By Erinn Pollock

On a warm September afternoon, I sat in a dim lit classroom in Pickett hall for a three hour lecture. It would have been the perfective set of circumstances to allow for an accidental nap if it hadn’t been for the actual content of the class keeping me awake. Countless images of stone masonry and cordwood masonry homes passed by on the screen, and I was enthralled with how beautiful they were. As my professor went into detail on how to build these structures and told us about upcoming opportunities to have our hand at cordwood masonry, my first thought was “Yes! I want to try that.” I was ready to learn a new skill that would allow me to make a functional piece of art, and I even went as far as to start fantasizing about building a tool shed on my grandparents property once I had learned the art of cordwood masonry. Soon after, my professor granted us a short break to stretch our legs, and take a look at the stonework of our campus library. I returned to the classroom early, and as I watched my classmates file in I noticed something that made me feel like one of the stones I was admiring just minutes ago had now sunk to the bottom of my stomach.

I noticed the loose fitting shorts, the T-shirt and rolled up flannel combo, the keen hiking sandals, and the overall relaxed and down-to-earth appearance of many of the other women in my class. And then I became I hyperaware of my own appearance. I looked down at myself and saw the denim blue sundress, the gold bracelets on my wrist, and remembered the full-face of makeup that was starting to smudge in the heat of the day. I realized I didn’t look natural, or down-to-earth, or relaxed like the other women in my class. The eagerness I felt was quickly replaced with a sense of dread as I realized I didn’t look competent like the other women. I saw myself and realized I didn’t reflect the image of what a woman who wants to build cordwood houses should look like. My thoughts of learning a new craft transformed into thoughts of what I would have to wear to the building workshops in order to feel like I had a place there. I felt as though I was somehow less capable of doing the work I wanted to do because of how I chose to present myself, even though my grades reflected that I was plenty capable.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to know this feeling all too well during my time at college. With this feeling I’ve also come to know the ridicule that comes with expressing it. I’ve hesitated on writing this article because I know that to some I may come across as too dramatic or as being too sensitive. I know that to many this might not be enough of a “real” issue to warrant an article. Along with that, I know that this a bit of a niche issue that many people—including other women—may not to be able to relate to. While it’s completely understandable that other people aren’t necessarily going to have the same experience as I have, how others perceive us is something that affects us all. Our appearance is used as a tool for navigating the world around us, meaning that it can also be a barrier to gaining acceptance and opportunity—especially in our careers.

So is femininity a barrier to a successful career in the STEM field? While women hold 50.3% of the undergraduate science and engineering degrees in America, they make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. For many women, their undergraduate university is where there career starts and finishes. There are plenty of theories on why women don’t end up obtaining high-power jobs within the STEM field, many of which focus on how pressures of motherhood and family obligations act as deterrents. However, I think we need to focus more attention on how early societal pressures can act as a barrier. Studies link a drop-off in interest in STEM subjects among middle school aged girls with the growing societal pressure to be “pretty” and pursue traditionally feminine interests. These studies suggest that during adolescence a trade-off develops where young girls feel like they have to choose between being pretty and appealing to boys, and pursuing subjects that appeal to them but are more traditionally masculine. While I think the rhetoric surrounding these claims doesn’t give young girls nearly enough credit as they deserve—making the outdated assumption that young girls are choosing romantic relationships over their interests— it does beg the question of what happens to the young girls who choose both? The studies discuss young girls either giving in to the pressure of femininity or choosing to sacrifice femininity in the name of STEM. But what about the girls who want to do both? What about the girls who want to spend hours in the morning doing their makeup, but also want to spend hours in field collecting data?

Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to women entering the STEM field is the notion that women have to choose one or the other. Challenging the idea of what a woman in STEM is “supposed” to look like is the key to not only encouraging more young women to enter the STEM field, but getting them to stay and become successful in their field. Because no, no one’s outright saying “That girl can’t possibly be a scientists because she’s in a dress.” But they are asking why I’m wearing makeup to lab—as if it has any impact on my performance—and that’s a problem.

Erinn Pollock

Erinn is an editor for The Apollos, check out her full bio here!