Queer geeks, femininity and gender presentation

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

Here’s another clothing question, although I suppose that it could be expanded to gendered behavior in general. I’ve read geek women (on this site and other places) who find that wearing masculine clothing pushes others to respect their technical competence in a way that doesn’t happen when they dress femininely. I admire those who demonstrate that being awesome works just fine in a skirt, thanks. At the same time, I’ve been moving towards more masculine dress/mannerisms to see what types of gendered presentation actually work for me.

On the one hand, I want to explore the gender spectrum and see where I’m comfortable and what works. Where I’ve currently landed has the bonus (in some ways) of looking less like I must be straight. On the other hand, I don’t want to contribute to the meme that a woman in STEM has to look like a man to be respected.

I suspect this is another political/personal question, and that it might be a queer geek version of the more mainstream question of “How do I balance the expression of my own femininity and my desire that femininity not be mandatory for all women?” I’m looking less for advice here than for discussion and other perspectives.

11 thoughts on “Queer geeks, femininity and gender presentation

  1. lala

    I cringe every time I hear the word “feminine.” The idea that a certain manner of dress or personality characteristic is associated with being female is so oppressive. I’m actually skeptical that wearing traditionally masculine clothes works so well. In my experience, for every person who disrespects you for being too “feminine,” there is another person who disrespects you for being too “masculine,” so you have a no-win situation.

    I think in the end, the best thing you can do is wear what you feel best in and accept that there was some patriarchal influence in what you chose, but try not to think about it too much. Do you feel oppressed or not yourself when wearing a certain type of clothing? Then toss it out. If someone tries to tell you that what you are wearing is too “feminine” or too “masculine,” you can stand up and tell them that it doesn’t matter how you’re dressed. Whether you are wearing a pink floaty dress with flowers all over it or a traditionally masculine suit, you are still doing the same work with the same level of quality.

    Personally I go for more “feminine” stuff because I feel more comfortable in it. I am 100% certain that I feel comfortable in it because I’ve been told all my life that it’s how I’m supposed to look, but it’s easier for me to wear what makes me feel good than to play out a big political battle with my wardrobe. That would stress me out too much and it’s not fair to expect feminists to battle every single wrong.

  2. malpha

    I definitely agree to wear what feels best. If at any time you’re having to put on an act to go along with your clothing, then you’re betraying yourself and doing your own psyche a disservice (unless you like the art of putting on the act). Myself, I wear female clothes in that they are my size and fitted for women, but it’s all pants/jeans, high-cut shirts/t-shirts, and flats/sneakers. I don’t own skirts, dresses, or sleeveless things. I think that’s fine and not a huge sway one way on the other, but I don’t really concern myself with actually presenting as a gender in that it’s not a political or identity thing for me like getting comfortable with and exploring my sexuality is important to me. Whenever I tried to actively act a particular way, it was just a draining exercise in hatred for others and ultimately, hatred for myself. So, I think it’s better to dress how you want and deal with how people react to it, than let people’s reactions dictate how you dress.

  3. Aquaeri

    I’ve struggled with this one too. That horrid feeling that wearing “masculine” clothing just reinforces the idea that women aren’t really supposed to be there, that we are interlopers. And honestly, because there are so few women in many geeky places, most of the time you have enough on your plate convincing the culture that it’s okay for women to be there, let alone that those women can (gasp!) dress and appear different from each other, and that doesn’t affect their competency. Taking a minority and splitting it into even tinier sub-fractions is not a recipe for eventual equality.

    I’ve come to the radical conclusion that this is a issue where there really is something male geeks can do to support women (and other minorities) in geekdom: make sure you don’t wear standard geek clothing. I suspect it’s easier for a man in a skirt or bright colours or an interesting haircut to convince others he’s nevertheless technically competent than a woman.

    And to the men who shift uneasily and think “but that’d be … hard, I’d stick out, people would really notice me and wonder about me”: now you maybe have the slightest clue what it can be like to be a woman in tech. And maybe understand that overturning sexism is hard and requires active effort, by everyone.

    1. jon

      I strongly endorse the recommendation for guys to experiment with clothing that challenges gender norms. My experienced matched what you describe: it’s never led people to question my technical competence. On the other hand, it does lead people to react to you differently; at Microsoft, there was always a lot of staring and whispering, and a lot of guys were visibly uncomfortable around me if I wore something like hot pink jeans and nail polish. If you’re in a political situation, it can open you up for attacks: I got anonymously trashed on the company’s internal blog (in a thread where people were attacking HR VP Lisa Brummel for wearing shorts to the company meeting), and was told that in a meeting for a group that was considering hiring there was a lot of mocking of my choice in earrings. More positively, though, it also lets you see who really isn’t bothered by the way you dress, and who makes an effort to overcome their initial reactions.

      As you say, it gives a slight clue of what it’s like to be a woman in tech. Emphasis on “slight”: my experiences don’t remotely compare with the abuse that so many women and transgendered people have to deal with; and since I’m just as comfortable in boy-wear, it’s a choice I can easily turn on and off situationally without feeling like I’m repressing a part of myself. Still, it’s certainly helped me relate better at emotional level to others’ situations. Strongly recommended.

  4. Summer

    Personally, I’ve decided to allow myself to navigate the spectrum of gender expression as the feeling strikes me. Upon entering college as an engineering major, now chemistry major, I cut my hair into a short pixie in an effort to compensate for being female and having a name that people couldn’t take seriously (I no longer believe in the validity of this). I usually dress more “masculine” although I’ve been slowly incorporating colors into my black/grey wardrobe.

