The Elle Woods effect: Femininity and professionalism

Eight women of varying careers stand side by side. Photo courtesy of Girlcode.org.uk.

REECE BUTLER | OPINION COLUMNIST | rmbutler@butler.edu

Being a woman in a male-dominated field yields a very unique set of challenges such as unwarranted criticism, ostracization and flat out harassment — or so I’ve heard; I’m a psychology major. But still, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that an inherent, irreversible quality you possess is incompatible with the life and career that you desire. Or worse, you might even believe that this quality makes you undeserving of the fruits of your labor.

Dr. Anne Wilson, a professor of chemistry at Butler, explained her own experiences as a female doctorate student with lofty ambitions.

“[Being a woman is] being told that what you’re doing isn’t as important as other things and having to prove yourself over and over again,” Dr. Wilson said.

Unfortunately, this level of criticism and dismissal is not unique to graduate school. Emily Shoemaker, a senior statistics and actuarial science major, described similar experiences throughout her time at Butler where she felt tension between her career aspirations and her love of traditionally feminine activities.

“I think sometimes [men] don’t take me as seriously because not only am I female, but I’m very girly as well,” Shoemaker said.

This brings up an important point. Although being a woman is itself stigmatized in male-dominated fields, there are varying degrees to which your gender can affect you, most of which depends on how you choose to present yourself. 

For women that choose to present themselves in a more masculine or androgynous way — by avoiding feminine clothing, expressing interests in nontraditional activities, etc. — there is often a lesser burden than for women who behave and dress in a traditionally feminine way. It therefore seems as though it is not merely sex that is the issue; rather, it is a culmination of stereotypes as to what being feminine implies on a greater scale. 

Translation: femininity is being regarded not as a neutral characteristic, but rather a weakness.

Now, for those of you who aren’t actively catatonic with shock and emailing my editors to let them know that they have a revolutionary on their hands: you caught me. This is not a new idea by any means. Due to prevailing beliefs about what it means to be manly versus girly and, you know, ages of patriarchal power structures, the less-than-complimentary connotation of what it means to be feminine is widely understood.

This underlying bias that leads to so many harmful assumptions about girly women who chose to pursue careers — particularly in competitive or male-dominated fields — is what I lovingly refer to as ‘the Elle Woods effect.’

For those of you who haven’t seen the cinematic masterpiece that is Legally Blonde, allow me to summarize. The film focuses on protagonist Elle Woods who earns a coveted spot at Harvard law school with the hopes of winning back her ex-boyfriend, who left her in pursuit of a woman who was more ‘serious.’

Elle is a fashion major, a former sorority president, and — perhaps above all else — a lover of all things pretty and pink. And even though Elle later proves to show real promise in her field, she is consistently discredited — by men and women alike — due to these feminine traits.

The ‘Elle Woods effect’ explains how women are consistently looked down upon when they don’t hide their femininity. However, as Dr. Wilson explained, a double standard prevents even the least girly of women from being safe from scrutiny.

“If you’re a woman and you don’t wear makeup, you’re considered less professional,” Dr. Wilson said.

First-year business major Trinity Smock echoed this sentiment.

“You can’t really win either way,” Smock said. “Sometimes you can’t be girly to be seen as professional, but other times you have to be girly to be seen as professional.”

Perhaps the most discouraging part of this stigma surrounding self expression is the way in which other women participate by repeating or simply failing to reject the rhetoric surrounding being girly. This lack of support can lead to further exclusion for feminine women in nontraditional fields. Fortunately, Dr. Wilson offered an explanation from her own experience with previous generations of female scientists.

“I saw a little bit of that tension with my postdoctoral advisor who was a woman and said ‘I don’t need any of those women’s chemistry organizations … you need to make it on your own,’” Dr. Wilson said.

But seeking community within groups of people who understand your situation isn’t equivalent to seeking shortcuts. For Shoemaker, these communities were and are sources of strength that continue to shape her views as to how young women can be encouraged.

“I surrounded myself with girls with similar interests who were involved in girly things as well,” Shoemaker said. “Allowing girls to thrive in situations where it’s okay for them to get messy and intense … is important.”

In turn, femininity should be celebrated as a natural and healthy form of expression — one that, if anything, exudes strength and confidence. After all, some of the most stereotypical aspects of being girly are objectively important in roles of leadership and influence.

Compassion and delicacy in extrapersonal encounters is a frequent reducer of future conflicts. A strong regard for one’s appearance often denotes an appreciation of details and organization. A love of nature can show one’s potential to attend to matters with greater drive regardless of external motivators. And, perhaps most obviously, the grit to willingly withstand unwarranted and unjust criticism for who you are without bowing to societal pressure is an undeniable mark of confidence and strength of character.

The things that we have been taught to hide in ourselves are beautiful, beautiful things undeserving of the shame they are so often assigned. And while traditional femininity is not for everyone, Dr. Wilson believes that the overall message of promoting genuineness is universal.

“We need people to be more authentic in the workplace, whatever that authenticity looks like,” Dr. Wilson said. “Because trying to fit other people’s models means that we’ve been coming up with the same answers for a very long time … and the old answers aren’t working.”

So wear what you like, and present how you care to, but don’t forget to encourage the feminine women in your life just a little bit extra today — they’ve earned it.

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