Turning the Mirror on Oneself

What do you see when you look in the mirror? This is the question underlying the What I See Project, conceived by Edwina Dunn. Her concern is that we live in a society where, for many women, when we look in the mirror we are expected to look at – and even more and worse, be judged by – the superficial details, not what resides within. For young women around the world, this is a restrictive view of who we are and what we might be.  Her aim is to aid the empowerment of women by getting them to reflect on who they are beneath the surface and not be sucked into believing beauty is only skin deep.  This is an issue that resonates with me as I am all too aware young girls readily believe the media messages that their aspirations should amount to little more than be eye-candy to catch a boy, sexualised from an early age rather than focussed on what they are actually able to achieve in more concrete ways using their brains and not simply their bodies.

I have become involved with this project as an Ambassador, and you can find my own brief video for the project here, along with those of the other 17 women from the UK who have taken on this ambassadorial role. Amongst them are some powerful women (3 baronesses for instance) including fellow scientist Frances Ashcroft from Oxford.  Last week she and I joined the panel (along with Caroline Criado-Perez, Jody Day, Eileen Cooper  and Kelley Temple) for a Q and A session in the Science Museum for the launch of the project (see more here). The questions, slow to come at first from a mainly female audience who took a while to warm up/gain courage to quiz us, were ultimately quite deep and challenging. Let me simply home in on the one specifically STEM-related question. What, we were asked, is the right way to respond to the comment ‘You don’t look like a mathematician‘. I’d be interested in people’s views on this, which manifests itself in various forms (‘you look too young to be a doctor‘ is a common variant). The best I could come up with on the spot was to suggest challenging those who ask this question to say what they think a mathematician should look like, in the hopes it will make them realise the existence of their prejudices or appreciate the danger of stereotyping. I am sure, however, there are better ways of handling the question.

Continuing the theme of worrying about what one looks like, the next night I found myself bizarrely discussing, with a retired (male) head of a Cambridge college, whether men or women have a harder time with regard to getting their attire right in unfamiliar situations. The occasion was the dinner following the installation of the new master of Selwyn College Roger Mosey, freshly arrived from the BBC to take on this role, where I was acting as the Vice Chancellor’s deputy. I found it interesting that this man across the table from me felt that there were more pitfalls for a man (turning up in T-shirt and jeans, perhaps, when something more formal was required) than for women who have in general a greater and more continuous spectrum of alternatives. I have always thought that that very fact made our problems worse, but he clearly felt the opposite. It seemed a fairly peculiar dinner table conversation, but highlights the importance of our appearance and our dress to define who we are and identify what ostensible power we have and what position in the social and professional hierarchy we occupy, so linking straight back to the What I See project.

However that was not the most surreal part of my conversation that evening. Dutifully following the instructions of the seating plan I had found myself sitting between two recently retired (again male) college fellows from disciplines far from mine whom, as far as I was concerned, I had never met before. During the first course the one on my right remarked we had met previously on a mid-career training course run by the university. I am sure he must be right. He could cite one of the exercises we had carried out: write your own obituary to highlight to yourself how you see yourself – another connection with that mirror of Edwina Dunn’s project. He remembered I had been anxious about whether I would get promoted to professor, which indicates this is more than 15 years ago and yet he could still remember me. I found that unnerving but there was yet more to pile on.

Switching to talk to the gentleman on my left during the next course, we covered his field of research and then moved on to discuss the portraits in the hall – all of past Masters of course. At which point he announced he remembered physicist Alan Cook, one of these previous Selwyn masters, bringing me in to dinner. It took me some time to remember what the occasion can have been but I think it must have been an examiners’ dinner when Alan was the senior examiner and so hosted the dinner in his college. I can vaguely remember the occasion. So this ‘complete stranger’ too was claiming to remember me, in this case probably from even longer ago, maybe 20 years. Again, I feel pretty certain my dinner table companion must have been correct.

The moral of this story for women is that we do actually have some advantages in the academic world. Since there are so (still) so lamentably few of us, we are memorable. I don’t believe I was unforgettable because I stood on the table and danced at the dinner in a drunken haze, because that’s not my way and I didn’t. Nor, I hope, did I let off steam at the training course about my colleagues in ways that made me stick in the first man’s memory, although that could conceivably be true if I thought I was discussing my life amongst total strangers, albeit ones in the small fishpond that is Cambridge. So it must have been just because I was the only woman both on that training course and on that board of examiners that I stood out in people’s memories, although I still find it unnerving that 15-20 years on their memories are so vivid as to identify me readily in a totally different context.

