Dress fashionably…in a STEM industry?!

You’ve got the smarts and the experience. You even know how to deal with the locker room talk.

What you don’t have are all the cute clothes your friends in creative industries get to wear, because fashion and STEM industries just don’t mix. No one would take you seriously.

Female sciencest dressed in frilly dressBecause apparently, women can only be analytical or fashionable. They can’t possibly be both, because then the world would stop spinning and there would be a bounty out for any left-brained woman wearing lipstick and designer shoes.

Or so it seems.

You work hard, do your homework, and produce amazing results, yet if you reward yourself with something men deem frivolous – like expensive haircuts or a day at the spa – then you’re seen as frivolous and your efforts are discounted. Particularly in male-dominated industries like math and science.

Which is ridiculous when you think about it.

Because math and science created fashion.

What?!  Plot Twist…

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) created every industry, and clothing was one of the first – right up there with food and shelter.

Skin care - spa dayBut for some reason, industries that appeal to women are seen as “less than” by most men.

Sci-Fi movies? Cool. Rom Coms? Fluff.

High tech cars? Sleek. High tech skin care? Silly.

Expensive watches? Drool worthy. Expensive handbags? Eye-roll worthy.

They’ll give us a hard time about our “girly” ways, yet what kind of women do they chase after? The well dressed ones with beautiful skin.

Now granted, you’re not going to work to pick up guys. You’re there to work with them.

Or, as they see it, to compete with them.

Which means you have to dress like it.

The first thing you need to understand is that while women tend to think in terms of nurturing and community, men tend to think in terms of power and hierarchy.

So while you’re trying to create harmony by getting everyone on the same page, all your male coworkers are trying to figure out how to leave you in the dust. Guys may want their romantic partners to be soft and feminine, but they’ll plow right over any competitor they view as soft.

Including you.

Dressing fashionably in a STEM industry is seen as a weakness. That you’re “too girly” to be taken seriously.

So how do you get around that?

With science.

Specifically, psychology.

You have to out-think them.

Which means you have to know how they think.

In STEM-related industries, that typically means using left-brained functions like logic, facts, and sequencing.

If you start with that approach, you’re more likely to succeed.

How The STEM Industry Created Fashion

Let’s start with the basics.

Earlier I said that the STEM industry created fashion. Clothing, accessories, and beauty products would not exist without them. So let’s take a quick walk through fashion history to revisit some of those breakthrough moments. I’ll explain why when we’re done.

Weaving7,000 B.C.

Weaving technology is in common use by this time in present-day Turkey, as woven fabrics recovered by archaeologists from this period can attest. There is also evidence of fabric dyes created from plants and roots.

6,000 B.C.

Egyptians begin documenting crop production for textiles. Records show they have several types of spinning devices, and they use horizontal ground looms to weave fabric.

Egyptian eye makeup4,000 B.C.

Egyptians use sea shells, pumice stones, and depilatories made from beeswax to remove all their body hair to stay cool and minimize lice. They also begin heavily lining their eyes with kohl to trap dust, repel flies, and reduce sun glare – like football players do today. Both customs quickly spread to India and the Middle East.

3,000 B.C.

Silk production begins in China after it’s discovered that the cocoon of the Bombyx Mori moth is actually one long silk thread that when unwound, is nearly a mile long. Vertical looms are invented to hold the delicate thread for weaving. Silk becomes the most sought-after fabric in the ancient world, but the Chinese keep the secret of sericulture – and the Silk Road profits from it – to themselves for over 3,000 years.

1,500 B.C.

The Phoenicians successfully create the first stable purple dye from the secretion of sea mollusks found only in the Eastern Mediterranean, near their port city of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon. Tyrian purple is so difficult and expensive to create that purple garments are forbidden to be worn by anyone other than royals and emperors. This rule remains in effect until the Victorian Era, or for more than 3,300 years.

500 B.C.

The Greek sculptor Polycleitos writes a treatise on mathematical proportions called “The Canon,” in which he uses the head as a measuring module and declares that the ideal body proportion is 7.5 heads tall. Later Greeks propose an 8-head canon, which becomes the ideal body standard for sculpture, art, and dress.

