Erasure of Femininity in STEM Fields
by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent
With the majority of men dominating STEM fields, there is no doubt a high level of masculinity presiding over academic culture and the general work environment. The term “masculinity” can refer to both physical traits and psychological traits that we would normally associate with men who hold considerable power in these fields. Evidently, this hypermasculinity can feel intimidating to women who enter STEM work environments, which might contribute to feeling the need to suppress any traditionally feminine traits they might possess. In a physical sense, women might feel like they should tone down any aspects that emphasize her “femaleness,” such as putting her hair in a bun, wearing little to no makeup, wearing less “girly” or colourful clothing, etc. The point of this would ultimately be her desire to be taken more seriously by concealing typically-feminine physical features in order to fit in. On the other hand, there is the psychological sense where traditional female qualities, such as empathic and nurturing characteristics, might be perceived as “weak.” As a result, women might feel it is necessary to suppress their solicitous, empathic sides in favour of exhibiting more masculine attributes related to more authoritative qualities, such as assertiveness. In this way, it is almost as if empathy and assertiveness must be mutually exclusive, when this should evidently not be the case.
When we think about the physical aspects of what constitutes a woman scientist, a study conducted by Banchefsky found that when female scientists presented with a more feminine appearance, the less likely they were perceived to be a scientist; this finding did not affect men who had a more feminine appearance. The more feminine the appearance for women, the more she was judged as being more likely to have a career in childhood education, not the sciences. Ultimately, this could indicate that when women are portrayed as having more feminine features, the more they are viewed as being less suitable for a career in science. According to various blogs written by female scientists, the majority of women feel the need to conceal any interest they might have in wearing bold colours and high heels, as well as engaging with pop culture (Woitowich, 2010). Many of them also feel they must wear lighter makeup to appear more natural, and wear dark colours to look more authoritative. Moreover, if women want to add touches of femininity to their appearance, they feel they must keep the touches on the more subtle side (Woitowich, 2010). It is not surprising that when adolescent girls observe the hypermasculinity predominating STEM, any initial positive perceptions can be transformed to more negative perceptions, as well as affect their interest in entering STEM (Steinke, 2017).
On the other hand, when we think about the more psychological aspects of what embodies a woman scientist, when women are not perceived as possessing personality traits related to assertiveness and individuality — which are traditionally masculine traits — they have to work harder to be perceived as competent and valuable workers in their field. Some people even believe that feminine traits share a relationship with lack of success or fitting into roles that involve the implementation of authoritative measures (Paludi, 2008). Leadership goals for women usually differ from men in that their focus is more on making a difference and finding personal fulfillment, whereas men might seek more power and ambition in their roles (Paludi, 2008). According to Paludi’s study, women in positions of authority who possess a traditionally feminine style are seen as “weak, wimpy, and wishy-washy.” It is discouraging to discover that women who possess either feminine or masculine traits in their roles can never truly win. Possessing feminine traits, such as helpfulness and gentleness, may lead to devaluation, while possessing masculine traits, such as coercion and strong leadership skills, may lead to disapproval (Paludi, 2008).
Undeniably, these disappointing findings have implications on women’s attitudes towards careers in STEM. Many might feel intimidated by the dominating male presence and extreme lack of femininity in these fields; this could have a negative impact on women’s interest and participation when it comes to pursuing STEM careers (Steinke, 2017). If we allowed women to feel more welcome and reduced any shame that they may have about their femininity, it is possible that we might see an increase in women entering STEM fields, as well as a boost in confidence when it comes to their femininity. The problem lies in the fact that society perceives femininity to be associated with shame, weakness, and incompetence. Perceived lack of capability as a result of femininity is an inherent distorted belief in today’s world that we must aim to eradicate due to the negative effects on women making them feel that they can’t be themselves in a field that is overwhelmingly comprised of men. Women are just as capable as men at achieving their STEM-related goals, whether they’re walking into the lab with high heels or not.