Self-censorship, or picking your battles

A woman I know* in a geeky job is going back to work from holiday, and is thus re-dying her hair from pink to something in the ‘natural’ spectrum. There was a discussion about this in the forum where she announced her new dye job, with several people saying that if people have a problem with her hair colour, it’s their problem not hers, and she should be brightly coloured and proud as she chooses.

Sound familiar? Almost like “if someone’s a sexist, that’s their problem!”

My friend then went on to explain that of course it’s not only their problem. In her particular job she has short business interactions with people with a great deal of power over her professionally: representatives of external authorities approving her projects and similar things. She doesn’t feel able to be professionally successful while pushing their boundaries on her gender, on her age (young for the role) and on appropriate business dress and grooming all at the same time, and thus chooses to conform when it comes to the last.

Do you make similar compromises in your own life? Are there boundaries that you don’t have the energy to push on, or feel that you can only make so many challenges to the kyriarchy and the status quo at one time without all the challenges together meaning each individual one won’t be taken seriously? Are there times when as someone who is a geek and a feminist that you’ve let something else that you’d like to be slide, or times when other goals have got in the way of your expression as a geek or a feminist or both?

* This isn’t one of those times when I’m actually talking about myself in the guise of “a friend”. Although it does make me think that as a PhD student I should conduct hair colour experiments while I can.

20 thoughts on “Self-censorship, or picking your battles

  1. Cesy

    I’ve certainly avoided experimenting with hair colour or makeup since I’m working, and I dress more in line with current mainstream fashion when I have to socialise with colleagues in the evenings.

  2. Kat

    There are certain language things that I just don’t care enough about to fight. One of these is the casual reference about women as “chicks”. One of my friends (who lives in another country and is used to dealing with much more formal language) thinks I’m a Bad Feminist for not fighting this battle, and maybe I am for not considering it demeaning or for thinking it’s the female equivalent of “dudes”. (“Dudettes” is so awful I just can’t bear to write it.) There are at least 100 words which I vocally object to more.

    I also don’t present myself in a way that draws attention to my appearance, conforming or not. I don’t go out of my way to look fashionable and consider myself fairly unfashionable. On the other hand, I pretty much go to the women’s section and buy whatever boring clothes will make me blend in, like boot-cut jeans and a fitted t-shirt. Actually spending the time to look non-conformist or make any sort of statement at all is too much of an effort for me. I just don’t care enough to do anything other than look clean and presentable in clothes without holes.

  3. Ingrid Jakobsen

    Because I used to work in a rather male-dominated field, one of my priorities when dressing for work was to make it clear I am female, so I own somewhat more feminine clothes than I might otherwise choose. I don’t want anyone getting the impression that the field only contains men and women who wished they were men or are trying to be men, and that’s what I (from experience) know people take away from androgynously-dressed women in a strongly male-dominated field.

    Similarly, while I’m not a big fan of pink per se, sometimes it can be a very handy “there are women here” marker. But it’s definitely a balancing act – you don’t want the pink to trivialise you either. (And may I say again: ARGH for having to do so much thinking about appearance when (white) men generally don’t have to. Privilege++)

  4. melissawm

    Since I’m actually hoping to get a teaching job at a good university in the coming months, I did go through all my experimenting when I was a PhD student for exactly that reason. Not that teaching is an especially sexist job, but since I’m small and look young (a curse, I tell you) I get a lot of people not recognizing my authority on the fact that I look juvenile. So it’s not really a sexist reason in my case, more of a general prejudice against tatoos, piercings, colored hair, alternative clothing etc So yes, I think some times it is worthwile to renounce to some things and ease your way in, even if temporarily (I totally hope that when I’m established as a teacher I’ll be able to go back to my (anti)normal self :)

  5. lilacsigil

    I find this really interesting, because my “stand out” issue is that I’m fat. Not “omg must lose 6 pounds” fat, but really, truly fat. People seem to take that as a personal affront, and as a comment on my professionalism and presentation. On the other hand, as I work in a health field, other people, especially fat, sick and/or disabled people, seem to be more comfortable with me than with thinner colleagues.

    So while I agree that there is a basic standard of professional dress, there are always ifs and buts attached – it’s not *just* your friend’s problem that her age, gender and hairstyle will have extra scrutiny. What if her body is unacceptable? Her skin colour? She already sounds iffy about gender and age. I can see why she doesn’t want to waste energy fighting an extra battle, but, nonetheless, she is fighting anyway.

    1. Mary Post author

      I didn’t raise it in the post, but you’re absolutely right that being able to choose to minimise something is a privilege.

  6. Dorothea Salo

    For me it’s demeanor. I naturally behave in office settings in ways that are coded heavily masculine. I have a loud, low-pitched voice. I interrupt (though I realize that is rude and I’m working hard to stop doing it for reasons that have nothing to do with the kyriarchy), and I dominate conversations if I don’t watch myself. I don’t mind saying smart things.

