Smart Casual: Or, Dressing Like a Grown-Up For Beginners

I have a terrifically round face. Round like a dinner plate. So round, in fact, that in high school, my friends composed a poem about it:

Roses are red,
And grow in the ground.
We love how your face
Is amusingly round.

So yeah. Really round. I’m convinced that it makes little kids like me more, because kids like all round things, right? Like balloons, dinner plates, and my face?

Unfortunately, it also means that I tend to look like a little kid myself unless I make a conscious effort to look like a grown-up. It’s hard enough being a woman in STEM, so who would want to look like a little kid working in a STEM discipline?

Throughout college, my daily uniform was a graphic t-shirt, jeans, and some sort of casual shoes. Rainbow brand flip-flops on days when I didn’t have lab, and sneakers on days that I did. I’d toss on a hoodie if it got cold (which was rare enough in southern California), and tie back my hair if I remembered. Which meant that I went through college looking like this:


And while that look worked for me in college, it didn’t work quite so well when I graduated and started working. Even though my company didn’t really have a dress code, it’s hard to get people (supervisors, coworkers, managers) to take you’re wearing graphic t-shirts with pithy oranges spouting off slogans about scurvy.

What did that mean? Well, it meant that I had to start dressing a little more … grown-up. Not more formally, exactly, because very few people you to wear a suit to work everyday when you work in a STEM field or especially in a lab. Actually, they’ll probably react rather negatively.¬†My friend once told me that people only wear suits in engineering when their job functions are actually useless but they want to make themselves feel and look more important. ūüėČ

But on the other hand, even though some of my friends and coworkers are still able to get away with graphic t-shirts and casual shoes, my adorable child-like face meant that I have to step it up a just little.

Enter the “smart casual” wardrobe.

It used to be that business dress only had two levels – business casual (think: blouses, polos, khakis) and business formal (think: full suit). These days though, some of us are given a bit more leeway in how we dress. For a smart casual wardrobe, you can still get away with jeans and even, sometimes, t-shirts. You just need to make sure that you look “smart” and pulled-together. Usually, that means ensuring that your basics fit right, and are just a smidge dressier than they might have been in college.

This is what I end up wearing most days when I go to work.


Not too strenuous a change, right? And still perfectly comfortable. But somehow, I look less like a middle-schooler.

These items make up the foundation of my smart casual wardrobe. I’m listing various but comparable items at different price points. Roughly, $ is less than $50, $$ is $50-100, $$$ is above $100.

  • Dark jeans, in either a straight-cut or slim-cut. Darker jeans read as more formal than light ones. And for the love of everything, no holes, please. (JC Penney $ | Old Navy $ | J Crew Factory $$ | J Crew $$$)
  • Black or charcoal dress pants. I’m fond of ponte pants; it’s like wearing sweats. Nice sweats. (Lands’ End $ | J Crew Factory $$)
  • Plain t-shirts. I like a plain v-neck, but anything that’s relatively free of cheeky graphics but can have some other detailing at the collar or along the front is fine. (JC Penney $ | Lands’ End $$ | J Crew $$$)
  • Casual button-up shirts. I’m fond of blue. Really, really fond of blue. (JC Penney $ | Old Navy $ | J Crew Factory $$ | J Crew $$$)
  • Closed-in, flat shoes. Notice how I said closed-in and not just close-toed? Close-toed is the bare minimum for most labs, but I like to think that there’ll be something on top of my feet as well if I accidentally bathe them in acid. Expect a post on that sometime in the future. (Lands’ End $ | Johnnie Boden $$ | Boden $$$)
  • A watch. Not completely necessary, but it sends a subtle signal that you’re responsible and reliable. I’m a watch person, so your mileage may vary. (Timex $ | Seiko 5 $$)
  • A nice leather bag. I’m also a leather person. Few things I like more than the feel of nice leather. I’m fond right now of a vintage Coach I got off Ebay (usually available under $50), but all that’s necessary is a non-backpack to hold your stuff, really. Should hold a tablet at minimum, a laptop if necessary. (Vintage Coach on Ebay $ | J Crew Factory $$ |¬†Boden $$$)

Rule of thumb for me is to never have both a casual top and casual bottoms. So, if I’m going with a plain t-shirt for the day, I’ll wear nicer pants. And if I’m wearing a button-up, I’ll just wear jeans.

