Erlenmeyer Flasks and Lip Gloss: Experiencing Femininity in the Biomedical Sciences

In class, I am often viewed as a “Science Barbie.” I know what my classmates are thinking most of the time: throw a lab coat over her dress and prop her up at a workbench because it looks nice, but try not to let her touch anything. Working with young men my own age, it is often assumed that I will not be dissecting mice, mixing chemicals, or doing the calculations in chemistry courses. To have a pipette removed from my hand only to watch a male student be unable to load the well of an electrophoresis gel may be a minor infraction, but the assumptions underlying these microaggressions are what truly make it difficult to forge my way through the biomedical sciences. In women’s studies courses, I have read various academic papers describing the misogynistic and patriarchal ways in which capitalist labor markets devalue and sexualize women in the workplace. Without using that language, friends, lab partners and mentors have described how their intellectual value is only understood in masculine terms. Defending a position is “ballsy,” demanding more from colleagues or employees is “bitchy,” and dressing up for lab meetings and conferences immediately elicits comments from co-workers about how “nice and sweet” I look. In order to be valued, women have to be masculinized. Femininity is not seen as intelligent. As a young scientist whose favorite article of clothing is a jacket with sleeves made entirely of gold sequins, this has been a personal challenge in the classroom and in the laboratory.

My long blonde hair and mainly pink wardrobe inform those around me that I am not to be taken seriously. I have had concepts and procedures reiterated to me numerous times, and as I sit, politely nodding my head, I cannot help but remember male friends complaining how their employers assume that they are more qualified and intelligent than they actually are. I am slowly guided through certain processes while my male peers are thrown head-on to lead projects because they are, apparently, more capable of figuring out how to navigate difficulties than I am.

These conversations occur most frequently with strangers–the anonymity allows for men to share their judgemental opinions more freely. One of the more discouraging conversations, however, occurred with a male family member while I was in high school. One day, I was explaining how I wanted to attend a particular Ivy League institution and study conservation biology while living in a rainforest and saving a species of frog that I had been reading about online. Immediately, I was cut off and laughed at. A hand was shoved in my face while a nasty monologue played on, detailing how I was not suited for work that difficult, would never last in the face of long-term challenges, and should not aim my academic goals that high. During these excruciating ten minutes, I thought about how this individual knew my academic record, knew that I had spent the previous summer in Uganda working on a construction project and was spending my afternoons during the school week in a lab working with garter snakes. The points in his argument about not being able to withstand sweaty labor, heat, frustration, or creepy crawlies were all negated by my previous experiences. Not only did he know that I had hand-mixed cement and examined more snakes than I could count, but he knew my personality, my drive, my insufferable stubbornness. What I finally realized that day was that no matter how much I accomplished, I would always be a girl, who liked pink Ugg boots and Bath and Body Works bubble baths, rather than an adult, who could grow, tackle challenges with fortitude, and succeed in difficult settings. It was the first of many heartbreaking realizations that have informed my cynical expectations about how male colleagues and friends view my life choices and career goals.

Having had many male lab partners over the years, I can safely say that in no way is the masculine brain more capable of problem solving than my own. The credentials on my resume are not taken as fact but as potential skills or accomplishments that require back-up evidence. I am given the opportunity to prove that I am experienced rather than experiment and make mistakes. I have been interrupted during discussions and falsely corrected during presentations, by male and female classmates alike, because the value of masculinization in science persists among all genders. Unfortunately, a strong sense of determination and willingness to stand up for myself garners unwanted attention and discipline. Working within a male environment requires that I abide by prescribed rules regarding decorum, work etiquette, and demeanor. While standing up against every attack on my own identity sounds fun–it’s not every day that I get to say patriarchal oppression of my sense of worth–but such actions hinder an upward career trajectory. I have been told to pick my battles and call attention to the issues that are most personal to me because speaking out against every comment or action that has underlying tones of paternalism or sexism is not only exhausting but, yet again, labels me as uncooperative and difficult.

These stereotypes keep me from being seen as a scientist. My reputation will be more centered about my personal and political opinions than my grant applications or journal publications. It is yet another limiting dichotomy that I must work within in order to be successful. Working in large research universities, I have witnessed the way women are pressured to abandon traditionally feminine traits in the lab in order to be considered a scientific colleague. They take on the role of the “gender neutral science person,” the ambiguous creature that understands statistics but has no personal qualities which endow her with an identity outside of an understanding of transcription factors. Forcing women to choose between being viewed as a woman or a scientist reinforces the masculine dominance of the field. And this continues to imply that naturally feminine qualities are not compatible with a research career or the scientific process.

