Rita J. King is a futurist and executive vice president for business development and co-director of Science House, but she's also a fashion icon. She recently bucked tradition by wearing a sparkly dress while delivering a talk to students at NASA. There is a pervasive image of the scientist as a stuffy, bow-tied, academic type, but King decided she would show young women — and everyone else for that matter — that scientists can be "sparkly."
She shared a photo of herself wearing a gold sequined dress during her talk to Twitter. It went completely viral and inspired many to address the harmful notion that scientists and academics have to look a certain way in order to be taken seriously.
King wore the dress for her talk in 2011 in response to a request from several little girls who wanted her to set the example that "scientists could also be sparkly." According to BuzzFeed News, her speech was a park of a TEDxYouth NASA event for students. She was a futurist at the National Institute of Aerospace at the time.
It was a day before she was set to deliver her speech that one of the coordinators reached out to King with a request. "A group of girls had written a letter requesting that I wear something sparkly for the event because they wanted to believe that scientists could be sparkly," she told BuzzFeed News. "They wanted to see a 'sparkling geek.'"
While the dress wasn't something she would normally wear for a speech at NASA, she thought the girls' request was extremely important. "I found the sparkliest dress I could," she said. "I wanted to show them I heard them." She wanted to show them that not all scientists look like Bill Nye. She wanted to show them that femininity is not something that should have to be obscured or denied when you work in science. And her decision resonated with so many.
With her tweet garnering over 5,000 retweets and 41,000 likes, it's safe to say that King's simple act of wearing a sparkly dress to deliver a speech about science had an enormous impact. "I'm only crying a little bit," one Twitter response reads. Historically, women have had to adopt masculine traits in order to be taken seriously. It's time for everyone to let go of that toxic notion and realize that just because it's feminine doesn't mean it's weak or frivolous.
"YESSS!" one Twitter user wrote. "This is why I hate the anti-pink backlash prevalent among so many mom spaces. There's nothing wrong with being girly, and it shouldn't preclude you from working in male-dominated areas!" Not to mention, there should be more women in science to begin with. It should be less of a male-dominated area, and the way we can achieve that is by encouraging women and showing them just what Rita J. King did — that scientists can be sparkly.
King's tweet prompted other scientists to share their experiences of being dismissed or made fun of because they chose to embrace femininity in a traditionally masculine space. One scientist wrote, "Why should we have to choose between being a scientist and being sparkly? I was high heels shamed for years. 'How can you work all day in the lab with those on your feet?' We present ourselves however we want to be, with or without lipstick."
When Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser won the Nobel Prize, she wore an incredible gown adorned with a grid of sparkly, beaded neurons as a tribute to her work. She looked feminine and powerful. Matthew Hubble, who designed the dress for Moser, told NBC News, "It's quite frustrating when you hear people saying, 'You shouldn't be like that if you're going to be a scientist.' It's OK to be a girly girl and do science as well."
The response to Rita J. King's tweet was overwhelming. "It's making me emotional that so many people are responding to it," she told BuzzFeed News. "It seems like at this moment there's something boldly subversive about getting up there and boldly, unapologetically wearing sequins because girls asked you to.
"I hope what they're responding to is the idea that women have a very important role to play and we have a lot of responsibility on us. Wearing sparkles does not in any way diminish the seriousness of what we're doing." Although her speech was several years ago, it's clear that this conversation isn't over. In fact, the current social and policial climate makes this issue more important than ever.