Keep in mind, this is just my personal style being expressed in this blog. I lean towards a rather preppy, almost menswear aesthetic. This style works for me in my discipline, and it may work for you as well – but if your environment is more or less formal, or your style is more or less preppy, have at it. I’m trying to just give the basics, for me, and guidelines for others who need guidelines.

For more on smart casual, check out this link on Primer Magazine. It’s male-specific, but the guidelines are pretty unisex and there aren’t a lot of defined guidelines for women.

For STEM-discipline appropriate outfits from other women in these fields, check out these style bloggers: Franish; stethoscopes, style, & grace; AlterationsNeeded; 9to5chic.

For more on how to look more like a grown-up and less like a kid, check out this post from ExtraPetite. Also check out her guide on vintage Coach.

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Defying Expectations: Real Women Do

Full disclosure: I’m a member of Phi Sigma Rho, a national sorority for women in engineering and engineering technology, so this is a topic that’s always been near and dear the my heart. The subtitle to this blog post is the motto of one of my sorority’s chapters. ‘Sup, UCLA!

So, in my first post, I alluded a bit to the motivation behind this blog. Namely, that in the past few weeks, it seems like women in STEM fields and industries have been receiving more (negative) attention than usual. Part of this is the direct result of certain current events, like Sheryl Sandberg’s publication of her book Lean In and Adria Richards’ firing from SendGrid. Part of that is the result of listicles about hot or sexy women in science and tech that judge women solely on the basis of their looks rather than their accomplishments.

Let’s spend a couple minutes talking about the latter. And to start the conversation, I’ll introduce yet another topic near and dear to my heart – jeans. Specifically, Levi’s.


I love jeans. I really, really do. I live in jeans – every day of every season. Since I’m in California, land of the ever temperate seasons, jeans are almost always weather appropriate. And since I work in a very casual lab where I want long pants that’ll cover up my bare flesh from the dangers of chemical spills, jeans are my daily workday uniform, too.

So I was SO EXCITED when Levi’s launched their Commuter line a few years ago. SO FRAKKIN’ EXCITED, GUYS. I don’t cycle to commute to work, because I work rather far, but I do ride my bike around town occasionally, and I’m always on the look out for pants that’ll enable me to do that without blowing out at the crotch. Seriously – when my jeans die, it’s because of crotch holes. Always crotch holes.

This is a pair of jeans made specifically for the bicycle commuter. It’s water resistant, microbial resistant, blowout resistant! It has a higher back rise so my underwear doesn’t show while I’m leaned over my handlebars! It has a special loop in the back to hold a U-lock! It has reflective tape sewn into the hem for night riding! These are¬†exactly the pants I’ve been looking for!

But … the Commuter line is exclusive to men. And because of the waist/hip ratio difference between a men’s cut and a women’s cut, I’ve never been able to make this work for me. And trust me, I’ve tried.

Here’s what Levi’s was marketing to women at that time instead:


Notice a wee bit of difference here?

This is an advertisement for Levi’s Curve ID line for women. Which I’m told is pretty awesome, but that I’m just a tad too bitter to try for myself. The concept behind this line is that women are shaped differently, and thus need different jean types to cover their differently shaped derrieres.

Which is a great thing to recognize – women do indeed have differently shaped bodies, and it’s always a treat when a manufacturer recognizes this. But when comparing the Commuter line to the Curve ID line, we notice some differences.

  • Though I’ve chosen to contrast two advertisements featuring images of human butts, the women’s butts are sexualized. They are hot butts. Their function is not to ride a bike, but to be hot.
  • The men’s advertisement is about a functional pair of jeans, with functions that will make riding a bike easier. The women’s advertisement is about a decorative pair of jeans, with functions that will make butts more aesthetically pleasing.
  • The men’s jeans make it easier to ride a bike. The women’s jeans make it easier to … be hot. The male advertisement appeals to an active function while the women’s appeals to a passive one.

