Sunday, May 07, 2017

As a man in science, I need to conceal my masculinity to be taken seriously

The Women in Astronomy blog/AASWomen Newletter brings us the shocking news: "As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously." Eve Forster, at the University of Toronto, writing at Vox, "tested the thesis [her]self". I don't doubt her results. Here's how she describes the everyday (control, I guess) condition:

"When I’m at the lab, I dress as invisibly as I can. I wear dark jeans, boring, long-sleeved shirts and hoodies, and casual shoes. My hair is tied back into a sloppy bun, and my makeup is minimal. I look like I live in an organic granola commercial."

She says she was treated less seriously by her students when she let her hair down one day. I guess that's possible. But, as the title of this post suggests, it got me thinking about the corresponding male experiment. I picked two of my currently favorite scientists (I just discovered the very good Sixty Symbols videos) and when I found comparably ordinary pictures I googled their ideal "masculine" and "feminine" counterparts using the search terms "feminine woman sunglasses" and "masculine man sunglasses", using the first picture suggested in the image search for each. Here's the side-by-side comparison:

I hope my point with this image is obvious, even if the differences are intentionally subtle. If you need it explained to you, go ahead and ask in the comments, but I warn you that to make my meaning clearer I may have to go "full frontal".

As with my previous attempt at this kind of playful pushback against a certain kind of feminism, I know this doesn't prove anything. But I do think it's a bit unrealistic to expect to be able to express your "femininity" by becoming a scientist. I don't think male scientists feel especially "masculine" at work. Perhaps "the academic fashion" stems from wanting to signal that it is not sex but truth one is (at least directly) after. Perhaps one is trying, as a scientist, to express neither one's masculinity nor one's femininity but, rather, one's intelligence. (Virginia Woolf reminds us somewhere that Coleridge thought "the great mind is androgynous".) It may be vain to deliberately dress down in order to give the impression that one cares less about how one looks (to the opposite sex)* than what the facts are in the hopes of being "taken seriously" by other scientists and students. But I don't think vanity is a particularly feminine vice, either.

PS. For good order I should mention that one of the scientists in my little comparison does actually have an opinion on gender stereotypes in science. You can hear her views here.
*I don't think it's completely out of line to suggest that "masculinity" and "femininity" are not merely intrinsic "gender expressions"; given their role in mating, they are distinct aspects of what is, quite rightly, called "sex appeal".


Anonymous said...

Obvious? Not.

Thomas said...

The pictures on the right and life are supposed to mark the sense in which "concealing" your femininity or masculinity lets your peers take you seriously as a scientist.

Like I say, I wanted the difference to be subtle. But I wanted to activate our intuition that the people on the right are "serious" and the people on the left are not. Crucially, that is not because their facial expressions are more serious. (Nor because we can see their eyes, etc.) It's interesting to think about exactly what the difference is, and what it actually has to do with science.

Let me say, however, that I don't want to reject out of hand letting scientists present like the models on the left. I just wanted to suggest that perhaps men and women alike tone down (or, in fact, simply don't turn up) their sex appeal, either because they are, or because they want to appear, more serious.

Finally, it was important to me to find pictures for comparison in which the gender difference was equally unambiguous (we are no doubt that it's a woman and man, a male and a female) and I didn't want this to be a question of beauty. I hope we can agree that these four people are all nice looking.

Anonymous said...

I'd need to know whether that Vox article was written by Eve Forester or Steve Forester before I can decide whether to take it seriously or not. ;)