    And all of that has been killing me where I work, and so I’ve been spending the last year or so trying to curb it. I do realize not all of it is intrinsically bad behavior, but I gotta get along where I work, you know?

  7. gnat

    I wore a skirt once to my comp sci class at uni. First and last time: lesson learned. My fellow students acted differently, and my programming lecturer who I normally have a good rapport with treated me like my brain had fallen out and I was going to sue him for getting close enough to me to look at my computer. My univeristy uniform now consists of pants and a modest t-shirt, and will for the forseeable future. I also tend not to point out sexist or homophobic remarks as often as I do normally. Usually, when I’m in an interaction where I feel I hold at least my equal share of the power, I will always take people up on remarks like this. Not so with my programming classmates. I know can’t get through this degree by myself, I’m going to need their help. That means making some consessions that I otherwise would never dream of making. I’d rather be a “honorary guy” than an outcast and, as a result, fail my degree.

  8. Anna

    Certainly I have not dyed my hair (woe) since becoming a TA because I must look like an adult. And I don’t fight every day about everything that strikes me as problematic on campus. There are just only so many hours, and I need this job.

  9. bywyd

    Oh yes, I hear you! This is oddly pertinent to me at this very second in fact, because I am attending a conference for work. The first time I went, it was like everyone else had got a memo I hadn’t; saying “it’s Dress-down Friday!” Last time I can’t remember what I did. This time I do not know how I am supposed to balance “hey, it’s casual” with the way in which every person with power over me will be there (aaaand, they’re all men), and not draw too much attention to the fact I am young and female.

    I would really like a tattoo. But frankly the people I am working with are battling with “She’s a girl” enough. If they had to battle with “She’s not our idea of a nice girl” I might no longer have a job. Let us not even think about the other ways I’m not their idea of a nice girl.

    As to the wider “choosing one’s battles” – I’m afraid the thing I don’t always have the spoons to fight is assumptions of binary gender and gender essentialising stuff. The other day I did actually pull someone up on assuming that gender is binary and just the sheer weight of incomprehension was enough to make me reassess how many spoons I had left – and back off. And today, when we accidentally made a photocopy of the colouring page on pink paper I let the “Oh, well we’ll give that one to a little girl” comment just go right on by.

  10. GeekGirlsRule

    I have several tattoos, but they are all located so that I can hide them if necessary. I can take my nosering out, if needed. I also rarely wear any jewelery apart from my wedding rings, the aforementioned nosering, my medicalert bracelet and small silver hoop earrings.

    I have a huge collection of funky, gorgeous, interesting rings, but between the fact that I spend a lot of time typing, and the fact that I work with dentists (a largely conservative bunch), I don’t wear them.

    Now, I do get to play a bit with my hair, but it does have to be primarily a natural color, but we’ve discovered that subtle accents of odd colors are ok. As long as they’re subtle.

    But, as another poster above noted, I’m fat, and I also have big breasts. Things that look fine on my more slender, flatter chested co-workers will look practically obscene on my chest. So I tend to pair v-necked shirts with higher necked camisoles, or wear something higher necked than I might otherwise like.

  11. Addie

    Count me in as another who dresses androgynously / unfashionably at the workplace. I didn’t start out doing so, but in my current job we don’t have a lot of privacy (cube farm and no working from home), and over the last year have run into many situations where attention has been awkwardly paid to me (it’s uncomfortable even if it’s not overtly gendered). In response to this attention and my desire for privacy, I’ve wanted to make myself as invisible as possible so I stop feeling self-conscious about others looking at me and can focus on my work. I think most of the attention I was getting was just an optimal mix of social awkwardness common with those who haven’t gotten a good education in professionalism – but it’s nonetheless fed my desire to increase my sense of privacy with an uninteresting look.

    I honestly don’t mind doing this in the workplace, but since I spend most of my time at work, these habits do end up carrying over to my personal life. There are times when getting dressed up and expressing oneself in vibrant ways is a lot of fun and I feel like I’ve lost touch with this part of myself. Feeling ungendered at work makes me more comfortable but it’s really taken a toll on my self-esteem, social and romantic pursuits, etc. in the rest of my life.

  12. B

    For many years I had a butch haircut, but my last year at school I grew it shoulder length or so. I liked the haircut, but I made sure to cut it back short before starting a new job, just in case I got tired of having it long. I preferred to introduce myself as androgynous to avoid the possibility of receiving uncomfortable comments from new coworkers (uniformly older and male) if I made a de-feminizing change to my appearance.

    1. quartzpebble

      I interviewed for my current job (large pharma company) with half-inch hair but still wore makeup that day. I can count the number of times I’ve worn makeup there since on one hand, though.

      I do tend to dress closer to the androgynous/masculine end of the spectrum than my female coworkers do. I don’t like the thought that this may be an advantage in future work environments (the “like a guy” idea), but I also don’t want to feel like I have to present a feminine look to make it clear that there are women in a space who are unapologetically female. I would love more everyday space to explore gender without it seeming to mean so much.

  13. eli

    I think those posters’ comments are coming from a place of privilege, be it white privilege or class privilege, or both.