200 B.C.

The Roman Senate passes sumptuary laws regulating displays of wealth by Roman citizens. Jewelry, clothing, dinner parties, and carriages all come under scrutiny.

The “Age of Enlightenment”

Color Wheel1666

After analyzing rainbows and exhaustively studying color, light, and prisms, Sir Isaac Newton develops the color wheel to help artists create appealing palettes by applying the theory of color.


Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, which quickly and easily removes the seeds from cotton. It quadruples the output of cotton fiber and transforms the textile industry.


Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard invents a mechanical loom that uses punch cards to create complex patterns like brocade, damask, and matelasse. It creates consistent results from weavers of varying skill levels, and speeds up production of these luxury textiles. The Jacquard loom becomes an early prototype of the modern-day computer.


After several attempts by different inventors to modernize looms, Englishman Richard Roberts develops a mechanized loom that is so easy to set up and operate that a child could monitor six of them at once. Commercial textile mills spring up all over the world.


Engineer Isaac Singer patents the sewing machine, which creates consistent stitches and speeds up clothing production. It revolutionizes the clothing industry.


Eighteen year old English chemistry student William Perkins accidentally creates a synthetic purple dye while trying to make synthetic quinine. He repeats the experiment with other colors and succeeds. The market for natural dyes collapses as the cheaper synthetics become readily available.


1952 "Walk Away" dress - the most popular Butterick Pattern of all timeTailor Ebenezer Butterick creates scalable sewing patterns – patterns of varying sizes that could be easily scaled up or down – and begins selling them by mail from his home in Connecticut. Prior to Butterick, patterns are only sold in one size – adult – and seamstresses had to do all the calculations themselves to make patterns smaller for infants, children, or anyone who didn’t fit the pattern size.  Butterick’s patterns are so popular that by the end of the first year, he moves his company to New York City to find experienced help. By the 1890s, the two biggest names in fashion are Charles Frederick Worth (the father of haute couture) and Butterick patterns.


San Francisco dry goods merchant Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis receive a patent for blue denim trousers reinforced with rivets at the stress points on the pockets and crotch. The rivets and heavy denim make the “waist overalls” more durable than any trousers on the market, and they became a favorite of cowboys, miners, and other laborers. Today, blue jeans are the most popular garment in the world, and the only one designed in the the 19th century that remains virtually unchanged in the 21st.

The Modern Era


The DuPont Corporation creates a synthetic “miracle” fiber they call nylon, which they intent for use for parachutes. They soon realize it has multiple uses, including as a cheap alternative to silk stockings. Nylon stockings are introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair and are an immediate hit.


Dress for SuccessAfter years of conducting various experiments on how people respond to clothing, Connecticut school teacher turned clothing salesman John T. Malloy publishes Dress for Success, which teaches men how to dress to be successful in Corporate America. It’s a runaway best seller, and inadvertently leads to the Yuppie movement of the 1980s when those who follow his advice succeed in creating a new class of worker: the well dressed, well educated, upper middle class.


Yuppies and corporate greed are blamed for the stock market crash of 1987, and the backlash is swift and long-lasting: people start dressing down. Tech-related companies begin wearing t-shirts and jeans to show they’re the antithesis of Corporate America, and profits skyrocket. Other industries quickly follow suit, but with much less success.


Why all the fashion history?

For a few reasons:

First, it’s easy to mock things when you have no skin in the game.

If any of the men you know had discovered silk, invented the loom, gone diving for sea snails, or created nylon, they wouldn’t call fashion frivolous; they’d call it their livelihood, and be delighted they had such a hungry market.

Secondly, it’s easy to understand why you’re drawn to fashion and beauty products – especially if you’re in a STEM industry: because of the fascinating technology behind them.

Weaving, dyeing, cutting, and sewing took thousands of years and tens of thousands of people to perfect. Then there’s perfume, makeup, and other grooming products that were invented without benefit of labs, centrifuges, or the periodic table. How did they do it? Just Google “The history of (your favorite product)” and you’ll be amazed by the backstory.

Finally, I wanted to get you into an analytical mindset. I listed plenty of applied math and science breakthroughs, but I also talked a little bit about behavioral science – for a reason. Because in order to dress fashionably in a male-dominated industry, you have to use both applied science and behavioral science to get the attention and respect you deserve.

