23 March 2015
The clothes don’t make the scientist
Posted by Jessica Ball
Those of you who saw my somewhat exasperated tweets last week know that I was reacting to this story on the Scientific American Voices Blog about how female scientists are portrayed in media coverage. (Answer: Superficially and with far too much attention to appearances). I was going to write something cool about my hydrothermal system models this week, but then I got irritated by this topic (and woken up far too early by a fire alarm in my apartment complex), so you’ll have to wait until later this week for that.
As a scientist and a woman, I despise the kind of lazy reporting the SciAm story talks about. Newspapers are often particularly guilty of this. Back when I lived in DC I used to read the Washington Post, and there were often days when I would throw it aside in disgust because a front-page article about a woman focused first on her looks and second on the actual story. My anecdotal experience (which is backed up by systematic research) is that this happens way too much. I see an article about some new discovery, the author’s gone and interviewed the scientist who made it, and if it’s a woman, for some unfathomable reason I have to slog through a whole paragraph of nonsense about her blouse and her haircut. As a reader I find it insulting to both me and the person being interviewed.
So if you are a journalist of any kind and you’re doing a story about ANY scientist, here’s something you should know before you even THINK about conducting an interview: Your readers DO NOT need to see commentary about how this person dresses or looks. If they’re presenting themselves professionally and in an appropriate manner for the situation in which you’re interviewing them, this should be a complete non-issue. I say this also to remind myself. I rarely lead off with a physical description of people I talk to, but if I’m ever tempted to I’d better think really hard about whether it’s pertinent.
It doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman.It doesn’t matter what color or style their shirt is. It doesn’t matter if they’re in trousers or a skirt or a dress. It doesn’t matter if they’re wearing makeup or not. It doesn’t matter if their hair is boring or dyed in neon colors or nonexistent (hey, maybe they got tired of it and shaved it off). None of these things have anything to do with science. If you are discussing someone’s clothing, it had better darn well be because they’re wearing field or safety gear and they’re explaining why they use it, or because they draw attention to their clothing on purpose. (We do love to wear science-y patterned clothes and funny t-shirts on occasion – Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately comes to mind, and so does Dr. Tracy Gregg, a planetary volcanologist at UB who loves to make and wear awesome space-y skirts). If you want to give a description that conveys how enthusiastic or animated or excited someone is about their science, great! That sort of thing humanizes your subject and lets others relate to them. You know what doesn’t? A whole paragraph of fashion critique.
When you profile a woman, show us a picture – just like you do for the men – and leave it at that. Your readers can SEE what your subject looks like. We don’t want the play-by-play on whether their haircut is flattering. If it never occurs to you to write it about a man, you shouldn’t be writing it about a woman. Yes, this requires a certain amount of concentration, because it’s very easy to slip into the habit of ‘setting the scene’ by describing your subject’s appearance, but it’s important. If you’re tempted, think very hard about how you’re doing it – and if it serves no purpose relevant to the science you’re covering, don’t.
We need more coverage of women in science, because the occasional Google Doodle (check out today’s, by the way) isn’t enough. But when we talk about these women, we need to remember to focus on the science and not the sartorial.
You might accept this as an Ah Ha Moment because in fact appearance counts and given studies have shown we judge a person by their appearance in 10 seconds it’s something to consider if one wishes to make a quality impression.
Oddly women in geophysics still don’t understand they should be wearing jackets when making presentations as it depicts power, intelligence and professionalism, while some men should realize Hawaiian shirts do nothing for them.
Yet, as my boyfriend who is a geologist explained, “after all, they’re just miners.”
Sorry your offended, but take a look around at successful women as it might prove helpful.
There’s a big difference between judging someone by their appearance (yes, we all do that) and spending an inordinate amount of time covering it in the media. You seemed to have overlooked my comment about presenting one’s self professionally in an interview – and you’re assuming that your standards (wearing a jacket/not wearing a Hawaiian shirt) are what everyone considers “professional” or “unprofessional”. Different professions consider different attire appropriate. (Also, regional considerations are important – in Hawaii, for example, those shirts are often worn for special occasions and are perfectly acceptable ‘formal’ wear.)
