Embracing Femininity in the STEM Workplace

When I entered the world of physics and engineering, what I saw were men wearing khaki pants and collared polo shirts, or t-shirts and jeans. Sitting in classrooms as one of only a few women, I stood out, and felt like I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing in order to become a physicist and engineer. The way some of my professors and colleagues treated me made me feel like I didn’t belong and that I needed to prove that I could fit in, so what did I do? I decided to dress and act like them.

I hated wearing khaki pants and polo shirts. It felt frumpy and unflattering on me, and I did not feel comfortable or beautiful wearing that outfit. I wore minimal makeup and did not style my hair. I just wanted to blend in to be treated with respect, like “one of the guys”, but the harassment and microaggressions continued.

I’m sure the way I speak changed to fit into this culture. Even today when I speak to people who are not in science or engineering, they tell me I come off as blunt or rude. I’ve been trained to write emails and messages that are to the point so as to be efficient, not recognizing the humanity of the person on the other side. When I would write “how is your day?” or “I hope you’re doing well,” I felt like I may come across as being too flowery with my language and not taken seriously.

And more recently as I was promoted to a senior scientist role, in my performance review I received criticism that I was not dominant enough. I shared credit and collaborated more than I took ownership over my achievements, which made my managers feel like I was not contributing as much even though I achieved all of my goals successfully on time.

I’m not the only one who has felt pressure to shift my behavior and appearance from more feminine to masculine. All people feel this within male-dominant fields, especially when femininity is perceived as weakness or frivolous.

In a Clubhouse room that discussed this topic of femininity in the workplace, many women spoke up about their experiences, many of which mirrored mine:

  1. One graduate student researching at an R1 institution found a theme regarding how people respond when she shares her career aspiration to be a professor. She said she gets a sense of pushback from male colleagues as they inform her that there’s the option of working at a predominantly undergraduate research institution (or PUI). Every time she expresses her desires for her career path she gets that feedback. Males likely don’t get that opinion pushed on them as much. Women are pushed toward these “less desirable” opportunities.
  2. Myself and others found throughout our education that professors pushed us to do more education and outreach related activities even though we wanted to be research scientists and had no formal training in pedagogy. I felt like this was because I was a woman, and, thus, perceived to be more nurturing a suitable for a teacher. Professors also saw my great communication and leadership skills, but saw that useful in teaching rather than in a research environment (but, trust me, communication and leadership skills are very important in a research environment!).
  3. There’s also the question of ownership over shared space; how much responsibility do we have over our space and how much are we expected to be training and advising colleagues versus our goals. Women may more often be put in the position to do more lab cleaning, secretarial work, and mentoring that can take time away from research and goals.
  4. Another woman shared that in an internship her employer told her that she was not allowed to work in the engine room. He thought he was doing her a favor, and that it was the right thing to do. However, she went ahead against his guidance and did the work and did receive a great letter of recommendation from him. This incident reflects how people are often brought up certain ways culturally and don’t know how to work with women.
  5. One person shared that when their university hosts female speakers in their department, fewer people attend lectures, and the questions focus on their identity as a female researcher rather than their research topic.
  6. Some women even experienced push back and mean looks from other women when they showed up at work authentically, dressing more feminine. And many felt that when they display emotions of joy or excitement at work, others view them as less credible and serious about the work.

All of these experiences contained similar themes:

  1. Expressing femininity in any way is seen as less professional, which is sexist and racist.
  2. Both women and men can perpetuate sexism and racism.
  3. All women who spoke about their experiences had negative emotional reactions, and felt like this was an added barrier to their career progression.

Embracing femininity in this context, simply means to show up authentically as yourself in your school or workplace. Both men and women ns non-binary people can be feminine and masculine; it’s actually healthy and normal to be both!

How I Embrace my Femininity at Work

As a cis woman, there are several ways that I embrace and express my femininity at work.

  • Wear what makes me confident and happy!

I dress in ways that make me happy and confident, and for me that means wearing makeup and dresses!

  • Leverage strengths in collaboration and inclusivity to reach work goals.

I also have an inclusive and collaborative work style where I take initiative on important projects by pulling together teams of people to find solutions. While I could work on tasks independently, I believe that teamwork is often the best way to share knowledge and find the best solution. It also helps improve the culture of the company, breaking down hierarchies and shifting power dynamics. When you have the least experienced collaborating as much as the most experienced, and everyone shares credit, nobody has a chance to dominate. Everyone is focused more on reaching a solution than worried about getting credit.

