Science & me

‘You don’t look like a scientist!’

I am SO annoyed and angry today – and for once it is nothing to do with anything in the lab!

I did have a completely different blog to publish today, but my journey home made me realise I had to write about this as it has irritated me so much – so apologies for the lack of structure and fun with this post and you will see the previously planned blog post next week probably, but when I explain what happened to me on my 2-minute walk home (literally!) you might understand why I needed to change my blog post – or perhaps you might have guessed from the title 😛

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I work in a university building that is on the same site as the general hospital in Southampton and very conveniently I live literally over the road from the entrance to both the hospital and work! Now I’m quite a shy person and generally keep myself to myself, but on my very short walk home today I happened to bump into one of my neighbours who lives in one of the nearby flats. She started to chat to me about how cold it was today and the fog that we have had, then moved on to asking what I do as she had spotted that I had walked across from the hospital direction. My obviously very proud response was ‘I’m a scientist! I’m studying for my PhD over the road!’.

This was followed by a response that I really did not expect and those haunting words – ‘You don’t look like a scientist!’

I didn’t think too much of it to begin with as I am aware of the stereotypical image that the general public associates with a scientist – and quite clearly I am not an old man with glasses and white wispy hair (I promise! :P)!

But then she actually looked down her nose at me and PHYSICALLY looked me up and down! And then walked off without saying another word with a scowl on her face!

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Both scientists – just look different!

Now – I was angry at the sheer rudeness of this woman and now I’m feeling very anxious and self-conscious! Did she think I was lying? Or was it something about my appearance  that doesn’t make me a believable scientist?

I checked whether there was anything on my face or that my dress was tucked in to my leggings which might have sparked the look that she gave me. But no – nothing! I was dressed as I would normally for any given day at work.

The longer I sit here writing and telling you all about this, the more I’m asking myself questions about why I got that reaction:

Did I not look old enough?

Was it because I wasn’t wearing a lab coat?

Was it because I was in a dress and boots?

Was it because I didn’t look smart enough?

Was it because she didn’t agree with the work I do?

Or was it because I am a woman?

These questions keep flying around my head and I’m wondering why the shock, am I not good enough to be a scientist just by my appearance? I realise it is not your typical answer but I didn’t expect such a negative reaction! I’m angry and quite upset!

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One of my goals for this blog is to ‘humanise’ scientists and make sure the public – both young and old – actually realise that scientists come in all shapes and sizes, from a host of different backgrounds, they can be any sex and some like to be uber stylish in the lab whilst others like me – like to keep it quite casual – and we all have so may different interests and hobbies like EVERYBODY ELSE!

It’s made me realise that I need to do something more to break down this stereotype and not just write a blog and feature the incredible scientists that I do in my Scientist in the Spotlight feature. What at the moment I really don’t know but something! Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

I have never felt so judged like I have been today by this neighbour! And I want to inspire younger kids especially girls to get into science, but I don’t want them to be judged for it because of the way they look or sound or anything! So I feel very strongly about doing something to tackle the stereotype now! Even more so that I did before today!

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Has anyone else out there experienced something like this? I would love it if you could share – either in the comments below or get in contact with me because I am feeling quite hurt and confused, and want to know how you tackled it and there might be others out there with a similar, or maybe even a more serious, situation and it might be helping them too!

Okay – maybe I might have taken it too much to heart but its a reaction I haven’t heard before so it got me thinking about what I can do! Most people at least ask what I do as a scientist just out of interest and curiosity even if they have no interest in science! I have never just got a look and that be the end of the conversation!

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Apologies for the really depressing post but I do feel like it was an issue that needed talking about, even if it was just me ranting! Normal blog posts will resume shortly I promise 😛 I just want my readers to realise that the stereotype is VERY real and it does affect a lot of people! It is an issue that needs tackling!

Thanks for listening and please share any similar stories you have to try and demonstrate that it is a problem!

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7 thoughts on “‘You don’t look like a scientist!’”

