Dressing Down for Success

A fashion conscious female navigating the judgement of her peers

What you need to know about me: I am a 25 year old white female, 5’5”, with long legs and a burst of tangled brown curly hair. I have more Lululemon leggings than pairs of jeans, and I prefer wine to beer. I listen to NPR and the Chainsmokers, and love any season of the Real Housewives (except Miami, that was a flop).

I probably sound insufferable. And basic. Afterall, I’m writing this sipping out of my S’well water bottle wrapped in a blanket scarf.

What you also need to know about me: I’m a Biological Engineering PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researching the interplay between immunotherapy and kinase inhibitors and how the signaling dynamics of these therapeutics contribute to drug resistance mechanisms in melanoma.

“Whoa… didn’t see that one coming.”

I get that a lot these days. I don’t “look” like a stereotypical PhD student. I didn’t “look” like a biomedical engineering student in college.

In high school I thought that being a well-spoken, put-together female in engineering would be a positive. Quickly, my naïve outlook dissipated when I started college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I joined a sorority with a reputation of being blonde and bitchy, and wore Kappa Kappa Gamma branded apparel to class regularly. My classmates would first assume I wasn’t very bright until I proved myself otherwise. The men who worked in the machine shop made snide comments about my being a “stupid sorority girl” when I asked for help operating the lathe. A design project team asked me to come up with the cute logo for our project while they built it in the shop without me. I was the only female in my Mechanics of Materials class, and nobody wanted to be my partner for the final project so I did it alone. Ironically, guys in the class would come up to me at bars in later years remembering me as the girl from ME418 and ask for my phone number.

… you could’ve had my number if you’d been my PROJECT PARTNER! Sigh.

Let’s face it, being a woman in the STEM fields is tough. I could write for pages on the general adversities women face, but that’s already out there. What I want to talk about is something a little different. Something that’s kind of awkward to put down in writing. I care about how I look, follow fashion trends, and strive to look my best (most) days of the week. And, I think I’m treated differently because of it. Here’s an anecdote.

During the fall of my sophomore year I was excited about the prospect of getting an internship. Now this was an opportunity where I could really shine. I think I’m skilled at communicating, networking, and planned to really “turn on the charm” in this male-dominated career fair. I’ll look put together and professional, but (of course) still fashionable.

I handed out my resume to anyone who would take it at the Fall Engineering Career fair with little luck. I passed it to a young man from Baxter Healthcare, and as we chatted I learned he used to work in the research lab next door. We had a nice conversation, and he moved my application onto the next round and invited me to the company info session.

I attended later that evening, in a black shift dress with tights and two-inch heels. Two inches was a conservative heel height for me back in my Kappa Kappa Gamma days, if you need some context. I don’t remember much from the session besides a bland PowerPoint deck, disconcertingly soft oatmeal cookies, and a recruiter whom I’ll call “J.”

J. was an average man of medium height and medium build, who heavily emphasized the focus on diversity and ethics at Baxter Healthcare. “This was cool,” I thought. “They care about diversity, I’m diverse. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”

We ended the session with a trivia Q&A about Baxter. I shyly raised my hand on each question but was outreached by more aggressive men from my department for all the cool prizes. I left with a consolation pizza cutter with the Baxter logo plastered on top. I lived in my sorority house and we had two chefs so I didn’t really need a pizza cutter, but I tossed it in my backpack thinking that maybe someday this will be a cool reminder of my first internship. My interview was the next morning, so I headed home to plan my outfit.

I arrived for my interview wearing a grey tweed two-piece skirt suit with a black applique on the left shoulder. I was feeling confident so I opted for my  two-and-a-half inch patent leather t-strap pumps. Remember, that was me being “heel height” conservative. Designer handbag and leather portfolio in hand, I clicked into the interview suites. J. ended up being my interviewer, and I handed him my resume. He held it up, but seemingly looked through it at my face, my two-piece tweed suit, my handbag, my heels.

“Why would a girl who looks like you think she was qualified to design catheter bags?”

Pause here. If you aren’t shocked, please re-read that line again.

His comment was deeply unsettling for two reasons.

  1. What do you mean by “a girl who looks like me?” He didn’t look at my qualifications, my grades, my research and design experience. He didn’t notice that I was fluent in the computer programs Baxter uses, or that I had won a top scholarship for my department. All he saw was my physical appearance, and apparently, I looked like I didn’t know what I was doing.
  2. J., I implore you, What exactly does someone qualified to design catheter bags even look like?!

