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


How Practicing Self-Love is Revolutionary

Listen to this blog article on the Resilient in STEM podcast!

Self-love is revolutionary.

If you’re someone who is oppressed by society, your practice of self-love is revolutionary. Social oppression refers to oppression that is achieved through social means and that is social in scope—it affects whole categories of people. This kind of oppression includes the systematic mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse of a group (or groups) of people by another group (or groups). That being said, with self-love being the opposite of mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation, by performing self-love you are countering the effects of your oppression. When you are oppressed, society does not want you to be fully human and thrive; you are simply a commodity to be exploited for their gain. Reclaiming self-love is an act of revolution as it challenges status-quo; it challenges the current definition of “normal” accepted by society.

That being said, when you are oppressed, the way society says you should self-care is another violation of your own autonomy. The same society that mistreats you cannot also offer you relief from your suffering. It is not easy to recognize gaslighting in messages you get in the media, unlearn what society has taught you about self-love, and relearn what is actually good for you, but it is possible. This is why self reflection as a means to grow your self-awareness and emotional intelligence are so important. With emotional intelligence and self awareness you can better recognize gaslighting, and learn what feels good to you, and grow your self-love practice.

Growing self awareness and emotional intelligence is so important in not only developing your self-love practice, but also in navigating difficult situations involving bias, harassment, and discrimination at work or school. I actually have a whole chapter dedicated to this in the STEM Thrive Guides courses. In the courses I provide methods for growing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and teach processes for using self awareness to resolve uncomfortable situations at work.

I’m really excited to share with you about my annual self-love tradition I started practicing back in 2018. At that point in time I was healing from PTSD from a toxic workplace as well as a personal event, and had the realization that I needed to reconstruct my life so that it positively served my happiness, health, and overall wellbeing. I was learning a lot about psychology, and experimenting with different methods to heal from trauma.

Today I want to share how I use the month of May as a moment to reaffirm, adjust, and expand on my self-love practice. Doing this every year has seriously changed my life for the better and healed me in many ways. It has also strengthened my relationships, and deepened my connection with the world around me. I used to put up with disrespect and abuse because I didn’t want to be problematic in my workplace or not be liked, and this caused so many issues for me throughout my education and career. I was miserable and feeling hopeless, but when I centered my own wellbeing everything changed and now I’m more confident, happy, healthy, and more myself than ever! And I want to share one of my most important practices that has transformed my life right now! Now you can probably see why I’m so excited to share this! This is literally life changing!!

First, I want to define self-love for you since I feel like this REALLY matters, especially if you’re someone who is oppressed in society.

Self-love means loving yourself and caring for yourself. I like the definition of love written by Erich Fromm and repeated by bell hooks in her book “All About Love”, which is an amazing read by the way. It is:

Love is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

– Erich Fromm

I like this definition of love because it is so expansive and allows room for each person to have their own unique needs for love, as in needs for spiritual growth.

When it comes to spiritual growth, it is very personal. Often when I have been told how to care for and love myself, I get a step-by-step list or a set of instructions. The problem with this is that while those things may have helped someone else, they may not necessarily help me. I have my own past, ailments, struggles, and lifestyle that certain methods of self-care may not be suitable for relieving. For instance, someone who needs to stress-relieve after a busy day of running errands may need a bubble bath with some scented candles to unwind. However, when I was suffering from the affects of abuse in my workplace, a bubble bath would not be conducive to helping me; I needed a different set of self-love actions to take care of myself. In the age of capitalism, you’ll hear a lot of different tips and tricks for self-care, but it’s important to be skeptical as most of this is just marketing; it’s intended to sell you something, not necessarily help YOU.

That being said, while I’m sharing a self-love tradition I do annually, this may not be suitable for you and your self-love practice. I’m simply providing this as an example that may perhaps open your mind to exploring what works for you to deepen your love of yourself and grow.

First, I’ll give some background of my self-love practice, then I’ll share the self-reflection questions I use to assess my current state and where I’d like to grow, and I’ll finish with my favorite practices for May, my month of self-love!

Background

This time of year, May or late Spring/early Summer, is a very special time of year for me. It is my favorite part of the year for many reasons! First, my birthday is in May, and I have many amazing memories of celebrating with friends and family. Also, it’s the time of the year where I live where the weather gets warm, flowers are blooming, and I can resume all the outdoor activities. I can also wear summer dresses without needing a sweater, and walk around with bare feet if I choose to do so!