Think Like a Man

Again, to out-think men, you have to know how they think.

So let’s look at how men dress, because it will give you some insight into their mindset.

Depending on the industry, standard male business attire typically looks something like this:

Men's business attire

Clean lines, simple colors, very functional.

“Pushing the edge” fashion-wise might look something like this:

Men's Fashion Attire

Expensive leathers, unusual sweaters or jackets. A masculine “cool” vibe.

Going super trendy or complicated means losing the average male.

Men's Trendy Fashion Attire

This is fashion “dandy” territory. Effeminate. Most straight men won’t go there.

So how does this translate into female clothes?

Clean lines, simple colors:


Feminine “cool” vibe:

Women's business fashion attire

Very trendy or girly:

Women's over-the-top fashion

All clothes in this section courtesy of StyleBop.com

See what’s going on?

When you’re too trendy, you’re seen as being more interested in fashion than in work. If you’re too girly, you’re seen as weak and incapable of doing the job.

But when you add fashion elements men themselves enjoy – like cool jackets, scarves, or shades – then you’re speaking their language: functional, appropriate, and largely devoid of frippery and frills.

This is the kind of stuff most STEM industry guys can get behind because it’s fun.  It’s sleek.

Trinity from "The Matrix"
Trinity from “The Matrix”

It’s Sci-Fi.

Which is precisely where you find the types of left-brained women most STEM guys would give their right arm to work with.

Uhura. Ripley. Trinity. Katniss.

Smart. Sexy. Sassy.

Totally Kick-Ass.

These women know their job and they look good, but fashion seems like an afterthought. The work comes first.

As it should for you.

Here’s What You Need to Do  

So am I saying you should revamp your entire wardrobe to look like some sort of Sci-Fi vixen?

Of course not!

Use Sci-Fi’s leading ladies as a source of inspiration.

The sleek lines, high-tech accessories, and precise grooming.

Because when you look tough yet chic, you feel tough and chic. It boosts your confidence.  It gives you swagger. A real plus when you’re working with men who are as ambitious as you.

Just don’t go all-pleather and morph into Trinity overnight.  That will do more harm than good.

No, start with the basic uniform for your industry. If you don’t know what that is, take a look around at the top performers in your department, company, or STEM industry. Again, it will probably look like one of these:

Women's business attire

Once you determine your industry uniform, don’t stray too far from it – especially if you have a lot of public contact, like as a spokesperson, sales person, or day-to-day customer contact.  Your goal is to up the “cool” factor of your industry uniform, not rewrite it.  Think tweaks, not overhaul.

Opt for clean lines and simple silhouettes. Think minimalist, not fashionista.

Clothes should fit correctly, but not be revealing or body-accentuating. You want your male co-workers to check out your brain, not your body. If you aren’t a college student, ditch the schlumpy t-shirt and hoodie in favor of more professional attire.

Make sure anything you buy goes with at least three other items in your wardrobe. Your goal is to build clothing capsules of mix-and-match pieces that you can wear in a variety of ways.

If you work with chemicals or animals or are in some other position where your clothing and accessories are frequently soiled or damaged, make sure they can stand up to frequent washing or is inexpensive enough to replace. Never wear your good stuff to do dirty work.

Next, make sure your grooming is “up to snuff.” Get a hairstyle that’s current and easy to maintain. Wax those brows. Make your skin soft and supple. If you wear makeup, keep it simple – no overly-dramatic eyes or unnatural-colored lipstick. Keep nails trimmed. You want to look polished.

Next, slowly begin adding some fun, inexpensive accessories, like scarves, shades, or practical-yet-quirky shoes. Nothing overly trendy, girly, or fussy.

Then observe how others respond to you.

Start small with accessories

Your Own A/B Split Test

If you treat your wardrobe like an A/B split test and observe how others respond to you, you’ll find the elements that get the best and worst response.

That’s what Dress for Success author John T. Molloy did back in the 70s, and it transformed millions of lives. It will do the same for you.

Next, depending on how others respond to your previous wardrobe choices, think about adding some other, more expensive pieces, but make sure they’re in line with your income. A cool watch, nice leather jacket, or sleek briefcase will turn heads and garner compliments.

