What Does a Scientist Look Like?


“She’s not dressed like a scientist”

“She just doesn’t LOOK like a scientist”

“Oh! A scientist! You must be in biology” (No disrespect to biologists here –there are just fewer women in the physical sciences)

These comments may seem innocuous, but I promise you, they are infuriating. And what’s worse is that oftentimes they’re often coming from the mouths of fellow scientists, and sometimes even other FEMALE scientists!

Let’s back up a bit here.

Women in science have come a long way. In the past 20 years the chemistry department at my university has increased the number of female faculty members from zero to two (pathetic, but it’s a start). And there is certainly increased awareness with the appearance of many ‘Women in Science’ (/Engineering) advocacy groups. But although we’d like to think that the idea that women should not or could not be effective scientists is an old idea that’s eventually just going to die, these sentiments are still remarkably prevalent, albeit not as obvious, in younger generations.

We’ve been so conditioned to have an idea of what a scientist looks like. And although we may outwardly advocate for gender equality in the sciences, there is still judgment when a woman (or man) dresses fashionably, or looks too ‘girly’. These conceptions are so ingrained that I’ve even seen this from female faculty members who actively participate in women in science outreach groups.

We need to change the culture. We need to make sure that the next generation of scientists doesn’t even question what a scientist looks like or what their gender is. We need to start by stopping judgment both from inside and outside of the community. We need to start by changing the family dynamic so that women don’t feel like there is no way to manage a career in academia and a family.

It’s too late for the current generation, but it’s not too late for the next one.

Have you experienced sexism in science first hand? What do you think we should be doing to combat this for the benefit of future scientists?


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