Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Nail Salons: Appropriate Astronomy Women’s Group Venue?

Today’s guest blogger is Stella Offner. Stella is a Hubble Fellow who works on modeling the formation of low-mass stars.

Recently, our astronomy women’s group contemplated expanding event variety, which sparked a debate about what type of events are appropriate for professional science women's groups*. It began when a graduate student suggested we visit a nail salon and have our nails done. This suggestion struck a chord with me. On one hand, I would love to go (how fun!) but on the other… I felt a niggling sense of unease: would this event be too girly for a professional women's group?

I was not alone. Another grad student spoke up, articulating my concern. She suggested that by going, "we [would be] implicitly reinforcing the idea that beauty is always a high priority for women, even in professional matters, a common and hurtful stereotype". The first student shot back that "It's not my job to try to hide the fact that I am not a guy and it's not my job to try and 'fit in'. Just because I seek gender equality doesn't mean I have to… shun all things feminine."  Clearly this innocuous event suggestion had touched a nerve.

Some people reading this post may be wondering why the subject of finger nails should cause such conflict: Aren't there so many other more important gender-related topics to blog about, like unconscious bias and sexual harassment?? After some thought and careful prodding at my own uneasy reaction, I assert that this issue does indeed touch upon a very fundamental issue for women in science and an issue that we (really, any minority group) confront on a daily basis: to conform to the stereotype or challenge it?

Society is permeated by examples of prescriptive and proscriptive norms, which describe how individuals should or should not act in certain situations or roles.  These in turn can be coupled with stereotypes, i.e., broad brush generalizations of the characteristics of certain groups. These expectations often create (conscious or unconscious) bias, which is triggered when individuals do not conform to the stereotype or obey the expected norm [1]. In this example, a variety of common norms and stereotypes collide: Scientists should be serious and prioritize work over appearance. Women should be lovely and care about their appearance. Women should be beautiful; their finger nails should be neat. For many people, the word “scientist” evokes the stereotypical image of an oldish, white and somewhat rumpled man; it is implicit that Albert Einstein did not have brightly painted finger nails.

Here, my source of unease was the unconscious cognitive dissonance between “scientist” and “nail salon”.  There are numerous other scientist stereotype conflicts, which include most gendered behavior (like wearing a dress). While some fundamental characteristics, like race and gender are inherent, many behaviors and characteristics that may be threatening to certain norms and stereotypes are a matter of personal choice.

In my experience, there are two opposite strategies that individuals apply when faced with stereotype conflicts. One can become the stereotype as much as possible (or at least act in ways that minimize violations). Or, one can confront the stereotype by embracing differences. The two statements above are examples of each strategy.  Prominent women over the years have chosen one approach or the other with varying success. There is a lengthy discussion in Sheryl Sandberg's book ‘Lean In' on whether women should join the “boys club”.

However, there is no easy solution. Each of us who are "different" must decide for ourselves where to draw the line between conforming and challenging. In many ways this choice is a catch 22. If we choose to limit our behavior to conform to the stereotype (how we dress [2], how we show anger [3], whether we visit the nail salon…), we potentially let expectations define who we are and dictate how we act.  However, striking out as an individual and flaunting differences is risky. It is uncomfortable to violate a norm, especially if colleagues may (consciously or not) judge us for it.  Emphasizing differences may trigger unconscious bias, which many studies have shown can affect perceived merit, promotion, and pay.

As more women go into STEM, we will reach numbers sufficient to reshape the norms, but sadly, this process is slow. Our women’s group decided not to go to the nail salon, ultimately, for a variety reasons (one of which is that nail treatments are expensive!). We concluded that we should do what was comfortable for us collectively.

Given the different opinions and interesting thoughts this issue triggered within our group, I would like to throw it out to the AASWomen Newsletter and blogger readers. I have created an anonymous poll on this issue to allow you to weigh in. Please visit https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KDP2HCB and register your thoughts. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. If enough people respond, we will have a follow-up blog post on the results.

Follow-up blog post with results is here.

*Our events are not funded by the department.

[1] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
[2] http://networkedblogs.com/RVtPL
[3] Brescoll & Uhlmann 2008, Psychological Science