Lab Coats And The Patriarchy

Image : Unsplash

My boyfriend was watching a video on car engines and lab testing associated with them. No—I wasn’t paying rapt attention to the viscosity of this or that, or the corrosive ability of that or this. But what I was paying attention to was the lead scientista femaleand a bright one at that.

Two males were interviewing her, and I was surprised that they asked questions and then—shocker—listened. And didn’t interrupt.

It was so surprising I was almost giddy at the realization.

This, of course, made me wonder why I was surprised and excited about someone being shown respect. And by someone, I mean a female scientist.

One thought lead to another, and I started thinking about my experiences studying and working in labs.  I studied in several neuroscience labs, and though many of my cohorts were female, the field is still a male-dominated one. This isn’t any different from STEM fields in general.

My mind wandered and I realized the subtle patriarchy in science, namely, in the clothing and gear provided to, and worn by, scientists.

While in lab, I always had trouble finding safety glasses that fit me properly. Being a female, my face is not very large (but my female hips are). I rarely could find safety glasses that weren’t either slipping off my face or pulled tightly to adjust over my smaller head to the point it would cause red lines that would last on my skin for a while after removal.

Lab coats were just as frustrating to fit into. They were typically too wide, too long or too tight in all the wrong places. Often, they didn’t fit my wider hips because they were too tight. The sleeves were always long, the overall length hung further than was comfortable moving around in lab. Very few people look svelte in lab coats, but the ones who do look decent tend to be male.

Why?

Because lab coats are patriarchal.

Even smaller sizes meant to cover a female body do not adequately fit a female body. They are sewn straight and long, much like a typical male body is built. Safety glasses are made with a wider male face in mind. So in a field that is already patriarchal behaviorally, the fashion, too, is patriarchal.

This makes me think about all the subtle ways patriarchy slips into and poisons our society. Even simple lab fashion could render into sexism. Though fashion might seem like an inane thing to think about, and perhaps stereotypically female, fashion is such a defining point for many human societies.  Think about the way fashion affects our mood, our personality, and others’ perceptions of us. Fashion is policed by societies worldwide, to control how people look and behave. When understanding that, it isn’t difficult to recognize that fashion can be a subtle medium for pushing women aside in the lab.

I do not think lab coat and safety glasses companies are explicitly sexist when they design their worn products, but I do think that the bias is there without thought. Even I didn’t realize it until I sat down to think about it.

Fighting sexism is an uphill battle, but I wonder if starting small and attacking the subtle features of the mindset is the better way of overhauling the system.

Rania Hanna Bio
Rania Hanna : A tempest trying to make her way through the world, and figure out what hat to wear.