There’s an interesting phenomenon anyone who has spent time in a university science department has probably noticed: the epidemic of the vanishing women. If you walk into an undergraduate lab or lecture hall, many of the seats will be filled by women. If you look at the graduate students in a science department, there will still be lots of women – but maybe not quite as many. If you consider the post docs in that department, you’ll see fewer women still. And finally, if you look at the faculty, it’s almost certain that the men will far outnumber the women.
It’s a fact that there are fewer women than men in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields – even if it doesn’t always start out that way at the undergraduate level. So where are all these women going?
Detailing the many answers to that question is far beyond the scope of this post. But at least part of the problem arises from the fact that women face different challenges than men in the sciences. Some of these challenges are trivial. For example, I’m sure every female field biologist has had a moment of pure jealousy about how easy it is for men to pee in the field. Certainly all of us at Dispatches can remember frantically searching for sufficiently dense clumps of underbrush, while our male field assistants simply turned their backs and got on with things.
However, many of the challenges facing women in science are far from trivial. Being a woman in science sometimes means having to prove your competence over and over – often even to your male field assistants, colleagues, and supervisors. Being a woman in science regularly means fighting for respect in the field, in the lab, and in the world at large.
Recent political events in the United States have once again brought the topic of women in science into the public eye. And so as we here at Dispatches launch into a new year of reporting field adventures from all over the world, we thought we’d get off to a good start by focusing on an oft-neglected topic: field fashion. What does it mean to dress like a woman…in the field?
It was a muggy, hot July day in eastern Ontario. I dragged myself out of bed at the usual 5 a.m. to get myself ready for a day of trudging around fields, peering into bird boxes to check on the nestlings inside. It had been raining steadily for several days – but that morning, the sun came back with a vengeance, creating that miserable steamy humidity so characteristic of Ontario summers.
I could tell from the moment my feet hit the floor beside my bed that it was going to be a scorcher of a day – and so I decided that I had no choice but to wear my old cut-off jean shorts (almost knee length, high waisted, trailing bits of thread as they unravelled, overall incredibly flattering). However, I realized I had another problem: the ground was still soaking wet from the days of rain. Obviously, the logical choice was to pair the jean shorts with my big, clunky black rubber boots. To complete the ensemble, I pulled an old tank top out of the pile of clothes by my bed, realizing as I did so that it was decorated with streaks of bird poop, which I decided not to worry about, since I would shortly be adding to them. I topped the whole thing off with my stupidly big floppy hat and my massively sexy binocular bra – a harness that crosses over my back and suspends my binoculars in the middle of my chest. (And yes, I fully admit that there are few things in the world as geeky as a bino bra – but what they lose in the fashion department, they more than make up for in comfort.)
As I left my room to start the day, my boss burst out laughing at the sight of me – but I’ve never felt better dressed for the day ahead.
The problem with being a field biologist, particularly a plant community ecologist, is that I really never know exactly what to wear. In early spring, I have to wear rain gear, and a lot of it. In summer, I want to wear as little as possible, but that just doesn’t work. Long pants are necessary…always. In fact, long pants tucked into socks are all the rage, as ticks (and Lyme disease) are a real and present threat. And even when it’s sweltering, and I want to wear a tank top, there is not enough bug spray in the world to keep away the swarming deer flies in an old field. So sleeves – preferably long- are a necessity. And even on a windy day, when the flies are blissfully absent, too much exposed skin is still a bad idea, because no amount of sunscreen protects me from the heat of the July sun beating down on the back of my neck. To top it all off, to deal with the constant run-ins with thistles and wild parsnips, I usually wear rain boots to protect myself. Long pants (tucked into my socks), long sleeves, and rain boots in the sweltering July heat…quite the fieldwork outfit.
My favourite outfits, though, are the fall fieldwork outfits. Dressed in layers to keep warm, covered in rain gear, and then decked out in bright orange so no one mistakes me for a deer. Hats and toques (at the same time, of course) are also a must, as they keep the sun and rain off my face, and also keep my head warm. And of course, I still have my pants tucked into my socks. But at least I complement the fall colours nicely. That’s some serious fieldwork fashion!
As a first time field biologist, whose training to date had been exclusively in the lab, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed out to the west coast of Canada to sample seabirds. Everything I heard regarding the weather in northern British Columbia included the words “dreary” and “wet”. In addition, since I was going in early spring, I was expecting it to be cold as well.
I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the type of weather I was likely to encounter…but some might say I was overprepared. This is a picture of me on my first day: I was wearing two pairs of socks, rain boots, two pairs of pants, rain pants, 3 shirts, a rain coat, a thicker rain over jacket (of heavy plastic), a toque, mitts, and a lifejacket (safety first!). My ‘feminine curves’ were well and truly hidden from view!
Luckily, all of the rain gear protected me from the rain and the waves splashing over the side of the boat on our way to the island. However, the rest of my time there featured beautiful, warm weather with lots of sunshine. Needless to say, traversing the cliffs of remote islands wasn’t too easy in all of that gear and the layers came off one by one.
So what’s the take-home message of these stories? Well, for one thing, it’s pretty certain that none of us will be getting a job at the White House any time soon.
However, there’s another message as well. The start of a new year here at Dispatches seemed like a good time to reflect on why we started this blog in the first place. First and foremost, we wanted to give field scientists a place to share stories about the places they love.
But we also developed Dispatches because all three of us are women in the sciences who love what we do. We hope that by sharing our passion for fieldwork and science, we might provide a bit of inspiration to young women starting out in science, and do our small part to combat the epidemic of the vanishing women.