Within that dichotomy, there are expected modes of femininity that women must ascribe to in order to be understood by their male colleagues. In other words, while certain modes of expression are devalued, women are intended to fulfill the role of wife and mother and exist within the traditional heterosexual working-woman framework. This framework ignores identities that lay outside of the heterosexual gender binary–queer, trans-gender, and non-traditional identities do not align with what is expected of female-identifying scientists. That type of femininity is more easily understood, given that it is beneficial to patriarchal structures. In my experiences, the role is typecast, in the sense that women are assumed to prioritize raising a family over employment and are more likely to sacrifice a career to care for children. I have heard men admit that they will not hire pregnant or engaged technicians or post-doctoral candidates because they give up on their work in order to be better mothers. This discouragement is why so many women leave the field after marriage or the first pregnancy: it becomes too difficult to combine the role of scientist with that of a woman or mother into one identity and remain sane. It is not easy nor is there sufficient support.

However, scientist and mother are not mutually exclusive titles. Many of my female mentors have children, and not only raise their children but have close and healthy relationships, spend time with their families, and are able to be there for them at sports games, performances, and school meetings. They are able to “do it all,” but the idea that in order for a woman to be successful in the sciences, she must juggle all elements of the domestic role. The assumption is that children will be a part of the equation, and the female scientist oxymoron exists between women who leave the workforce and women who gracefully balance their lives. Women cannot opt out of this system, as is the case in my own example.

I have very little interest in having children, and if I do change my mind as an adult, they will not be biologically my own. Marriage might be great for some people, but finding a husband is not necessary for my own happiness. This has nothing to do with my choice in career but is exclusively informed by my own decisions about domesticity and fulfillment, although I am excited about being able to focus more energy on my research career. Referencing the trope that single men are bachelors (i.e. George Clooney) and single women are spinsters (i.e. “crazy cat ladies”), I have had friends, co-workers, and mentors question my decision, going so far as to ask me to promise not to make any life-changing decisions about my own body “before I am ready.” I am not sure at what point in my adulthood others will feel that I will finally be mature enough to take ownership of my body, but I find it ridiculous that I must reiterate that my body is my own.

There are also those mentors and lab partners that feel the need to argue that my life might not mean as much without children, and many ask if it is because I do not feel that I can “do it all” as a modern woman. To that argument, I ask, what is “all”? And who decides what is “all”? The requirement that women balance research, child rearing, and home maintenance does not empower female scientists but continually requires that domestic responsibilities are taken care of by the woman and demonizes women who either cannot or choose not to take up these tasks. In my opinion, I will “do it all”—travel, spend time with my family, take pride in my career, and enjoy my hobbies. That seems like a fulfilling life to me.

To counter the experiences that I have previously explained, and potentially to instill some sense of positivity to my future in the field, I have often been respected and mentored by strong scientists who trusted in my ability to run and manage experiments. My first laboratory mentors were strong, successful women who attended top graduate schools and had publications in leading biomedical journals. At a time in my life when I had no experience of what biological research entails, I was given opportunities to learn from these women and earned research positions through interviews and personal connections. I was nervous to work in predominantly male environments and was well aware that the laboratory spaces where I developed my limited skillset were unique settings. My decision to work in a lab under my first male investigator was followed with periodic bouts of anxiety about how I would be perceived and what my months of employment would entail.

But after my first few weeks in the lab, I understood that there are exceptions to the rule. Granted, I experienced microaggressions and moments of frustration that were founded in systemic assumptions about women in science, I was given freedom, responsibility, and respect. I found a mentor that not only pushed me to succeed but actively supported my own interests and goals. I generally responded to the latter with dumbfounded looks of confusion, which might explain why he thought I was shy and quiet for my first weeks in lab. This assumption was rapidly corrected once I felt more comfortable and started to speak up—he was receptive to my ideas . It is difficult to say that my previous experiences were refuted without sounding like a candy-coated optimist, but I was lucky enough to find a male mentor who believed in me regardless of my personal presentation or that I passed out the first time I perfused tissue.

I have personally been lucky—no form of resistance that I have encountered has lessened my interest in pursuing biomedical research. I am aware of what lies ahead for me, and while I have been reared in laboratory environments that have instilled self-confidence and a plethora of skills, I know that I will be told that I am not good enough in condescending and paternalistic tones. However, I have also been told by a mentor that I have “do not mess with me” written across my face—I take that as the highest compliment I could receive. I am proud of my strong demeanor, confident sense of self and adamant resistance. I am an analytical thinker, curious investigator, and master of applying gel eyeliner.

To the individual who asked me if I felt that I “could be taken seriously in science and still act so feminine,” I would like to explain that regardless of my high heels and sparkly eye shadow, I am excellent at loading agarose gels, need no assistance from paternalistic classmates, and need not validate my intellect due to my gender.

1 Comment

  • Erica says:

    WHIT! So proud of you. Know that all the right people are cheering you on and whoever doesn’t take you seriously deserves a micropipette in the eye. Keep rocking your sparkle jacket and I’ll see you soon. XOXO, E

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