Friday, August 17, 2007


A full confession: I went on a rare beauty product shopping spree last week. For $30.53, I bought three hair products, a round hair brush, and mascara. Now I have moisturized, glossy, kinky hair, stylized with the round hair brush. The topaz mascara makes my blue eyes "pop:" so says the packaging.

Last night's spree was a desperate rebellion against my own rules of conduct. Since 1994, I've coped with being in a male-dominated field by disguising my femininity. Since coming to GradShitTowneVille, I've been more extreme in my covert acts. I say the f-word four times a day. I talk about changing my break pads. I talk like a big dog. I wear pants, never shorts; skirts are reserved for 101 degrees F.

Just last week, I was marvelling at how much ass I kick. Wearing an old pair of my dad's overalls, sweating in 90 degree heat, I was fighting the grass with my vintage push reel mower. After two hours of pulling and panting, battling the weed eater, and admiring my developing biceps (thank you weight-lifting), I had a front yard that could be a decent backdrop for a live local news broadcast.

Broadcaster: I'm standing in a North GradShitTownVille neighborhood where we are getting reports of a young graduate student who is holding her advisor hostage in her attic. Sir, can you tell us about the events taking place this explosive Friday afternoon?

Yeah. Like that.

But that's not the frustrating thing. That's not what I'm rebelling against. I'm fantastic at being masculine. I'm great at doing "guy" things. I'm horrible at giving myself permission to be a woman.

Ideally, I'd live in a world where there aren't "girl things" and "guy things." I would live where there are just "people things," and people do what they like. None of these other graduate students who tell me I should have a baby or ask me how my boyfriend's research is going. None of these predatorial professors who waaaaay overstep boundaries. Just me. Just "cs grad student" instead of "female cs grad student."

But after so many years of pants, what used to be a tiny inkling of femininity has lately turned into the rioting oppressed. She is demanding to be unleashed.

I don't know how this will resolve itself. Other women I know have different ways of being in this place:

"Emma's" voice drops a half-octave whenever there are men in the room, including her husband. I'm not sure if she knows that she does this.

"Jenna" takes charge of the room. She says she's more apt to be her bossy self with men present. She wears a t-shirt and jeans most days.

"Tina" replies to most comments or explanations with an uninterested "sure." She paints her fingernails and wears heels to class.

"Claudia" just acts like herself. She's cutesy and fun in her skirts and Keenes, proclaiming her love of graph theory in front of a class of 28 guys.

Lots of approaches, but I'm still not sure what's right for me. How do I assume my role as a woman in science, rather than a woman-in-disguise in science? I don't know. For now, I'll keep wearing pants, but with topaz mascara.


Rebecca said...

FemaleCSGradStudent, I know exactly where you're coming from. I'm the only woman in my department, and I don't really know how best to fit in.

I certainly have a better sense of fashion than 99.9% of those I work with, but then again that's not much of an accomplishment. I feel like I need to dress up a little bit in order to be taken seriously (business casual vs. my slovenly colleagues' shorts and t-shirts), but then I tend to think if I *did* go for the absent-minded math genius look, maybe I wouldn't be mistaken for a secretary as often.

But even if I had it figured out just how to dress, I still don't know how to behave. I'm too polite for my own good sometimes (thanks, Southern upbringing!), and people just interrupt me and don't listen. I have to get angry before I start to assert myself enough for "the guys" to start listening to what I have to say.

In summary, if you ever get it figured out, let me know! ;)

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Just a couple of things I've figured out that work for me:

1) I dress "funky" a lot: Weird jewelry, vintage t-shirts paired with eileen fisher separates. Geeky guys are usually intimidated by funky women, and it's pretty clear I'm not a least when I'm in the building.

2) I don't talk much. When I do, I speak precisely, in a low octave, and it usually catches attention. And when I'm interrupted, I use my mom voice, "Excuse me, allow me to finish" and I do.

3) I don't act like a secretary. If someone needs help with posting to the website, or e-mailing somebody, I never, ever volunteer help.

Not 100% guaranteed, but these tricks help me cope most of the time.

Jane said...

Great post! I've found it easier to let my feminine self show the further along I've gone in my career. Maybe "self security" goes hand in hand with "career security"? Who knows. But good to hear that you're developing a style and approach that work for you.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Hah! I totally can relate - a few months ago a guy friend, not in my field, helped me move. He spent an entire day, in his words, "looking for something girly" and not finding it.

Leigh said...

It's been twenty years since I was a grad stud in CS. Here's what I've learned from a long career:

Faux masculinity does not help. God's truth. They still know you're a girl no matter how much you try to look like a guy.

The more feminine you look (not ACT -- LOOK) the more strength you have. I promise, they've already noticed you're a girl. A polished, put-together-looking woman is both intimidating and attractive, a deadly combination.

Mascara and lipstick are WEAPONS. Use them. Same with hair dye. Good hair is key. The WMD is perfume. Wear it under your clothes, not on your skin.

Toughness is not less effective because the wielder has on high heels.

If you don't have an inner girlie-girl to let out, ignore what I just said. But do consider the perfume.

Don't, for the love of Mike, ACT "feminine". Talk about what you're interested in, not what they're interested in. Be passionate. Get into their faces if that's necessary. 1000 extra points if you can do that while still staying calm and being polite -- but don't let them talk over you, ignore the points you're making, or talk down to you. Needless to say, don't get the damn coffee.

If you have a southern woman to emulate, do so. I can tell you to go fuck yourself ten different ways, and still leave you convinced that I'm really a sweet lady . . . just one you REALLY don't want to get on the bad side of. They call us steel magnolias for a reason. (Rebecca, work on the tough bitch side of you. You can damn them to hell more effectively if you preface it with "bless your heart".)

You're not going to fit in. Don't try to. Be the smartest, strongest, toughest person in the department instead. The evolved ones (humans) will like you, the mere guys will respect you.

If you find yourself in a nest of mere guys, get your work done, make your goal, and get the hell out of Dodge. There are places to be in the world where humans outnumber men. Find one.

And for God's sake, find a human to shack up with or marry. That makes all the steps above much more pleasant.


FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Daaaag Leigh. That's a fantastic trio of comments. Perfume as a weapon of mass destruction, femininity and being myself as a sign of strength. All good things.