The hidden hazards of lab coats on mental health in women
8 min read
The Lab Coat Project has collected over 1500 survey responses to identify the worst problems and greatest needs in lab coats directly from scientists. Nearly 1000 of these responses are from women, whose collective voice shows they are disproportionally affected by the “unisex” or “male-first” approach to lab coat design. Even the rare “women’s cut” lab coat often misses the mark, or the lack of availability in different materials/colors prevents them from having the necessary impact.
This article is written by a man, (Derek, the founder of the project), from the perspective of a typical male in STEM who didn’t realize the scale of the problem until hearing the direct feedback from nearly 1000 women. The women’s quotes below state the problem better than I ever could. It’s a problem we have to fix. Some minor edits were made for conciseness.
Men’s sizing makes women feel unprofessional
A common theme was that many women have to wear unisex or men’s lab coats due to restrictive contracts with their institutions. They usually have to order a size blindly (i.e. S/M/L) and hope it fits. This leads to poorly-fitting work clothes that leaves them feeling like their look is “unprofessional” compared to their male colleagues. In a workplace where many women already feel like they have to work harder or seem smarter to “prove” themselves, these lab coats make it even harder.
"All the sizes were for men and I'm tired of wearing boxy men's clothing at work. They're uncomfortable, tight across the chest, loose and bunches up or rubs when I move and men's clothing makes me look like someone I'm not."
"At first it was perfect for my undergrad labs but now the university is paying me and I would like a coat I can feel proud of and look respectable in. Thanks, that was almost therapeutic to say, haha."
Self-expression through color and style
Dozens of scientists mentioned the need for more self-expression at work. When everyone is wearing the same white lab coat, it’s hard to feel like an individual. “How about some PINK and tie-dye?”, one woman responded. Women and gender non-conforming respondents voiced this concern most often. Even in labs where lab coats are color-coded, small add-ons like colorful pins or embroidery could help scientists be more expressive and make work a little more fun.
"I would love to see more colors, since we’re basically living in our lab for a few weeks at a time it’d be nice to be able to express ourselves."
"As a woman in STEM, I would greatly appreciate it if I could express myself more with my lab coat."
"Anything other than white! Lets bring some color in the labs!!!😂"
Curvy women are swimming in fabric
The most impassioned and most frequent problem in the survey was that of curvy women forced to wear cylinder-shaped (straight cut) lab coats. When the widest part of your body (hips or chest) is much wider than the rest of your body, a straight-cut lab coat leaves you swimming in fabric where you don’t need it.
This type of fit leads many women to tape the extra fabric together or use safety pins to bunch it up. The extra fabric is hot, heavy, and uncomfortable. Several women mentioned that they avoid bench work or need to take breaks more often because of the constant discomfort. Over time, this can lead to a disparity in work output compared to colleagues with better-fitting lab coats.
To top it off, these women add that it’s not just how it looks - the extra fabric is more likely to catch on equipment or contact hazardous chemicals. It’s quite literally less safe for these women in the lab than their male colleagues who get a better fit.
Here’s what they had to say:
"My body shape is curvy, like a true hour glass, but…the comment I get the most when I complain about my lab coat is, “Well, it’s hard to find plus sized lab coats.” I work in a wet chemistry lab at a national laboratory and I wear an oversized lab coat every day. It’s too big in the arms, waist and too long because it needs to button around my chest. I tape up the back to hold the excess fabric, so it looks like I’m rocking an 80’s pull-through clip thing. It’s not cute. The arms are super baggy above the elbows and often billow as I move in and out of the fume hood, so I taped up the fabric and that makes me sweat worse. I’m the only girl in the lab. Is it too much to ask for a lab coat that doesn’t make me feel like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?"
"I am short and have a pear-shaped figure. This means that to get a lab coat to fit around my hips, I have to get a bigger size (sometimes a large!) and the top of the coat flaps around: the top button is frequently below my bust, the extra fabric flaps around on top, and the sleeves are too long so I have to roll them up."