Fashion ideas

Finally, remember the levels of formality so you can dress accordingly for all the different activities in your life.

If you typically wear casual clothes, keep a neutral-colored jacket in your office to slip on for meetings with managers or visiting colleagues. Ever socialize after work?  Keep a selection of cocktail pieces at the ready. Are you asked to do a lot of speaking?  Keep suit pieces handy.

Again, think organized, efficient, and minimalist when working or socializing with colleagues. You can dress however you want after hours – in sweats, high heels, or head-to-toe flowers – but keep it sleek and simple for work.

Always remember: your male colleagues aren’t interested in harmony and Kumbaya. They’re looking to discredit you and take you down so they can take over your bylines, office, or lab space.

Think I’m joking?

When a young, attractive female engineer appeared in a recruiting ad for her Silicon Valley software company in August 2015, male critics were quick to say that she was really a model and that she was “too sexy” to be an engineer.

Her response started a movement, #ilooklikeanengineer:


Which then quickly spilled over to other male-dominated industries, like #ilooklikeasurgeon:

Dr. Jane Eggerstedt
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs
Louisiana State University

See what you’re up against?

A lot of these guys will run roughshod right over you if you let them.

So don’t let them.

Disarm them by mirroring the types of clothes they typically wear paired with a few select cool accessories they’d like to have. It will befuddle them and have them re-thinking your place on the department hierarchy. If you beat them at their own game, the only place to go is up.

Oh – and the next time someone tries to tell you that fashion is superficial?

Just smile and say, “Actually, it’s mathematical and scientific.”

Then share one of the fashion history tidbits from above.

They may never look at you the same way again.

Disclaimer:  Again, this information is aimed primarily at women who work in male-dominated STEM-related industries, like science, computers, engineering, or academia.  If you work in finance, law, or banking, do NOT wear leather jackets or skirts to work.  Stick with silk and wool and I’ll address your needs in a later article.

Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint. Need some help learning which styles suit you best?  Signature Style Blueprint can help.




How to Dress Fashionably in a STEM industry


    12 replies to "How to Dress Fashionably in a STEM Industry"

    • Claudia

      Perfect! This, for me, was the missing link, also because my mesomorphic body never looks good in “high fashion” or “girly stuff”.

      What I would love are a few hints for those of us who look drab and dowdy in beige, taupe, light grey and the other elegant neutrals. I prefer royal blue, a deep green or even eggplant purple (and, to be honest, also crimson and turquoise, though not in business). How can these colors be integrated other than by the mundane “Wear a bright-colored scarf”?

      BTW, I am a consulting chemist, mostly in environmental technology.

      Greetings, Claudia

      • Diana

        Hi Claudia,

        Glad you enjoyed the article! The easiest way to incorporate those colors you love is through accessories. Try outerwear, jewelry, belts, shoes, and handbags. Just remember to use them sparingly, particularly purple – most men view it negatively.

    • iamloved

      Wow Diana, you’re back with a bang – I LOVE this article, wished I worked in these industries so I could kill it 🙂 I particularly love the fashion history I’ve learnt in this post (and some of your others)… Fashion came from STEM, that’s causing a paradigm shift in my thinking!

      The images of outfits are extremely helpful to understanding what you’re describing too.

      I work in marketing in a public sector hospital… I have to dress fairly smart (blazers, classic colours, etc.) when in the office (my team are all male and in suits), but when I’m with the doctors and other colleagues in other departments I try to drop the blazer as they mostly dress smart casually (unless I’m with the male hospital doctors – always keep my blazer on for them!). It’s not an easy work environment to navigate style-wise, but your articles and books have been a great help to me.

      Keep bringing what you bring to the whole fashion bloggers world – I’m yet to find another blog quite like yours, and it such a valuable resource – thank you!

      • Diana

        Thanks, IamLoved! Glad you enjoyed the article. Love the line, “Fashion came from STEM, that’s causing a paradigm shift in my thinking!” because that’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish with this article. We take so much day-to-day stuff for granted, but when you stop to think about it, EVERYTHING – refrigeration, cell phones, cars, electricity – were all thousands of years in the making, including ready-to-wear clothing and shelf-stable cosmetics. All of it came about through STEM.

