Note: This blog post was originally published as a blog on Scientific American (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/frontiers-for-young-minds/boots-or-heels-my-wardrobe-paradox-as-a-woman-in-stem/)
A couple of weeks ago a wonderful hashtag was making its way around Twitter, with female scientists all over the world sharing photos of their feet to show a day #InMyShoes. The hashtag originated as a response from the TrowelBlazers to the plight of one eight-year-old dinosaur enthusiast, who was dismayed to find out that the dino-sneakers she wanted only came in boy sizes. With my own history with geology fieldwork, I was quickly sucked into the stream of photos – ranging from boots caked in inches of mud to leopard print flats propped up in front of monitors of data.
And I wasn’t the only one who got caught up in the momentum. In my office filled with many women from throughout the world of STEM, we quickly had a crowd who also wanted to throw our own shoes into the ring. A couple of the women commented that they wished they had worn nicer shoes that day, but I was actually delighted with the outcome. From heels to flats and leather to rain boots, we were all ladies of science and we all felt comfortable enough to dress in the way that was most uniquely us.
As kids, most of us would have identified pretty strongly with that disgruntled eight-year-old. It is too easy for girls to feel like they have to make a choice: They can either be girly or they can like science, but they certainly can’t do both. Obviously this is untrue, but that feeling has to come from somewhere. In my own case I know that this mentality did not come from my parents. I was taught both how to use a sewing machine and a drill press. I liked castles, but I also loved classic cars. I actually attended Science Olympiad team practices in my cheerleading uniform. As much as anyone could be, I was encouraged to be both.
But somehow along the way the message about picking a side got through. As I got older, not liking makeup put me in a category. So did not wearing heels or carrying a purse. And in the cases where I did wear a dress or take time with my hair, somehow that meant that I had to defend the fact that I still loved science. At some point it became that I could either be someone who wore field boots or someone who wore dresses. When you find yourself having to defend your position on one side of a divide – boots or dresses – it becomes harder to maintain loyalty to both.
In my experience the comments or behaviors that strengthen this divide were seldom overt, but had power instead by simply being pervasive.
Too often companies try to bridge this gap by making things “girl friendly” with the use of pink and flowers, and instead of crossing the divide they end up thrusting those toys/tools/games firmly into no man’s land. When museums have a “science of makeup” night, that can be great – but it shouldn’t be the only option, and it shouldn’t only be for girls. My younger self would have wanted it to just be added to the list of activities available to everyone.
Of course this extends to more than #InMyShoes and speaks to a girl’s or woman’s taste in everything #InMyLifestyle. Thankfully I feel like I have found a balance again, partly as a result of being surrounded by so many STEM women in my daily life who are so different. Some love to bake, some love makeup and fancy shoes, some raise their own chickens, some are avid rock climbers, some sew their own clothes, and some have a collection of super hero costumes. But when we are together, no one questions our intellectual ability or commitment to science. When those factors are believed, we can express so much more about the rest of ourselves. We don’t have to spend the effort to defend that we like science or math or technology or engineering, so that effort and conversation time can be devoted to other things.
So now I get to wear jewelry I like; it just happens to be minerals and fossils. I have beautiful artwork on my walls; it just happens to be maps and radar data. I love shopping for purses with the goal of finding the one that Indiana Jones would be most likely to carry. I even wear heels – when they have nebula on them. I am grateful to have found my personal balance again, but I also feel like it should not have taken this long.
So I am crossing my fingers that we can find ways to shrink this divide. Boots and dresses, or neither, or anywhere in between. Girls should not feel that their taste in clothes/decorations/hobbies/accessories leaves them needing to defend either their intellect, their interest, or their legitimacy as a girl. More than asking boots and dresses to unite, maybe we can stop worrying about what people are wearing at all. A girl can dream.
All other images are my own.