    Because poor people and black people (and especially people who are both) know that if someone has a problem with something about you – that makes it your problem. Because you can’t afford to say I’m dyeing my hair pink and eff you if you don’t like it, because that could very well mean the difference between being cool at work and having to look for a job next week.

  14. Jacinta Reid

    My hair went blue in January. Since then it has been purple and pink and back to blue. I’ve always wanted a vibrant cartoon hair colour. I expect to complete my undergrad degree in IT at mid year.

    I’ll dye my hair a more conventional colour when I get close to interviewing for employment. I feel ambivalent about doing a bait-and-switch, but whether I change my hair back to an unusual colour once I am established in the workplace will depend on whether that look feels appropriate or acceptable in the given workplace.

    Like everyone, I’d prefer it did not matter. I wish the metrics by which I’d be measured did not differ from those applied to make co-workers. And while I’m wishing, I’d probably change those metrics to be less “straight and manly” oriented.

    I’ve had counsellors ask me: “Why do you care what other people think of you?” My answer is that “what other people think of me” is important because it is my reputation. Personal. Professional. What other people think of me as a cook, a parent, a singer, a worker, a lover, a thinker… their impression of me has real-life potential to have real-life impacts.

    What other people think of me determines whether I will be invited to share social events with them, whether they suggest that I be given a particular work task and ultimately, whether I am given opportunities or whether I am shunned.

    Perhaps people who are impatient with my inability to shrug off “what other people think” have never been vulnerable to the influence of those other people. But I have. And as much as I wish I didn’t: I do have to care what other people think.

    I think I’ll dye my hair black. I’ve never had black hair before. I wonder if it will suit me?

  15. Beth

    I didn’t remove my lip piercing before my med school interview and now I’m left wondering if my position on the waitlist has been affected by that at all. Sometimes doing these things we think are “expected” by “society” is like being a proto-Vulcan trying to please the Picard.

  16. Kit

    For me this question is about compromise. Yes, I have compromised to get along. I feel working in a professional realm has required this of me to be successful. Do I think it sucks? Yes I do. However, I do think that taking a middle road approach can be to our advantage at times. The reality is that people are frequently turned off by what they might consider to be more “extreme”, despite the fact that I may not consider it as such. I feel that picking my battles makes it more difficult for others to simply dismiss what I say and do as “extreme”, “pc”, etc.

    I would throw out the example of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft ( feel free to disagree with me on this one!). Jane Austen wrote books about women running off to get married. However, her works contained some serious prototypic feminist vibes. I feel that she was able to get away with it by flying under the radar a bit. Mary Wollstonecraft got pretty dismissed for a long time after her reputation was chewed up because of how unorthodox she was. I have to wonder which was more helpful at the time. I dunno. You tell me.

  17. AnneC

    I am currently an engineer-between-jobs. My hair, in front, is blue. I started dyeing it green or blue (or some combination thereof) about a year after I got out of college, when I was working. I got some comments at first but I did not get fired, and my workplace at the time was definitely not some sort of youth-oriented startup; most of my co-workers were my parents’ age or thereabouts. But anyway, I have to confess I am kind of boggled at how many things (whether they be in terms of inaction, or action) are perceived as “making a statement”. In my case, what I wear has always been primarily about my own comfort and my own aesthetic sense. Comfort is an absolute essential; I am on the autism spectrum and have major sensory issues with some textures, and cannot concentrate on work if I am dealing with itchy pants or whatnot. So that means the traditional “female professional” wardrobe is pretty much inaccessible to me. I am no more “making a statement” by wearing jeans/cargos and a t-shirt or sweater than someone putting a coat on to go get the mail in sub-zero weather is “making a statement”.

    As for the hair? I dye it because I like the way it looks. I would still do so if I lived alone on a desert island (with access to hair dye, that is), again, because I like it. I would consider overdyeing it to black for an interview, but ideally I would prefer to work for a place that does not judge people on the basis of hair color. Since my social “graces” are atypical to begin with, the way things usually end up working out, is if people can’t stand my hair they can’t stand the rest of me either.

  18. Rebecca

    I work in the arts, and in a very laid-back office, so generally don’t have to deal with any issues around presentation or behavior. That said, I’m a trans woman and did transition on the job. Overall, my bosses/coworkers/board were pretty awesome, but there have been some instances where I’ve felt like (as Mary indicated in the original post) I already have a constant battle to “prove” myself as a young woman, and particularly as a young trans woman, and don’t have the energy to consider adding more interesting piercings, tattoos, or hair color to the mix.

    However, in reference to eli’s spot-on comment, I try to stay conscious of my own white privilege and the privilege inherent to my socio-economic background. And I have what’s sometimes called “passing privilege” within the trans community, which means I’m almost always perceived as my identified gender (female) and usually don’t have to disclose my status as trans. I’m pretty out about my identity, and generally try to convince myself I’d have the same opportunities and roadblocks whether or not potential employers know I’m trans but I’m pretty sure that isn’t actually the case.

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