    Now I just allow myself to be whoever I am on any given day. Some days I feel more comfortable appearing as cis and other days I come across as queer. It is not my responsibility to be a walking advertisement for the diversity of women (in tech), but that doesn’t mean I cannot be an advocate regardless of where I appear to fall on the spectrum on any given day.

  5. nobody

    I try not to think about this too hard, because I’m constitutionally incapable of being feminine. I have tried to go a little more feminine on occasion but I’m never comfortable. I don’t like to look like I’m wearing makeup. I loathe purses. I would prefer clothes cut to match my feminine curves but I’d kill for the nice pockets in men’s clothes. One of these days I’ll get rich and famous and find myself a taylor.

    I think it has a lot more to do with personal comfort than clothing style. You say that dressing in a less feminine fashion makes others respect you. But you go on to say that dressing less femininely has a bonus for you. Are you sure you aren’t just more comfortable dressing a particular way? And that your comfort is perceived as self confidence by those around you? Or does the theatrical act of dressing a particular way make you behave a particular way? Do you pick masculine clothes that broadcast professionality and feminine clothes that broadcast something else? There are a whole lot of variables here.

  6. Tia

    I’ve been wondering the same thing, honestly. I’m sort of anti-changing-how-I-dress for the sake of someone else’s interpretation of me. I’ve always struggled with the “make-up is required” as somehow presenting one’s self as a clean woman. So…I don’t wear make-up. My advisor, I think, is also struggling with this. She wears mostly muted colors but in feminine cuts, while also wearing masculine scents to I don’t know…counter-balance maybe?

    I don’t know if this is one of those cases where academia versus industry might make a huge difference in what matters. :/ Or really, the particular job. And if this is maybe one of those, if they can’t handle you-how-you-are, it’s not worth working with them.

  7. Ames

    I’ve seen ultra feminine girly girls who could run rings around male engineers and were still treated like idiots, as well situations where they were respected. At several jobs, butch dykes had the keys to the IT kingdom, and shown great respect and deference besides. If they’re going to take us seriously, it’s because of our brains. If they’re not, it’s because of our genitals. I present as fairly androgynous and engage in exactly zero male-female rituals at work (flirting, averting my eyes, going along with his mansplaining, showing deference because he’s a man, etc.). I’ve gotten pretty much the exact same amount of respect as my more feminine and more masculine (female) colleagues. It’s been pretty much that simple in my 25 years of experience in tech jobs and that’s why I’ve stayed – I know immediately whether I’m being listened to and why or why not. When I’m not, I simply move on to greener pastures because I know that no matter what I do, all they can see is that I’m female. I like my field because it’s one place where I can actually be myself.

  8. Lizzzzzzzzz

    When I taught middle school math in NYC, I had a really tough time with classroom management and getting the students to listen to me. There were a variety of reasons for my difficulty — lack of experience, my non-authoritative voice and manner, slouching, youth, etc. — and several times people suggested I dress up more and wear make-up as a way to look like I was “in charge” and also older. Dressing up and wearing make-up really stress me out, so I never really tried it. For a while, I thought about wearing white button down shirts, slacks, and ties, but I am pretty sure the students would have laughed and been distracted constantly by this. Middle school kids fiercely enforce gender norms.

  9. moose

    I am genderqueer, in the sense that I don’t clearly identify with male or female [or neither (or both)].

    I am also disabled. I wear skirts a lot. I do not do this because they are feminine or girly or even choose them when I’m feeling more female than male. I choose them because when you’ve spent 10 minutes fighting to get your [censored] underwear on the last thing you feel like doing is spending another 10+ getting pants on, too. Skirts are so simple. [I also don't wear makeup and buzzcut my hair.]

    I often get the “you are wearing a skirt so you are a girl” attitude. I’ve had people try to explain to me that I must somehow secretly be feminine if I wear skirts so much.

    On the flip side, I know quite a few geek males who like wearing kilts and would every day if they could. However, at least in the US, there seems to be an overwhelming public opinion that kilts, unless you’re Scots by ethnicity and you’re wearing your family tartan, are just “man skirts” and to be laughed at.

    Related tale:

    Years ago (mid-1980s) I took a summer class in children’s literature. The class was geared towards “early ed” or pre-school children and concentrated on picture books and doing projects with them. I was the only person in the class who was not either a teacher or in school to become one. Everyone in the class appeared to be bio-female.

    The first week in the class the teacher read books to us to demonstrate how to choose books and relate activities to them. One of the books she chose was about a young boy who had a skirt that he liked to wear at home. When it came time for him to start Kindegarten he insisted on wearing the skirt. I don’t recall how or who taunted him, I just remember that at the end the Mom tells the kid that he can still wear the skirt when he wants to when he’s home alone (with his parents).

    The attitude of the book itself was disturbing but what was worse was the reaction of every one of the younger students in the class — all of the college-age students were absolutely appalled that a mother not only would let her *male* child wear a skirt at all but that she would let him out of the house in one.

    Interestingly, though, every one of the older, established teachers just smirked and laughed at the younger students, telling them that young children like to play and experiment and they only see clothing as gender-specific if you force it on them, and that a little boy wearing a skirt will not suddenly make him gay (or whatever other silly concerns they had).

  10. Catherine Devlin

    It’s awful that you can get bogged down in guilt and doubt in either direction. If you dress and act femme, then wonder if you’re reinforcing society’s prescription for women; if you don’t, then wonder if you’re reinforcing the notion that women can only be geeky by being more like men. Ugh! It would be best to just drop all the angst – if only that were as easy to do as to say.

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