One of my favorite childhood photos is of me in a floral pink dress and neon shoes, with a charm necklace on my neck, rainbow bead bracelets on my wrists and my mom’s lipstick on my lips. Typical odd me.
I always had a great admiration for elegance and femininity, which, to me, were synonymous. I loved dresses and makeup, and dreamed of wearing high heels when I grew up. Although my style became much more plain and simple as I matured over the years, I have remained, to this day, quite “feminine” in presentation.
When I decided to apply to colleges in the United States, my family and I often speculated on how my life would transform in the West. Familiar with my love for femininity in everyday clothing, my mom warned me that I would have to change once I started college. She explained that when she was a student in the U.S., Americans dressed much more casually compared to Turkish people, and that I would stand out with my over-the-top jewelry and perfectly polished nails.
When I started at UC Berkeley, I saw that my mom was right. Many students went to class in flip-flops and joggers, which would be considered extremely disrespectful in Turkey. But my mom was also wrong; I didn’t stand out. I saw that unlike Turkish culture where people are constantly judged for how they look and if what they wear is “appropriate,” American culture had an immense appreciation for differences.
So I held onto my femininity in this new culture I was in, and refused to change. But I couldn’t always be myself in college. I soon saw that it would be the academic environment that would force me to change, not the cultural one.
As a Biology major, I had to make my way within an extremely male-dominated field. Among my peers, my mentors, professors and all well-known scientists out there, I saw that feminine appearance was scarce, and I felt insecure in my femininity. I felt as if anything that made me seem more “like a woman” was an obstacle that would make me seem less intelligent, less worthy of respect and most importantly, less of a scientist.
So I created the “scientist me,” who never wore nail polish or makeup, and always went to the lab with a basic ponytail, plain jeans and an old white T-shirt. I learned to exist in two versions of myself, and the less feminine the “scientist me” became, the more confident I felt. Yet it never felt quite right.
When it comes to the rejection of femininity to fit in in STEM, I’m not alone. Studies show that women who choose careers in STEM disavow behaviors and characteristics socially viewed as “feminine,” especially behaviors involved in negative stereotypes surrounding women’s success such as motherhood or wearing makeup. But why does it have to be an ultimatum?
Where young girls are already discouraged from choosing careers in STEM compared to their male counterparts, the need to reject feminine characteristics for women who do choose to become scientists is a pressing problem.
We must deconstruct the idea that STEM is a “masculine” field. For that, we first need to close the “STEM gender gap.” In 2019 still, only 25% of computer occupations and 15% of engineering occupations were made up of women, with men earning more money than women for the same jobs. As long as such discrepancies are left unaddressed, statistics give the harmful message that women aren’t suitable for science, and that their efforts aren’t worth as much as men’s.
But having more women in STEM isn’t enough on its own; representation is equally important. If we want young girls to be confident and motivated to pursue science, it’s crucial that we implement to all academic areas the same appreciation for diversity that I have found in American culture. Scientific communities need to welcome people with different backgrounds, styles and ways of life, instead of promoting a single, masculine image of a scientist.
Despite all my frustrations about this issue, I too am guilty of implicit biases. When I think of a scientist, engineer or computer worker, it’s a man that comes to my mind. Whereas when I think about a feminine-looking woman, I associate her with jobs in the humanities or liberal arts.
In a way, we all have these biases. We have been taught to think, from a very young age, that an intelligent person, a scientist, looks a certain way, which often isn’t very feminine. But whether it’s a simple tendency to view feminine girls as less likely to be STEM majors, or an extremely discriminatory inclination to distrust female scientists, these biases are an extension of harmful gender stereotypes dictating social roles.
Thus the first step is to learn about how these biases could look like in our own lives, and then identify them in our own behaviors or perceptions. We must first acknowledge that we can unknowingly contribute to these negative stereotypes excluding women from STEM, and then fight against the biases we were taught to have.
Though women are still underrepresented in STEM, plenty of effort is continuously put into creating a more diverse, inclusive environment in science education. It makes oneself hopeful that maybe not so far in the future, more girls will choose to become scientists, and they will be unapologetically themselves.
As for me, fighting against years of gender conditioning is taking time. I still go to the lab dressed as the “scientist me.” But now, I also try to add something of myself to it; whether it’s a rainbow bracelet under my sleeve, or a charm necklace hiding beneath my sweatshirt, I am me. And I am a scientist.
Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.