Monday, May 19, 2014

I Wear Lipstick to Lecture

This is more of an essay than a proper beauty blogger post (with the pictures and the lipsticks and the sparklies). It was inspired by an eloquent post by Auxiliary Beauty, detailing an experience of graduate school in the humanities. I talked about my graduate school experience once, here, but I thought I'd hop to the theme and talk about the experience of being a female scientist. It's a topic I have strong feelings about (and about gender equality in the workplace and in the world), and I would also like to invite you all to share your experiences as well. I apologize for the length of this post.

For those who don't already know, I have a doctorate in chemistry. Though I have observed and heard of other types of experiences, my personal experiences in school have been mostly positive. I had a boss (professor) who is extremely fair and focused on educating his students, as well as cultivating their research skills. My research group was a good size, with a good mix of genders and cultures. I felt very comfortable, at all times. However, I do live in a large, ethnically diverse city, so there is that.

In terms of environment, it was common to see most people show up looking like they just rolled out of bed (and they probably did). Graduate students (at least in the sciences, I can't speak for other disciplines) keep a range of hours. Some students work 80+ hours a week in the lab, some students work 40 hours a week in the lab, and that can also range from a more orthodox 9-5 schedule, or 11-7, 12-12, etc. Most people tend to figure out whether they're morning, erm, sparrows, or night owls, and depending on how much freedom your boss gives you, you stick to a schedule that suits you. Of course, you have to show up for group meetings and presentations (we only take classes in our first year here) and meet your teaching obligations if you have them.

There is a lot of emphasis on lab safety, since we are chemists (or physicists or engineers or microbiologists - there is a lot of interdisciplinary work going on in most science groups, because it takes all kinds of people to make progress in a field), and on days where I was working in the wet lab, I stuck to jeans, covered shoes, safety goggles, lab coat. On days where I was working with machines (no chemicals) or in my office, I wore whatever I wanted to - within a loose dress code, of course. In the summer I wore sandals and skirts, but I always tried to keep it loosely "office appropriate" because that's what I'm comfortable with. So tank tops were okay, but not cropped tops. It's a weird sort of thing, because we're not undergraduates (and not all graduate students enter straight after completing their undergraduate education - many people enter after working for a few years, or traveling the world, or whatever it is - so we have a range of age groups), but we're not professionals, either.

In terms of makeup, I wore a full face (well, foundation and eye makeup and blush) from the get-go. I wore nail polish. I was never made uncomfortable about it, by anyone I worked with or for. There were other female students in my year and in my program; some of them wore makeup and occasionally wore skirts and dresses and cute boots, and some did not. I was friends with many of them, regardless of their fashion choices. Some of them asked me to help them dress for events. Some of them didn't care. If they didn't care, I didn't care. Do I think everyone should be dressed neatly? Yes. But beyond that, my standards for how I want to dress myself only apply to myself.

I wish everyone had a similar philosophy. We recently went to dinner at a friend's house, and he has roommates; a handful of them are chemistry graduate students in the same program I graduated from. It was very obvious to me that one of these students - a woman - was the kind of person who would, as S. described it, probably treat me as a "floozy" if she wasn't aware that I had a Ph.D in a "hard science," because I wear makeup and jewelry, I dress on-trend (or attempt to, ha), and like to carry cute bags that may or may not have labels on them. I don't really understand that kind of behavior. Why would you cast another woman down because she wears blush? I don't mean that we should be part of some elaborate, sensitive sisterhood simply because we share a gender, but with all of our current struggles to be accepted as equals in this field (and in the world), why? 

I know what all the stereotypes are for women in science and tech fields, and they're charming. I won't list them all here, and I don't understand many of them. Does wearing lipstick really have a bearing on how well we do our science? Doubtful. Are we simply used to responding to men as the people in command? Perhaps. Maybe all it takes is for women to keep showing up, dressed as we are, confident and clear about where we stand and what we can do.

(Lastly, I wanted to comment on the fact that I am aware that there are more lines drawn in the world than the one between those who identify as men and as women, but I can only tell you about my personal experiences. I think the the quest for equality is universal.)

Enough wordy wordiness. Thanks for indulging me, and please, I'd love to hear about your experiences, science-y or not.