“Are you going to church before your oral exam?”. That was the question I’d asked my friend jokingly when I saw her dressed in a funny looking attire, which I can only describe as a floral print, beige colored, raincoat. Except it wasn’t waterproof.
“No, I’m wearing it to the oral exam”, was her simple response. Something didn’t seem right here. This is a girl who is very fashion conscious and in a city like Davis, where T-shirt and jeans/shorts is the norm she can sometimes standout as well dressed.
She doesn’t just wear clothes that are “expected” of a female grad student, but she also wear skirts, dresses and a menagerie of clothing articles for which I don’t even know the names. She dresses nice because she like to. That’s her individuality and freedom of expression. So I probed her some more.
She said, “One of my committee member had given me a review on one of my previous talks. It said, Please don’t treat these seminars as a fashion show. It distracts the people away from your work”.
Safe to say I was not only stunned but riled up. It was incredibly sexist.
And then she pointed out that she also sewed another button to make sure that this dress can’t be considered even revealing. A beige color floral dress with puffy shoulders going below the knees that could be adorned by septuagenarian.
How can someone say that? This is not appropriate. This is was my second hand encounter was with sexism in science.
No one would ever say such a thing to me. Not that I dress very fashionably, but to any man. No one points out a guy’s baggy jeans mopping up the university buildings. Or comments on the unkempt male grad students who might be spreading more than their “usual” skin microbiota around. And trust me, there are plenty of those in Davis. That’s a ok. But we are judging a woman’s clothes because she decides to “dress up”. And to make it worse, we are blaming her of distracting people from her talk/seminar/work. Where have I heard that before. Ohh, here or here or here.
I know it’s taking it to extreme, but this is where is begins. One that needs to be distracted at a science talk can always look at the guy sleeping in the front row, or the loud whisperers in the back. They don’t need to look at a speaker’s clothes for that.
But the cake isn’t finished without the icing.
After her exams, I met up with her to congratulate. I asked about what all happened in the exam. She said something to the tune of “Towards the end, the person who’d commented earlier was apologetic for clothing remarks. But.”
There was a but.
“But when reviewing my transcript the committee laughed about how come I played varsity basketball. And as I was leaving another committee member tried to explain that they weren’t laughing about my basketball career because I was short, but because I wore a dress”.
Listening to it my jaw dropped. Are you f…ing kidding me? They’re incredulous towards her sports career. And made an effort to explain that’s not because of her below average height but the fact she wore a dress. I didn’t realize that for a girl to be taken seriously as an athlete she has to wear Tee, shorts and sneakers. Even three-four years after the fact. And these are “well educated” scientists from a renowned university we’re talking about.
How is that we have seminars and counseling available on sexual harassment and ethics in science, but nothing on sexism, another widespread scourge in the STEM fields. It should be part of the sensitivity training. It might be possible that the university offers it now, but I don’t remember being mandated to take one. They could also be useful for the international students like myself, where the cultural differences may require one to get acquainted with the local customs and the knowledge of “Acceptable or not acceptable”. It is about time we realize and break the stereotypes that were created decades (if not centuries) ago. No one deserves to be mistreated and (mis)judged because of their genitalia. We need an environment which supports science from men and women equally. Gone are the days when universities had only men’s room, today’s scientists should be free to do science in a supportive environment, free of sexism and gender discrimination.
As a promise to her, I’ve kept certain details confidential and will not be divulged.
My PI is one of the campaigners for the women’s right and #STEMwomen and had no influence on this post. It is my own rant.