Do women ride bikes? Yes. Do men come in multiple shapes? Yes. Then why is Levi’s marketing the Commuter line only to men and the Curve ID only to women? Why not a unisex Commuter line, or advertising campaign targeted towards skinny as well as muscular guys?

Because tradition dictates that men are defined by what they do while women are defined by how they look.

Okay. Let’s end that tangent there and bring it back to the listicles that partially inspired this blog.

Last week, the minor internet debacle of the week in tech news revolved around the poorly thought out publication of ComplexTech’s list of The 40 Hottest Women in Tech. Subtitle: our digital beauties.

Included? The sexy host of Maxim Magazine’s Sirius radio show, in a micro schoolgirl outfit.

Excluded? Ory Okolloh, who founded the government watchdog site Mzalendo to watch over corrupt legislatures around the world. Video game designer and co-founder of Sierra Entertainment Roberta Williams.

But they were added back in after the backlash started, so no hard feelings, right?

These are women who have accomplished things. Women who have done incredible things. But in this slideshow, they’re reduced being judged their looks alone, because as women, that is what is most important about them. You don’t just see this in tech – the same appearance based insults fly at powerful women everywhere, from Hilary Clinton to Oprah to Beyonc√©. Somehow, what they do is less important than how they look.

“The women we feature in the magazine are ornamental. I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in their brains as well. We are not. They are objectified … We provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars. It is ornamental.”

–¬†Esquire¬†U.K. editor Alex Bilmes

That’s another quote from last week. (What a week, right? No wonder I started this blog to rant about it.) But it cuts to the heart of it.

Why do women in STEM have an inherently more difficult time than men in STEM or women in different fields? Because not only do we subvert the tradition of women as decorations, but we do it by accomplishing things in traditionally male dominated disciplines. When a woman succeeds in a STEM discipline, or even exists in a STEM industry, she defies the cultural expectation that these jobs be left to men, or that she remain a decoration rather than a person of accomplishment.

STEM women do. Simply by being, we defy expectation and tradition. But by doing, we push the world forward.

For more on the topic of the conflicting messages aimed at young girls in STEM disciplines especially, read this excellent guest post by Rim at Scientopia.

For more on why it’s not actually all that flattering to be included on a hot scientist list, read this Jezebel post discussing BusinessInsider’s coed rebuttal to ComplexTech.

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Introduction: Hello, World!

Hello, world!

My name is Elli, and I’ll be your friendly neighborhood blogger.

A little about me: I’m a 25-year-old woman in the biotech industry. I’m a California girl, born and raised, and consequently really, really bad at weather that differentiates at all from balmy and around 70F. I have Bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and chemistry.

I’m pretty nerdy. I love Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and comic books. Especially Batman. And I’m pretty girly. I totally have a Pinterest, love baking, and love doing crazy nail art. And these things are not mutually exclusive, despite what 80s teen movies taught us. And the latter love of girly things does not exclude one from being a STEM woman.

This blog exists because I love science and happen to be a woman. Not too long ago, those facts would have been mutually exclusive. But even though they’re not anymore, the world is still getting used to that. In the last few weeks especially, women in STEM fields have been making the news for … being in STEM fields at all. STEM disciplines are dominated by men, and consequently, we get news items like:

So yeah. All this just … BLAH. I’ve always known that it’s hard being a woman in STEM, but these last couple weeks have been riDONKulous.

Thus, the birth of this blog. Because all my best ideas come from contemplative meditations while in the shower.

It’s hard out there, being a woman in STEM. Because depending on your industry, you might be one woman among dozens of dudes. You might not have any prominent women to look up to in your career. You might have to deal with legions upon legions of brogrammers. Your industry or company might not really know what to do with you, either.

But! You’re not alone.

After graduation, I found that there weren’t actually a lot of resources about these things. I’m going to try to make this your survival guide to a STEM career and being a grown-up in a STEM industry. So we’ll talk close-toed shoes and lab appropriate fashion (?!?!), interview clothes, resume templates, salary negotiations, and investment decisions. We’ll also talk about what’s happening today or yesterday in the news, and what’s affecting women in STEM in general and as a whole.

Welcome to STEM and Femme! ¬†Let’s get rolling.

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