I often run into young women in early technical careers at conferences and other technology events who are hungry for inspiration and advice. Despite my background as a technologist, though, I find that the questions seldom involve matters of science or engineering.
No. Undergrads, graduate students and women working their first jobs after college want to know:
“What should I wear?” “How should keep my hair?” “How do I fit in with the guys?”
And she goes on to explain how we ask women way too many questions about how to fit in to engineering, but also fit into being a woman. Even obituaries about women engineers start by explaining how domestic they could be, just to get out of the way how normal they were despite having this engineer gene that apparently makes them freaks.
But back to clothes. You know what? It's a big deal. And it's annoying. I don't know what to wear.
When I got out of college I was told the dress code for my job was "business casual". Okay. So that immediately messes up what most people say about clothes, that you should "be yourself" and "dress like you". If I picked clothes out purely by listening to my soul, I'd be in flannel pajama pants every day.
The second laziest way to dress yourself is to just look around and wear what everyone else is wearing. In my department, it was khakis and polos, because they were all guys. I did not feel pretty, and definitely did not feel like "me". But since I didn't care, it sort of worked out.
A few times I tried to step outside a bit... I'd wear a scarf with my sweater. or there was a year I bought some suits. But I felt awkward.
Then I joined IT for a year and interestingly enough, there were more women there... and they cared about clothes! In fact I joked with them that when summer came around they'd get to see the whole spectrum of my incredible wardrobe of polo shirts... black polo shirts, navy blue polo shirts. They complained about getting assigned to an office off the factory where they couldn't walk in sandals, to me it was no big deal. But little by little, I started to feel a little inspired by the way they dressed. I'd wear a sparkly top, or a bracelet, or a belt around a sweater, and I liked where it was all going. I got those women to take me shopping, like a charity case, and they were thrilled to help me out, introduced me to boots and skinny jeans and necklaces that worked with what I was wearing.
The point is though, all of that felt so much easier when I just had other women around me. When I was working with all men I had a nagging voice in my head reminding me that I was supposed to dress "professionally", like I knew what I was doing, and that meant I was NOT supposed to dress like a man. But that left me feeling like I had to make it up as I went along. I was afraid that even though all the guys around me said they didn't care about how anyone dressed and couldn't tell a tube top from a camisole, there'd be subliminal issues they'd notice that they couldn't put into words. They would think that I just didn't seem as put together as the women they knew who weren't engineers. I would not be "well dressed" because for a woman, that's different from the way they dress, they'd just know I wasn't right.
You're just doomed if you're the only token woman. Clothes are one more thing that just become a sudden no-brainer if you've got good examples around you every day, that's the problem. It's one more reason why we need some critical mass in this world... we shouldn't have to think so much about clothes, here.