"Lab coats are not made to fit short fat women at all. To get one that fits around my butt, everything else is way to big. The shoulders are so big it's a joke. My lab ordered uniforms and they fit me so poorly that they were making it hard to do my work. I was just leaving it open which is stupid - why wear one at all? I work all day in a disposable gown instead and I am tired of wearing see-through butter yellow."
"Snaps…bust open if I move around because of my shape and the fact that at least one part will be hugely loose…knocking things over as I attempt to be careful. It has made me look incompetent so many times."
"Too tight in hips, massive on body. The body gapes open so I could fit a 2 year old in the gap if I was seated. I use a wheelchair and as many people in lab work seated at times it would be great to have a labcoat which worked just as well seated without gaping at the neck! I was told to go bigger to fit my hips but the top was so baggy I couldn’t!'
"No matter where I shop for a lab coat, I feel horrible about myself afterwards like there’s something wrong with me. Reaffirming I’m not the body type I’m 'supposed' to be. I am a curvy woman; I have petite shoulders but wide hips. I have to choose between buttons popping open at my waist and hips if I bend, sit or take too long a stride OR I can have the hips fit and button up but up top I look like a hot air balloon and extra fabric gets in the way and just makes me look awful. I get really self conscious whenever I have to put my lab coat on. Either way I feel bad about myself; like science fields aren’t meant for 'fat' people. 😔"
Petite women feel like they are “playing dress-up”
Women who self-identified as “petite” consistently said they felt like “a child playing dress-up” in the smallest lab coat size they could find. When the lab coat highlights your size difference, it’s harder to feel confident in your work and interaction with colleagues. Their comments highlight that their feminine figure is completely lost and their self-image can be deeply affected. How well could you work if you never felt or looked your best?
"All available labcoats are too boxy and they hardly cater to petite women (they are like children's labcoats)."
"The size "range" seems to be to accommodate a (pretty limited) range of close to average sized men - as a very short woman I wear XS lab coat and am completely swamped by it, in length, arms, excess material, too deep ‘V’ at the front. It isn't convenient to wear in the lab, and makes you feel like a fraud when you look more like a kid in fancy dress than a professional at work. Nothing screams "you don't belong" more than having to wear a comically ill-fitting piece of major uniform every day because no one considered a person like you could need one - plus it isn't safe."
"I'm short but curvy and have NEVER found a good lab coat that fits me well, doesn't hang on me like a bag but also gives the chemical protection I need. I can either get a lab coat that fits my arms and body length but I can't button it, or I swim in a coat that accommodates my hips but sleeves have to be rolled up, and I look like a child playing dress-up with a lab coat that goes to my ankles."
"I'm 100 lbs, dripping wet, a size 0 in junior's clothing...nothing fits - I get called the Michelin man in my coat! And kids coats (better than nothing) have sleeves that are waaaaay too short. I'm used to things running large on me, but even by that standard, small lab coats aren't nearly small enough (especially when sized for men), and tiny women aren't kids. I should at least be able to get a routinely oversized coat instead of an absurd one that makes me look like a kid playing dress up. (I'm 40.)"
How can we fix this?
By paying attention and listening. The Lab Coat Project has collected the data and explanations needed to address all of these problems. Our approach seems obvious, yet would be the first to do this:
Test all sizes (XS-4XL at least) on women of every single size and body type to find the dimensions that work.
Publish detailed size charts so that women can accurately predict which size they will need before buying.
Implement a hidden belt that can pull in the waist by up to 8 inches to create an hourglass fit.
Flare the lab coat slightly at the hips for more room when bending or sitting
Use hidden pleats at the shoulders and hips to open and give extra range of motion as needed
Design long knit cuff sleeves that hug the wrist to accommodate more varied arm lengths
Use strong snap buttons that don’t easily pop open when bending or sitting
Show photos of real women of different sizes and shapes wearing the lab coats
Create different fit styles like “petite” and “tall” and introducing new colors
It’s mind-boggling that no one has paid enough attention before to fix these problems with these relatively simple design changes. We’re doing it with The Lab Coat Project. Everything depends on the success of the pre-order campaign. If we can get orders for 300 lab coats, we can manufacture the first 1000 for women and kick off this revolution in design. If those sell well, the next step is to use the proceeds to introduce more colors and fit styles, plus personalization options.
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