Following a social-media experiment into how male and female scientists are treated on Twitter, Frances Dickens argues women shouldn’t hide their femininity in order to be taken seriously
I recently read an article on Vox that told the story of a social experiment on Twitter where a scientist monitored her audience’s reactions to her posts as a woman for a week and then as a man for a week. The experiment was driven by the realisation that as a woman in science she found herself deliberately ‘downplaying [her] femininity’ in the workplace. In fact, there’s growing evidence that ‘women scientists are taken less seriously when they dress in a feminine manner.’ For example, after wearing her hair down – not something remarkably feminine – she experienced a student ‘mansplaining’ an exam paper to her: she was the lecturer.
She felt inspired to discover how different her scientific career would feel if she were a man. Prior to this her profile on Twitter was relatively gender neutral except for her name but by simply changing her name and avatar on the social platform, she watched how reactions to her posts changed. The result? Her male avatar received less criticism and more praise for content that lacked the authenticity and proof her female avatar required in order to receive the same responses.
The scientist was surprised, which in turn surprised me. Was this really not what she expected to see? Did her hypothesis not state that she expected her white, male counterpart to have an easier ride than herself? In the article the scientist also professes that in order to be taken seriously she dresses “as invisibly as [she] can”, explaining that she’s “experienced subtle sexism throughout [her] career as a scientist”. Reading it I felt a mix of emotions: sympathy, pity, anger and more. Sympathy because as a woman I too have experienced sexism; pity because many women still do not understand their worth let alone men; and anger because the answer is not to bow down to misogyny and sexism by hiding your femininity. It’s to fight.
What I didn’t feel was surprised by the outcome of this experiment. Disappointed, yes. But surprised, no. After all, this experiment did not reveal anything we did not already know. In fact, it’s completely flies in the face of the practices the scientist already has in place to deal with such sexism and misogyny. She reveals her tips on how to rebuke advances from men at professional events and she offers bitesize chunks of information to throw back when having something mansplained to you. This is exactly how we should fight back and show men that we are just as good as they are: by showing our progress, prowess, strength and accomplishments. Not by dressing down or ‘hiding [our] femininity’.
The more women there are at the top, the more women that will join at the bottom and middle. We need to inspire the youths of today: telling them that they need to hide their femininity to work in a scientific role is not the way to do this. You won’t inspire a diverse range of women by hiding who you are behind ‘dark jeans, boring, long-sleeved shirts, hoodies and casual shoes’ if this isn’t how you normally dress.
It comes down to education; parents making sure their sons and daughters grow up as feminists; teachers treating boys and girls the same; and men and women educating their peers about how powerful and important women are both in and out of the workplace. And perhaps even more importantly it comes down to governments educating businesses as to the benefits, both culturally and financially, of having more women on their boards, more women in senior executive positions and more women throughout their companies.
Gender inequality is a global issue, which requires a global solution. While as women we do need to have thicker skin than men, which may feel unfair at times, bowing down to their demands will not change it. Do you think that by delivering the image these men already have of what a woman in science looks like we’ll be able to change the way they feel about women in science in the future? Surely not.
It’s easy to feel disheartened by the sexism that sadly still persists in society but we must focus on the future, not the now. The changes we make now, no matter how small, will make huge changes further down the line. We probably won’t see a world where inequality is eradicated but our children and our grandchildren just might.