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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Why can’t female scientists be judged on quality of work?

Published: February 14, 2014
Section: Opinions

I have breasts and hips and all the other trappings of being a biological female, and I am a scientist. We are extraordinarily lucky at Brandeis for this not to be much of a shock. I only know women who are lauded for being “female scientists.” There are plenty of female biology and chemistry majors, and although there are slightly fewer female physics majors, there certainly is not an underrepresentation of women in the sciences here at Brandeis. Nevertheless, I feel like the term “female scientist” has become somewhat of a misnomer these days, both at Brandeis and at universities across the country.

During two summers, I worked at the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics. It is a massive institution, supporting about 500 scientists and engineers and countless more students. I have nothing but praise for this lab, which dreams of accomplishing clean, renewable energy through direct drive laser fusion. Yet my time spent there forever changed my perspective on women in science.

I remember being politely told on my first day at the lab to never to wear a dress, even if I covered my legs and wore closed-toed shoes as required by standard laboratory dress code. I was confused. When I asked why this was, she simply shrugged and said women did not dress too formally. I realized what she meant when I looked around the room: I worked in the optical materials laboratory, the only division of the entire lab with an equal proportion of women. My female scientific peers were dressed identically to the men, wearing jeans and plain, loose fitting tee-shirts. Accepting her logic, I dutifully wore jeans the next day. But I still felt like I attracted stares walking through the halls. I own shoes in various shades of pink and I wear sweaters with hearts on them. Besides my clothes, I felt more stereotypically feminine than my peers. I enjoy baking and painting my nails, and I do not try to hide my body in baggy garments.

Not only did I feel like my clothing choice and personality caused me to stick out, but I also felt that they influenced the way my peers treated me. My floral patterned sneakers and self-admitted love for lavender pushed me to being classified as a “less devoted scientist,” despite being as capable as any other student in experimental physics. Several of my friends at the lab were surprised when I suggested that I wanted to major in physics. It just didn’t seem like something I would be interested in, at least according to them. I was stunned to discover that people would make assumptions about my intentions in science, without knowing anything about my scientific ability.

To combat this, I first decided to tone down my clothes. From the deep recesses of my closet, I found my baggy math team shirts and paired them with androgynous pants. I felt more comfortable walking down the halls of the lab, but I felt less comfortable with myself. I was terrified of saying or doing anything that would cause people to take me less seriously. I desperately wanted to be legitimate, to finally become that female scientist I had idolized since elementary school.

And then one day, I realized how ridiculous this was.

I was always told never to change for a man. I hadn’t realized that I shouldn’t change for science, either. Molding myself into what I thought the ideal physicist should be didn’t make me happy. I was painfully self-aware, losing all confidence in a job that I had rightfully earned out of a pool of 70 applicants. I shed the oversized tees, triumphantly reclaimed my cast-off cardigans and felt much better because of it.

Humans are too complex to be put in a strict gender binary. I am a female, and I enjoy being a female. But that does not mean that I am only a female. I am a person. I like things that are feminine, but I also like things that are masculine. Classifying any one person as specifically one gender and then judging them on that classification is, frankly, a massive waste of time. Systematic discrimination, no matter how minor, is inefficient. Anyone who perpetuates it is destroying the opportunity for scientific breakthroughs, setting science back years. Fostering diversity in research environments is a brighter path, and nurturing more female and minority researchers will lead to a stronger scientific future.

If you want to wear a fuzzy pink unicorn sweater and smell like cotton candy while simultaneously doing string theory research, go for it. If you want to wear a tee-shirt and jeans and work on high energy plasma physics, forge on. People who want to participate in science should be judged on the quality of their work, not how they dress, look or act.

Being a female scientist should mean that I am female and that I am a scientist. It should never mean that I am a subset of scientists as a whole, an anomaly who requires a classification to distinguish myself from other, more correct, versions. In fact, I would prefer women in science to no longer be referred to as “female scientists.” We are scientists—without any modifier.