  • Create space for others to be authentic too.

Another way I embrace my own femininity at work is by giving others space to be themselves, and respecting them. By being authentic myself, I create a safe climate for others to be themselves as well. We all like that person on our team who brings up humor to break tension at the perfect moment, or tells us that they are happy we are their coworker, this increases psychological safety and belonging in our workplaces. By being myself, I hope to contribute toward the psychological safety of others in my workplace. This, in turn, lets me be myself too!

  • Set and enforce boundaries.

Finally, I embrace my femininity by setting boundaries. I do not have tolerance of any harassing behavior, which includes comments about my appearance. “I like your dress” is totally ok with the right tone and intention, but when they say things like “You look good today,” or “Why do you always dress up?” or make me feel like I should dress differently, I trust my intuition, and if they make me uncomfortable, I take action. If someone oversteps my boundary I will either talk to them or report them for harassment. No matter how I dress, I deserve to feel safe and comfortable at work, and I have the right to feel safe and comfortable at work. I do not treat others that way, and do not tolerate that kind of treatment from others.

I recognize that I have a lot of privilege as a white, cis female though, and that not everyone at all points of their career can reinforce their boundaries without serious retaliation. For instance, up until recently, it was legal to fire someone because their hair was deemed “unprofessional”, and the people who were targeted the most for this are black women. “Professional” is often used to reinforce white supremacy and patriarchal dominance. For instance, the descriptions of “business casual” wardrobes are modeled after the attire men would wear to a frat party; khaki pants and a collared shirt or suit. The narrow definition of “professional” attire excludes non-white and non-male people and, thus, perpetuates racism and sexism.

But wait! There’s so much more!

There is such a deep-rooted history of devaluing the body in education and the workplace. Teaching to Transgress, a book about education as a form of liberation written by bell hooks, discusses this in depth. bell hooks writes that in a classroom minds are valued over bodies, spirit, and soul. She sites a simple example about being uncertain if she was allowed to take a bathroom break during class as a professor.

In society, our schools and workplaces often try to ignore the fact that we have bodies that have needs. Ergonomics, paternity and maternity leave, and sick leave are a few examples of times when our bodies are given “accommodations”, yet there is so many more ways our bodies need respect and love.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the extra care I need during my period every month. I’ve found ways to work while on my period, like using a combination of pain-killers and electric heating pad I keep at my work desk for cramps. I also try to not schedule too many tasks on those first couple days of my cycle. While I try to be as gentle to myself as possible, I would rather power through the pain than take one of my precious sick days every month. You may recognize other ways schools and workplaces fall short of providing space for care of our bodies, especially if you are not cis-male, and/or white.

Embracing my femininity is so important for me because it is part of who I am, and when I don’t act authentically it requires emotional labor. Emotional labor can be tolling, leading to extra stress and exhaustion. It can also lead to serious mental and physical health issues like depression, PTSD, nausea, fatigue, and more.

When we are focusing our energy on consciously acting inauthentically, we are also taking energy and focus away from our work, decreasing our productivity.

It’s best not just for you, but also for your company or organization, for you to act authentically.

When you respect yourself, others will respect you. You teach others how to treat you, and when you show up as yourself you give others permission to show up as themself too. What makes you unique is your biggest strength!

There will always be people who will not respect you no matter what, and it’s important to recognize that you do not have control over how they treat you; no matter what you wear or how you act, they will not respect you. It’s best to set boundaries and distance yourself from these unloving people, and recognize that the reason they treat you this way is not because of you, it is because of their own issues.

Now, I want to end with some advice and resources if you find yourself in a situation where you are being bullied or harassed at work or school. First you should check out this article where I detail some steps to take if you are being harassed. It’s important to know your legal rights so that you know the types of harassment and bullying you are protected from.

Also, I just stared a new podcast called Resilient in STEM that offers more discussions on topics related to thriving in your career! If you liked this article on embracing femininity, I recommend you check out a previous blog post and podcast episode I created on how self-love is revolutionary where I share different ways you can integrate self-love into your lifestyle.

If you would like to join a supportive community to help you on your career journey, you are invited to join Resilient in STEM!

Best wishes to you on your career journey!

-Jill

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