At that point, he told me I was unqualified for the position, and asked me to leave his office.

I was shaken, and what I did next I am still embarrassed about to this day. I went home that night and wrote J. from Baxter Healthcare an email, thanking him for his time and consideration.

(Even though it was more like two minutes of his time and complete lack consideration).

Surprise, he didn’t respond.
Surprise, I didn’t get the job.

Maybe Biomedical Engineering wasn’t the right field for me, maybe I was underqualified. I spent the night researching other majors I could transfer into and still graduate on time. Unfortunately for me there weren’t any other majors. I was too far along, so I decided to stick with my choice. It was shortly after that I found Dr. Pamela Kreeger’s research lab, where I finally felt like I wasn’t being judged for my appearance. Dr. Kreeger was a well-dressed, sassy woman, and she gave me the encouragement, support, and tough love I needed when I was feeling discriminated against. It was with her encouragement I decided to apply graduate school, and with even more support that I shot for the moon and applied to MIT.

I’d like to say that everything got better when I moved to Cambridge, but I’d be lying. I’m still judged on my appearance, by both female and male coworkers. I show up on a Saturday in sweatpants and a sweatshirt with no makeup and am greeted with, “rough night?” I wear a dress and suede booties on a Wednesday and hear “whoa, what are you all dressed up for?” One time I wore a choker and a guy from my lab asked me why I was wearing a dog collar. Have you not seen Kendall Jenner’s Instagram? Chokers are (were) in!

These are of course microagressions I can ignore, but it is frustrating. A colleague recently shared a satirical article with me where a woman jokes that for the reasonable price of a $5.00 drugstore lipstick, she can transform herself into someone who is no longer taken seriously by male colleagues! I felt like she wrote that piece for me. PREACH.

I think there is a lot of societal pressure to dress a certain way in science. To not appear too girly in a field of cisgender males. Not just professionally, but even as a grad student walking around in lab or presenting at a poster session. We are more approachable if we “dress down.” I look “bitchy” if I wear heeled shoes.  Dressing to be taken seriously in this field exploits a more obscure field of sexism where if we are too feminine, we must be too concerned with our appearance to also be intelligent. That we value “style over substance”. As if the 10 minutes in the morning I spend putting on makeup is 10 minutes I should be spending curing cancer.

I found this 1998 article published in Science where a man and his wife take out a recent female PhD graduate to find outfits to interview in. It’s hilariously outdated from a fashion prospective, but some of the tips probably aren’t. The author suggests finding a basic blue suit with a white undershirt “because nobody hates white.” Other tips are no dangling earrings, and no jewelry except a wedding ring. So basically, dress like a man. I guess that was my first mistake with Baxter…

The article ends with a truly unsettling statement: “When someone looks at your résumé and sees Ph.D. after your name, their mental image of you may not be flattering!” …Why? Why is that the first assumption?

Look, I’ve been guilty of judging other women for what they are wearing too. It is ingrained in me. I woman down the hall from my office always has impeccable eye makeup on and knee-high heeled boots. She looks fabulous, but at first my reaction was “whoa… why get so dressed up for work?”

I’m a victim of my own complaint. So what do we do?

Embracing who you are. You’re not just a scientist, you’re also a woman. This attitude will help change the culture of academic science for future generations. Personally, I need to check myself on judging other women. But beyond that, I’m not sure. Last year, some women in my department created a group to start conversations about this and other topics that apply to being minority genders in science. We discussed productive ways to talk about these issues, inform ourselves and others, and make change. Unfortunately, and I’m partially to blame, nothing concrete happened. We all find ourselves busy with lab work, social lives, and other things.  These are excuses. We have to keep the conversation going.

Last night, I got home from a long day at lab and kicked off my suede booties. I threw a pizza in the oven and cut it into slices with my Baxter pizza cutter. I have a nicer pizza cutter at my apartment, but I won’t use it. I want to  use the plastic Baxter one and think of J. I think of him telling me I don’t look like an engineer. I don’t look like a scientist. Well, maybe I’m not designing catheter bags, J., but look where I am now.

Originally published on the MIT Graduate Admissions Blog

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