What I am offended by is the fact that scientists who are men are not usually described by their appearance in media coverage, while scientists who are women are. It’s an irritating double standard and it needs to stop. I am not looking for, nor do I need advice from anyone on how to be “professional”.
Well put on all of these points!
It is especially jarring while reading this sort of coverage when so much (or any) attention is paid to what the scientist looks like since we’re often trained to remove the scientist themselves from the results being discussed. At times it is difficult not to feel as though the focus on physical appearance implies less legitimacy in the researcher’s work. It is frustrating, and I’m glad you’re pointing this out.
This article is wonderful. Just last month, a professor of mine encouraged us to take the advice of a blogger that told women to wear makeup to be taken more seriously-but not too much as to look distracting.
I’m trying to remember the last time I heard someone tell a man how to dress so people might take him more seriously.
Wear comfortable and safe field clothes while in the field.
Wear clothes that make you feel confident and professional when at conferences. End of story. This policing of what women should and shouldn’t wear has to stop.
Thanks for this very enlightening article! We recently produced a short documentary on a female Software Engineer. She talks a little about the perceptions people have and what it’s like being in a female in such a male-dominated industry.
You can watch it here! https://youtu.be/vt79JcPfZQA
well said Jessica Ball
I do agree a lot with your post. But I just would like to point that it happens also to men. I know that it happens differently – but it bothers me a lot also.
Science is to be sold as science, and we want to be evaluated by our scientific attitude, skills and experience. But believe me – I am very evaluated by my clothes. May be the easy way for men is because to be “well” dressed for men can be as simple as to dress suit and tie, and nobody else asks whether you are well or not well dressed. This wild card clothes (that I really don’t like) works almost always.
I go to teach in my lectures using shorts, sandals. You can’t imagine how many undergrad students ask me if I am still in vacation.
Once a senior scientist (that is actually my friend but is from another generation) spontaneously asked me: “Theo, do you think that work in shorts is adequate for the academic environment?”
My answer was somehow a “rebate”: “one of the best things I think about labour in science is that I should be evaluated by my knowledge and not by my clothes”.
He suddenly realized how absurd was his statement and apologized. But, keep in mind: he is a friend that spoke what he tought. Imagine how many simply judge you in silence…
So, my dear, this is not a matter only for woman, but a society problem that insists in judge us by clothes.
That is a point. I would argue that it happens much more often to women, but we shouldn’t really be doing it to anyone, as I said, unless their choice of clothing is relevant to the substance of the media coverage.
On the subject of being aware of how we describe people, you may want to be careful with your use of “my dear”. You may not have intended it to sound patronizing, but it comes across that way to me, especially given that I am writing about treating scientists the same regardless of their gender. (If this is a language quirk and/or you regularly say “my dear” to your male colleagues as well, then that would be a different situation.)
I am not a native english speaker. In my country (Brazil) “my dear”, which is literally written “meu caro/minha cara” would not sound offensive neither ironic. Think in it as a error of language habit. And, YES, I would say “my dear” independently of gender.
Sorry about it if I got misunderstood.
Aha! I thought it might be that, but I wanted to make sure. And now I’ve learned something about a language I didn’t know before. Thanks for following up! (I wish I was half as good at speaking/writing languages other than English – Americans are terribly lazy about language education.)
It seems a lot of people are focusing on judging people by their looks- which is a problem, but it seems to me the original post was more focused on gender-based disparity in how much attention science media (reports on science, not an audience during a talk, etc.) pays to actually reporting what scientists look like.
Jessica makes a good point at how, despite advances in non-discrimiination in science and other areas, that women may still be judged superficially compared to men. I thought you would enjoy (or be outraged) by the following Ann Landers advice column entry from 1978: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1696&dat=19780122&id=-78cAAAAIBAJ&sjid=8UYEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6549,3878453&hl=en