We Need More ‘Sparkly’ Scientists, Here’s Why

Recently, I came across a tweet by Rita J. King that made me question myself a lot. King, a futurist and executive vice president for business development and co director of Science House tweeted about a TEDxYouth NASA event she spoke at on Nov. 19, 2011. At the time, she was a futurist for NASA’s think tank at Langley, and her talk was geared toward inspiring students into pursuing a career in science. This wouldn’t seem unusual or tweet-worthy, that is, until you hear what she wore: a sparkly dress. 

 

 

She wore an elegant gown, with sequins covering every inch of the fabric. The event coordinators reached out to King that a group of girls had written to them. They asked if King could wear a sparkly dress, wanting to know if scientists could still be “sparkly.” 

After hearing the request, King wanted to make sure the girls felt heard and bought the gown specifically for the event. She normally wouldn’t present in this attire at NASA, but felt it was important to the girls that they have a “girly” role model in a field dominated by men.

King hasn’t worn the dress since that event and found it while she was cleaning out her closet. King’s tweet received close to 50,000 likes and prompted a discussion on the unspoken trend of the de-feminization that women go through in male-dominated fields. 

There’s a stereotype that if you are more feminine then you are less likely to be perceived as a scientist, much less a successful one. In pop culture, female scientists are often portrayed as overly geeky or rare. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to appearances, so this stereotype is harmful to women in STEM fields who don’t fit this mold. They may be told that they are too distracting for the workplace, experience objectification and harassment or have their authority and skills questioned. The worst part is that they may be perceived as vain when they are just dressing for themselves to fit their own fashion sense. 

The notion that a woman's intelligence is proportional to her fashion sense permeates throughout the STEM field. There have been many times that I have played into this harmful stereotype by trying to dress less girly so the other people in my classes wouldn’t doubt my intelligence. Especially for debate conferences, shadowing doctors or interviews, my ensemble would consist of a black pantsuit and a neutral blouse. I wouldn’t dare wear jewelry or colors I actually liked in fear of being perceived as less deserving than the other candidates. 

My initial reaction to King’s photo made me do a double take since most STEM presenters don’t wear dresses like that, especially at NASA. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t realize she was a scientist until I read her caption. I despise when people assume I am not a STEM major because of my appearance, so this stereotype that I reinforced made me realize that those beliefs are more ingrained in our society than I thought.

Obviously, all people, regardless of gender, should dress appropriately for their field for practicality and professional reasons. Raluca Popa, a teaching assistant for an analytical chemistry lab at the University of Florida, said that when she first started doing research, she dressed more for practicality. 

“I would just wear my lab clothes all the time since I had no time to change before classes,” Popa said. “But then I started to feel less confident in those baggy clothes and decided to say ‘screw it, I don’t care if I spill acid on me, I’m going to dress more like me.’”

Popa now throws caution to the wind by wearing cute clothes more her style that still adheres to lab safety standards. The added confidence boost is worth the possibility of accidentally ruining her blouses or cool shoes. 

These more personal style choices aren’t outside the realm of professionalism, but some people in STEM see it as something only women who aren’t as serious about their work would do. The stereotype that women in science don’t care about their appearances punishes women who do and forces them to play into this role to be seen as equal to their male peers. 

It also discourages young girls from entering the STEM fields since they don’t have as many “girly” science role models that are as successful. They may be dissuaded from pursuing science because they think they are too girly for the field when in fact there is no such thing.

Women in STEM should not have to fit male norms in order to be treated the same as their male colleagues, especially since fashion choice has no bearing on a person’s work ethic or intelligence. The work done by a female scientist in Jimmy Choo can be at the same or even higher level than her male colleague, just as a woman who wears bright pink lipstick can be a successful biomedical engineer.

The confidence that women gain from being able to express themselves through their appearance is important for self image and correlated happiness. Shouldn’t that be prioritized over forcing women to dull their sparkle in order to be taken seriously?