Women are markedly underrepresented in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. They also encounter numerous gendered barriers to their professional advancement. However, there is a lacuna in the research on the diversity of field cultures and experiences of the large majority of scientists working in private sector STEM. I argue that the cultures of STEM fields have consequences for how workers construct professional identities in these fields. Focusing on two numerically important fields with very different gender distributions, this qualitative comparative case study draws on 40 semi-structured interviews with life scientists and technologists to explore how STEM professionals use impression management to establish credibility and belonging in their respective fields.
I find that appearance norms in both the life sciences and technology fields privilege men's bodies and clothing styles. Women, especially those in hard skills occupations, establish credibility in part by avoiding clothing that accentuates their bodies. In addition, I find that emotion control is important for success in these fields. Women in management frequently eliminate emotional expressions from their leadership behaviors in order to counteract stereotypes that they are innately weaker leaders. However, men and junior women do not engage in this emotional labor and perceive different consequences for expressing risky emotions, such as anger and sadness. Finally, I argue that women in both fields engage in embodied impression management strategies in response to the gender barriers they perceive in their fields. In contrast, men largely perceive their fields as gender-neutral meritocracies. Both of these perceptions reinforce an ideology of individualism that limits the potential for structural changes in these fields.
This research contributes to studies of culture, gender, and bodies. I identify a culture in both fields that associates leadership and professional credibility with masculinity. While women in both fields engage in similar impression management strategies in response to this culture, gender only becomes salient for them within particular interactions and contexts in their workplaces. Finally, this study demonstrates that, even in fields which prioritize rationality and discourage the display of emotion, women are engaging in significant unrecognized and unrewarded emotional labor.