Written by Sakura Koner – Edited by Madeleine Hamilton
“You don’t have to play masculine to be a strong woman.”
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, actor
As I riffled through Google, on a quest to find an appropriate quote, I noticed how almost every quote about women has been by a woman, as if a man is either incapable of recognizing a woman’s potential or is chastened for doing so. By a twist of biological fate and a series of genetic changes, a child is given a chromosomal identity to be male or female. In that moment, a multitude of societal expectations and pressures are conferred upon them. Whether they choose to identify as their biological sex or not, this is where the battle to establish their identity in the world begins. While there are stereotypes burdened upon both women and men, the extent of conventionalization enforced on women pertaining to not only their appearances, but also their professions, sartorial choices, diet choices, life decisions, etc. is close to the point of dehumanization. We talk about the rise of women in male-dominated professions, but in an ideal world, the professions that a woman or a man finds success in would not be based on their gender in the first place. As business executive, billionaire, philanthropist and founder of LeanIn.org, Sheryl Sandberg once said: “In the future, there will be no female leaders, there will be just leaders.” However, terms like the “femme fatale effect” or “status-levelling burden” convey a different story.
In 2017, Eve Forster, a PhD. candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Toronto at the time, wrote a poignant article in which she describes a uniform she had given herself. In this article, she demonstrates how even the slightest alteration of the uniform, such as leaving her hair loose rather than tied back, was enough to give a student the temerity to question her expertise when she was the TA for the course. As the stereotyping goes, women in STEM or medical professions are expected to dress more modestly, as if their wardrobes define their ability to do their jobs. As women in STEM, my labmates and I often ponder this issue. Despite receiving the same number of years of training as their male colleagues, why is a woman treated differently depending on her clothes or make-up? How is this normalized? There are numerous anecdotes and accounts from women in STEM and medicine with no end in sight. “You’re not wearing make-up today. Maybe you should rethink that choice.”, was a piece of advice that Allyson Herbst had the “pleasure” of receiving from a resident physician while she was a third-year medical student in New York. Comments like this were accompanied by a string of other related events, where she faced undue sexism and biases while in medical school. Her story highlights the blatant manner in which a woman’s skills are belittled based on her appearance.
In a paper published in 2016 from the University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers explained two different studies to exhibit the biases associated with the appearances of STEM women. The study showed that most people will refuse to believe that an attractive woman could work as a scientist or engineer. In 2015, San Francisco based tech company One Login, used their employee’s picture in their advertisement to call for applications. Disconcertingly, the veracity of this campaign was questioned because it featured one of their younger, female engineers, who was deemed “too attractive” to have a STEM job. This claim started the viral #iLookLikeAnEngineer movement on Twitter. As much as online campaigns like these bolster my spirit, I wonder if there’ll ever be a time when women will not have to fight to assert themselves in every walk of life. I wonder if there will be a time when our successes will not taste sweeter for the sole reason that we were able to break through several ceilings on our journeys to success; on the path to doing a job that a man could accomplish with little to no added hardships.
Sexual biases against women pile high regardless of the field of work. For women in business, attractiveness may prove to be a double-edged sword. Another study led by Leah Sheppard of Washington State University and Stephanie Johnson of University of Colorado Boulder, revealed the phenomenon of “femme fatale effect”, where attractive women are considered to be dangerous comapred to other women. It is a well-established fact that attractive men will benefit from their genetic bestowments, while women seem to be losing on both fronts. Despite the common assumption that attractive women have an easier time at work, the truth is that they are also combating the less glamorous side of their beauty in which they are considered to be beguiling and capable of seducing bosses into offering them the job. In short, women can often be regarded as undeserving of their positions. The contradiction is glaringly obvious when a woman’s integrity is questioned because of their appearance, and when their capabilities are completely disregarded for the same reasons.
It is disappointing that even in the 21st century, some professions continue to be designated as male-dominated fields because of the challenges women face as a result of their biological gender. It has been proven through various interactions with nurses, that male surgeons often derive more authority over their subordinates and/or the nursing team. Meanwhile, a woman in the exact same position and title, is expected to be more cordial and maintain more pleasant working relationships with nurses. This hierarchical disparity between men and women in male-dominated professions has been termed the “status-levelling burden”. This places additional pressures on women in authoritative positions, such that both their aggressiveness and their amiability are met with displeasure and criticism.
While attending a recent event hosted by the Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) organization at Queen’s University, a speaker mentioned how her daughter once commented that “math was for boys”, despite having been raised in a household where household responsibilities were divided equally amongst both parents, and despite the fact that her mother worked as an engineer. Maybe somewhere in our schooling trajectory, or in the culture(s) that we grew up in, there is a belief instilled in girls that we are inherently incapable of pursuing STEM professions. Maybe it is also enforced and rooted in the way that we are “expected” to look a certain way to fit in our professional roles, burdening the woman in her growth with an enormous pressure to lose part of her personality simply to earn an honest living. The relationship between appearance and capabilities is so ingrained in our psyches that it seems to be taken for granted. But as a scientist, I can say with conviction there exists no such formula and no such concept.
Forster, E. (2017) As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/first-person/2017/5/4/15536932/women-stem-science-feminism
Herbst, A. (2021) This is the kind of sexism women who want to be doctors deal with in Med School. The Washington Post. WP Company. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/10/04/this-is-the-kind-of-sexism-women-who-want-to-be-doctors-deal-with-in-med-school/
Banchefsky, S., Park, B., Judd, C.M. (2016). But you don’t look like a scientist!: Women scientists with feminine appearance are deemed less likely to be scientists. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293045096_But_You_Don’t_Look_Like_A_
Kircher, M.M. (no date) Here’s the story behind the massive #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign, Business Insider. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/i-look-like-an-engineer-social-media-campaign-2015-8
Senturia, N. (2019) The bias against beautiful women at work, Tribune. San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/story/2019-12-16/the-bias-against-beautiful-women-at-work
Ciciora, P. (2022) Paper: Women bear ‘status-leveling burden’ in male-dominated occupations, ILLINOIS. Retrieved from https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/1688276686
Sandberg, S. (2010, December 21). Why we have too few women leaders [Youtube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18uDutylDa4&t=7s National Human Genome Research Institute. (2022). Sex Chromosome [Webpage]. Retrieved from https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Sex-Chromosome#:~:text=A%20sex%20chromosome%20is%20a,one%20X%20and%20one%20Y.