I feel naturally excited, adventurous, and my heart feels full of love at this time of year, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In many traditions and religions around the world, the beginning of May and end of April is celebrated as a time of the year where the world is coming to life! Historically, people use this time of the year to welcome the summer by having bonfires, May Day festivals with flower crowns and dancing, picnics in parks, maypoles, decorating with greenery and flowers, choosing a Lei Queen, and more! The name of the celebrations varies (May Day, Irminden, Calendimaggio, Walpurgisnacht, Lei Day, Vappu, Valborg, and Youth Day), but the sentiment and traditions remain similar. Even Mother’s Day and celebrations of Mary in Christianity are celebrated in May (following the symbolism that the Earth is coming back to life after the Winter, at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

I’m not a religious person, but I do like to use the different energies I feel throughout the year to amplify my health and wellbeing. May is a time when I take advantage of that energy I feel of love, new life, and creativity to nurture myself. For me, May is the time of year I reflect on and reaffirm my commitment to love myself.

To me, all that I do stems from self love. If I am trying to help others or contribute to society in a positive way, I need to center my wellbeing and, therefore, love myself too. Years ago, I fell into the trap that I think many women are socially conditioned to do, which is to put others ahead of their own wellbeing. I sacrificed my own wellbeing to help others, and as a result, lost track of who I was and suffered from different ailments including depression and anxiety. When I am in that state of emotional exhaustion from spending all of my energy caring for others, not only do I suffer but the help I give falls short of truly being great help. I end up helping nobody, and feeling depleted, exhausted, and hopeless.

By centering my own self-love, I fill my own cup until it overflows and, by extension, helps others. Even as I write my blog posts or record my podcasts, I am mindful of the energy I am giving versus receiving from these activities.

Now, I do want to be clear on one thing before I go through the self-reflections I use and my self-love practices for May. Just because I use May to refocus on self-love does not mean I abandon any effort for the rest of the year. I simply use this time to really focus and reset my habits so that they are positively serving me. I technically do this throughout the year, but May is an especially powerful time to reaffirm my vows of self-love. Self love is not simply a to-do list; it is a mentality and a practice that I embed in my lifestyle so that no matter what I am doing I am loving and caring for myself.

Self Reflection

The first thing I plan to do this May is a deep self-reflection. I journal about the following:

  1. What are your ailments and where are they coming from?
  2. Take note of harmful habits
    1. Create a plan to maintain awareness of bad habits
  3. Reflect on your relationships
    1. Which have progressed in healthy ways?
    2. Which are more negative and draining, and how can you set boundaries with those people?
  4. Recognize what you love about yourself and how much you have grown.
  5. What is fun for you and brings you joy?
    1. Integrate those into your lifestyle so that they are part of your daily habits!

Practices

  1. Journal about reasons you love yourself
  2. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love, respect, and happiness
  3. Nature Walks – smell flowers, sage, plants. Observe seasonal changes and new life.
  4. Wear clothes that feel good to you, and make you feel beautiful. (I like wearing more feminine outfits and dresses, as well as rose quartz jewelry to amplify my self love practice.
  5. Grow awareness of cycles in nature: moon phases, your menstrual cycle, etc.

Now that I’ve shared all these amazing revelations and practices around self-love, my hope is that this inspired you or reaffirmed to you the importance of self-love. This practice of annually celebrating May and this time of year in this way has made me more grateful for my life and relationships, and aware of all the beauty of this world, even the beauty in suffering. I’d love to hear if you have your own self-love practice, and maybe we can exchange wisdom! If you’d like to start your own self-love annual tradition, I have a treat for you! I made a self-love month-long challenge that you can complete at the time of year that resonates with you! Simply follow the link here.

And on that note, I want to share a few opportunities with you!

I started an online community called Resilient in STEM on Facebook to provide support and resources for people navigating difficult situations in their career. No community out there is like this one, which focuses on learning from and resolving issues related to taboo topics like bias, harassment, microaggressions, and discrimination. We would love to have you be a part of that community!

If you ever find yourself struggling, feel free to reach out for help. You are not alone, and you deserve to feel safe and comfortable in your workplace or school environment!