability to project complete confidence in your aptitude, as well as actually possessing said aptitude in spades (see: my female boss). It requires the ability to overcome the perceived weakness attached to “comfortably non-threatening feminine person”. It requires the investment of time and energy attached to maintaining one’s “prettiness”, including healthy eating, exercise and a socially acceptable appearance. And, of course, it requires the depth of study and breadth of technical knowledge required to maintain one's status as a research scientist.

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