The feminine mystique: Perspectives on femininity within STEM

By Sydnee Calhoun

As Bette Midler once said, “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” (Statesman, 1980). But does this statement hold true (literally) for females who pursue careers in STEM? A study from 2012 suggested that feminine women in STEM actually decreased middle-school aged girls’ interests in mathematics and what they expected their success to be (Betz and Sekaquaptewa, 2012). The authors attributed this to the girls foreseeing being both feminine and successful as unlikely to occur together.

As a young girl, I always enjoyed dressing up and as I grew older, my enjoyment of fashion did not diminish. I would not consider myself to be a “girly girl”, but I definitely embrace my femininity. Growing up though, I never considered, at least consciously, that this negatively impacted my potential to succeed particularly in any field I wanted to pursue, which contradicts what the study had found. Inherently, this issue arises from gender biases that exist within STEM and moreover in academia. Within academia itself, masculine-like dress is seen as the “dress code” with a blazer, dress pants, and tie. However, female professors who wear variations on this are assumed to be attempting to make a power move. Women who dress more casually are also more likely seen as being at a lower status level than they are. Given this set up as a lose-lose situation for women, what is the stereotype that women are assumed to fit within STEM?

Traditionally, women are perceived as being unfeminine within STEM. After being involved with lab work since 2015, I understand why it would be easier and more logical to not really care, or perceive to care, about how you dress. Lab work requires a significant amount of time, involving long days with minimal down time. Given that you have to stay in one area, it makes sense that many individuals who work in labs, particularly women, forego doing their hair, wearing makeup, or wearing clothes and shoes that may not be comfortable to work in. Trying to look fashionable is difficult when all you want are clothes and shoes that will be comfortable and functional when you are standing and walking around the lab for up to 8 hours a day.

But what if female scientists choose to dress in clothes that may not scream “comfort” to other peers in the lab? Well, it seems like this appears to have a mixed opinion within the field. Last year, this op-ed published by Meghan Wright brought up controversy with academics using social media for scientific outreach and showing a different side of science to the general public. The author mainly wanted to bring up the point that it is predominantly females who are more heavily involved in scientific outreach. Moreover, many people seem to believe that this work is being done to correct the previous (and ongoing) issues with women working in STEM. The backlash to this article was mainly that it seemed to be targeted towards one specific person, Science Sam. A rebuttal piece published highlighted how Wright’s original article played into the common trope, that is becoming more acknowledged, in shaming the work of other women, particularly more feminine women. Additionally, the rebuttal highlighted how no solutions were put forward to address the issue of women putting more time towards outreach in the original article. They suggest that universities should actively hire individuals to do this work since it does have benefits and allowing this to be a part of the tenure process due to the time commitment. As someone who has a Teaching Assistantship with outreach, this is beneficial as it also aid in validating that the university believes outreach is helpful in diversifying STEM programs. However, these two articles indicate that there are still issues with women being able to dress and act as they like without experiencing backlash from other women. There is a systemic issue of women feeling like they are competing against each other. This does not help with women feeling comfortable in this work environment. If women feel like they are being judged for dressing more femininely, especially by other women, this does not help create a diverse and inclusive environment for everyone.

Taking into consideration male influence on how women feel they are perceived while dressing more femininely also further complicates this situation. An article by Eve Forster describes how as a teaching assistant, she had decided to wear her hair down as a fellow student had been teasing her about constantly wearing it up in a bun. On this particular day, a male student had asked her about what would be on an upcoming mid-term, and despite her being the TA and providing an answer, the student failed to recognize her as a figure of authority. She went on to further test using Twitter the types of responses she received by using a female and male avatar and name for one week. Notably she found subtle differences in the responses she received from other users with a decrease in criticism as a male, which enabled her to feel more confident on this platform. What’s interesting from this article is that not only did Eve receive comments from anonymous users on Twitter, but also from her student and a colleague. I think many people do not think of receiving comments about how we look one day influencing one’s confidence, but maybe this does have an unconscious effect.

Does this mean that it is better to not comment on someone’s fashion choices? It seems like this also has a mixed response. An opinion post suggests that when you challenge certain stereotypes or seem too much like what is expected of you warrants comments from others. While receiving compliments is nice, it does sometimes make me overthink why that individual said whatever they did, even if it is positive. While most people, including myself, are guilty of making unassuming comments when someone has dressed differently than they normally do, maybe it would make them feel a little more at ease to not have unsolicited comments made to them.

So, should women dress more femininely to break stereotypes or should they not to decrease the competency and likeability issue? I think this article provides a nice summary of this issue. No matter how you dress or act, female scientists are challenged by society by partaking in STEM. Be yourself. If this means that you prefer to wear hoodies, jeans, sweatpants, flannel, or suit pieces, you should feel comfortable in being able to work in your profession without being subjected to negative comments or self-doubt about your abilities. Young children should see both examples of female scientists so that they know you can be successful in STEM no matter how you choose to dress. In doing so, this will help to create an inclusive environment for everyone to work in. Wearing the right shoe should be able to help you conquer the world, no matter if it is a runner or has a heel.


Betz, D. E., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 738–746. doi: 10.1177/1948550612440735

Chen, A. (2018, March 16). Scolding female scientists for embracing Instagram doesn’t solve the gender gap in STEM. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from

Forster, E. (2017, May 4). “As a woman in science, I need to conceal my femininity to be taken seriously”. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from

Jarreau, P. (2018, November 8). The Consequences of Being Girly in STEM. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from

Lodwick, A. (2016, August 31). Unsolicited: Why do we comment on other people’s appearances? Retrieved September 29, 2019, from

Statesman, H. (1980, January 13). Ask Them Yourself: Question for Bette Midler, Section: Family Weekly (Newspaper Supplement), Page unnumbered, Second Page of Section, Column 2, Yonkers, New York.

Stavrakopoulou, F. (2014, October 26). Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. Retrieved September 29, 2019, from

Wright, M. (2018, April 12). Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach. Retrieved September 26, 2019, from