  1. Oh dear, hugs are in order… Why has that ignorant remark affecting you so much?
    How rude of that neighbour of yours, made worse by turning away and leaving it there. Sounds that she’s got an issue.
    The situation for women scientists, engineers, and other male dominated professions has improved considerably, but there is still work needed. It’s up to us to raise awareness that a choice of career has nothing to do with gender (or anything else other than the individual’s choice and competence). In the meantime and best possible way, get use to it and rise above those biggots. Remember “what others think is none of your business”, and I’d like to add screw them, you know you’re amazing, and so much smarter than them LOL.
    I am a chartered mechanical engineer. I also have a degree in manufacturing and mechanical engineering. Since the age of 16, I have been one of the rare female students (2-3% of the year group) until I finished uni at 24. I have always worked in a male dominated environment, and grew into a position of leadership early on. Imagine a 5ft nothing looking like a 12 year old bossing about a bunch of grumpy old men. We couldn’t have looked any different, and so what? Well, having to work twice as hard to get your worth recognised is a ball ache, but it means that you perform a lot better than your peers. Comes a turning point where it really pays off. You feel proud now (and so should you!), it’s nothing compared to when you’ll be this well established Professor in your field. Where will your obnoxious neighbour be then? Still stuck in her narrow minded little head would be my guess.
    You’re worth so much more.

  2. I don’t think my comment sent last night when I initially wrote it…

    I’m so sorry that you’ve experienced this and it’s unsettled you so much. I haven’t had this experience in terms of ‘you don’t look like a scientist’ but I have had similar.

    I’m a gay woman, and if we’re going by stereotypical ‘lesbians’ (butch, dress like men, short hair) I don’t fit the bill. Whenever I tell people I’m gay I often get met with ‘oh, but you don’t look like a lesbian’. I cannot tell you how much it used to hurt to have something that is so intrinsically me, something I’ve had to accept myself, be challenged so boldly.

    However, I can manage it nowadays. When I’m faced with that comment, after a deep breath I usually answer:

    “Oh really, that’s interesting you should say that. Do you mind me asking what a lesbian tends to look like?”

    I try, though it’s very hard sometimes, so say this in a genuinely interested manner without sarcasm or being challenging. Often, individuals don’t realise what they are saying or that they are operating from socially defined stereotypes. It’s kind of sad in a way!

    Asking this question usually makes them realise what they’ve said, and challenges in a gentle way, their thoughts and beliefs. So now, when I get that comment instead of being hurt I can think ‘oh, great, someone to educate. I can try and wipe it some ignorance & stereotypes here’.

    I don’t know if that helps at all x

  3. I have experienced this before – I also have got things like ‘oh, so you must be really clever then!’ with a shocked expression on their faces. I’m blonde, I like makeup and fashion etc and therefore tend to always get some sort of comment based on intelligence.
    The worst one was from someone who is a paramedic, saying that they ‘could never do what I do’ (I hadn’t even told them what field I’m in, just that I’m doing a PhD). Eventually when I got to the bottom of it they had assumed I do research on animals (I don’t) and that that therefore meant I killed animals (shockingly enough, I don’t) and thought it was ok to do so (again, nope I don’t). He said something along the lines of ‘I didn’t think a girl like you would do a job like that’ – I soon corrected him and explained that I don’t work with animals, but that animal research is a necessary step and then when done correctly and ethically no scientist is ever willingly inflicting unnecessary pain or suffering on an animal.
    I think it’s just about trying to bite you tongue until you’ve got to the bottom of what they think (if that’s possible), and then explaining in a calm way what you actually do and why they’re wrong. People make judgements about scientists all the time and a lot of the time the only thing we can do is try and to be open and transparent about what we really do wherever possible.

  4. Hi Soph – i found you on twitter and have been browsing your blog. I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me. Someone actually told me last week that I won’t be taken seriously after my PhD because I’m too ‘cute and innocent’. Seriously?! Im so glad you posted this. I’ve just set up a blog myself with the aim of making science less ‘old fashioned’ and ‘geeky’. This reputation annoys me so much!!!!

    @NicolaFaramarzi
    freshscience-nicola.blogspot.com

    1. Hi Nicola.
      Thank you for taking a look round my blog 🙂 luckily this has only happened to me once. It was just such a shock but im aware its happening to a lot of people.
      Good luck with the blog adventure! I look forward to reading it 🙂

  5. You have to raise your self esteem, the real question is why do you even care what a random person tells you? You are overthinking wayyyy to much. Stop doing that. Trust me, you will never figure why people say those things unless you ask them, and then you will realize they dont know! Its just a way to make talk

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