However, women should realise as long as their numbers remain low in academia, they won’t simply blend in to the furniture. Uncomfortable though that often is, there are times (although this dinner was hardly one of them) where being unforgettable may mean you get that invitation, be it to talk at a conference, serve on some important committee or apply for an exciting job opportunity. It is often uncomfortable to stand out, particularly if we feel unsure as to who we are (or whether we feel we look attractive in the mirror to ourselves or anyone else) but sometimes, just sometimes, there may be advantages.

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8 Responses to Turning the Mirror on Oneself

  1. anonymous says:

    The “you don’t look like a (fill in your profession here)” thing: As an astrophysicist, I usually respond with “And how many astrophysicists do you personally know?” Most of the time, it turns out that the person doesn’t know any of us. If the situation allows for boldness, I add “So what you mean is that I don’t look like the cliché of an astrophysicist”, and that’s that.

  2. That’s a really interesting post. I always thought it was easier for men to figure out what to wear. I have had a fascinating couple of years due to a dramatic change in my appearance. For the first 15 years of my academic career I had masses of dark curly long hair. Then kids and lack of time led to a short sleek crop. People didn’t recognise me and are still having to do douvle takes 3 years later. I didn’t realise how much it was part of how people saw me.

  3. cromercrox says:

    For men, it’s easy – when in doubt, a dark suit and tie go with most occasions other than heavy fieldwork.

    It’s worth spending a few £££ to get a proper suit, off-the-peg but with a decent label – should last a lifetime. I get mine at my tailor, Mr Fatbastard at Debenhams.

    People used to seeing me as a scruffy herbert say it sharpens me up wonderfully, and people take me more seriously. When I wear a suit into the office (informal dress code) people usually think I am going to a job interview. Except my former assistant, who is Italian, who asked me who I was going to kill.

  4. Anon says:

    I get the ‘you look too young to be a doctor’ all the time, I would guess on average at least once per meeting or conference I attend. I find it both rude and strange because I don’t see myself like that (and I’m not that young to be a doctor). I have no idea how to respond, but it is certainly not a compliment and makes me wonder whether I should be trying to justify my presence.

  5. Helen Wilson says:

    I think this memorability as the only woman at a conference is a real blessing that we’re a little reluctant to admit. And perhaps one of the reasons women do even worse than men at those unconscious gender bias tests is that we’re subconsciously afraid to lose our unique selling point. Of my field were 50-50, would I have made the impact I have? Probably not!

  6. IR says:

    A different perspective on being judged on appearance in Higher Education is walking into an undergraduate class as a graduate teaching assistant (PhD student) and watching everyone’s face… “is he really only a few years older than us?!” It’s very difficult not to attract judgements based on appearance in this situation but consistent professional conduct can, over time, correct for such judgements.

    That’s not to deny or downplay in any way the rather different problem confronting young women (in our profession and many others besides), as you discuss in your opening passages. At least we have an opportunity in HE to challenge these stifling social orthodoxies.

  7. Rebecca Hoyle says:

    This one leaves me squirming. I’ve no idea exactly how many times I’ve been told I don’t look like a mathematician, but it’s a lot. Once the person even explicitly said it was surprising to see a ‘beautiful’ mathematician. (I’m not all that, but I do wear mascara and lipstick and I like a nice frock.) And somehow there’s no way to respond graciously. I failed totally, I will admit. I was unreasonably annoyed, and I think that’s because it brought up a familiar inner conflict. Like most people, I guess, I want to look nice. But I also want to feel that I fit, comfortably and unremarkably, into my profession. And these comments remind me that perhaps I don’t, and somehow define or delimit my professional world as belonging to other ‘more appropriate’ people.

    And yes, it is good be memorable, but it does put you on the spot when you can’t reciprocate. All in all I am glad that I now work in a department where there are enough women that I feel fairly unremarkable.

  8. Clare Roche says:

    This interesting post has some resonance on a topic I am researching- Women Mountaineers in the last half of the 19th century. Between 1860 and 1880 – surprisingly some might say – women climbed most of the major Alpine peaks . This happened only shortly after the men and in a few instances before them. In order to do so women modified their dress but generally only once outside the village and away from public view. To look like a mountaineer – in the male sense – was not acceptable by society and was not something the women themselves generally wanted to embrace – at least until the 1890s. Although, like female academics, they were definitely a minority, women climbers did not want to stand out too much – their desire was to continue their mountaineering undisturbed, so they largely conformed to expectations regarding appearance. Like it or not society then and now holds a view of what those who do certain jobs and activities should look like. Clearly 19th century women had many more difficulties to overcome than we do today but it seems there are similarities in both what women were and are prepared to do and the stereotypical view held by the general public.

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