        I will definitely keep “doing what I’m doing.” I’ve got so much more to share! 😉

    • Nancy Molstad

      TV characters such as Penelope Garcia of “Criminal Minds” and Abby Sciuto of “NCIS” dress in such an individual “anti-fashion” style. Then again, this is TV and not reality.

      Darn. It looked like fun to dress for work like this.

      • Diana

        Quirky TV characters are fun to watch, just like quirky people in real life. The difference is, if you want to go goth or pinup in your workplace, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to prove you know your stuff. It’s absolutely doable, but you have to know going in that people will be put off by your appearance and it will be an uphill battle to win them over. Just saying.

    • Donna


      What a great article. I work in the male dominated world of Information Technology specifically Infrastructure/Network. In my department of about 70 there are three women (none are managers). We share the office space with two other departments but locally there are only 8 altogether. Its always been that way through my career, their just aren’t a lot of women in the world of IT infrastructure.

      When I’ve been in a bigger company with more women in the building, I would dress like them, usually dress pants, pretty tops and heels. But these days that uniform would firmly set me apart from my colleagues. I’ve always sort of thought that since I have the skills I’d just dress however I want and they’d have to deal with it but it hasn’t done much to help me. Either in this company or at industry events. The industry standard uniform I’ve observed is khakis/casual pants/loafers or sneakers/ polo or button down maybe a jacket for management. So I swing between dressing more fashionable and colorful and rolling out of bed tshirt cardigan jeans because I don’t want to dress like a guy. It seems like too much of a surrender.

      Your advise makes sense to me though and somehow I’d never made that scifi connection because a lot of them are scifi geeks. I am too for that matter. Calmer colors, simple lines nothing too girly. Maybe tough chic. Leather jacket is a new idea. I’ll have to look for watches. I think I can make this work without it coming off too masculine.

      Not like I think this will suddenly get me invited into the guys club. There is more obstacles to women in technology than just our appearance. But it will give me more confidence in dealing with the vendors and management.

      Thanks so much.

      • Diana

        You’re welcome, Donna! Glad you enjoyed the article. You can definitely pull this off without looking too masculine – “tough chic,” as you called it, is the perfect analogy. Call it the Sci-Fi fashion loophole. It’s the only kind of fashion STEM guys can get behind.

    • Julia

      Hi Diana

      This is the article I’ve been waiting for you to write. I am another SciFi ‘geek’. At least in SciFi they are not above writing a strong female role into thinga. However, it is interesting that even in SciFi they can struggle with how to present their female characters. For example, I read an interview with Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway – Star Trek Voyager) and she said that they never quite knew how to style her hair for the role. In Stargate I was often taken aback by how they would style Captain Samantha Carter for the rare ‘off duty’ earth scenes. They always insisted on dressing her in pale colours (she had lighter coloured hair) and always seemed to add at least one item in a soft flouncy fabric – sometimes a top – like here http://www.an-c.dk/at/gateworld/ascension-sam-civvies-03.jpg, sometimes a skirt. It always seemed out of place on her and I always felt she looked better in her uniforms and tough chic outfits. I shall have to try tough chic – but it gets harder as you get older to carry it off.

      • Diana

        Hi Julia – glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for your note. The easiest way to do “tough chic” as the years pass is to rely on lighter colors. So, maybe a green or blue biker jacket instead of a black one, and lighter colored sweaters instead of dark.

    • Nancy Molstad

      I know this a late post, but this just occurred to me.

      The character of Miss Parker in “The Pretender” tv series might set a wardrobe model for STEM women.

      She wore solid, dark colors in highly tailored suits. No jewelry or ornamentation. The closest thing to a print was a tone-on-tone fabric. To me, it was obvious that she did not work in infrastructure or on-site customer support (no climbing on ladders or crawling under desks).

      Her makeup was clean, precise, minimal and not “sexy” in an ingratiating way. Her visage seemed to say, “be concise when you talk to me, and don’t try to impress me because I don’t care if I impress you”.

      Polar opposite of Penelope Garcia and Abby Sciuto; perhaps more Samantha Carter of “SG-1”.

      What do you think, Diana?

      • Diana

        So true! I had forgotten about Miss Parker…

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