01/05/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2013

The Thrill of Brazil

I am nearly 50 and I just had my first manicure and painted my nails fire engine red (actually the color is "The Thrill of Brazil"). Why have I resisted this feminine ritual for so long? I believe it is rooted in my personal ideals of gender and my inner need to prove that women are just as tough as men -- no well-manicured hands are going to keep me down.

I was raised by adventuresome academics in Northern Maine. My two sisters and I were born to a father who wanted boys; naturally we were raised like boys. We drove a tractor by 10 and wielded a chainsaw by 12. One summer I started a project of catching garter snakes and tagging them with the hopes that I could recapture them and map their territory. Barbie dolls, the stuff of other girls' summer play, never crossed our threshold.

My sisters and I trouped across the globe with my parents -- camping in remote areas of Canada's Northwest Territories and celebrating my 16th birthday in the middle of the jungles in Borneo. We learned from my mother how women behave in the field without slowing the men down. And my mother was a perfect role model for these lessons. As reported on November 10, 1957 in the Boston Globe, my parents' honeymoon was a 350 mile canoe trip on the Mackenzie River in Canada. Instead of packing negligées like other new brides, my mother pragmatically dyed her underwear in tea so they would not look too dirty after a summer of hand washing in the river.

I went off to Harvard in the early '80s and had a rude awakening -- not everyone saw women in the same capable light as I did. During an interview for what seemed like a dream summer internship studying primates in Borneo, I was asked: "Are you afraid of spiders?", "Do you have a boyfriend?" I laughed the questions off. I was fluent in Indonesian language and had experience living in Borneo. I knew I was a perfect match for the internship. To my surprise the opportunity was given to a young man who grew up in New York City and had never left the country. To add to the insult he later asked me to tutor him in Indonesian. Years later I learned that the professor's wife had told him, "If you bring one more woman into the field I will divorce you." This experience only fueled my belief that I needed to act just like a man to prove I was good enough.

Even when I became a mother of two beautiful daughters, I clung tightly to my belief -- women are just as strong physically and emotionally as men. I always carried my baby in a snuggly or on my back -- baby carriages were for girls. I taught my girls how to dig in the dirt for worms and to climb trees as high as they could. I taught them to just ignore the boys on the playground who told them that boys were better than girls. Just show them that you are as tough as they are, I said.

My desire to be like one of the boys comes from many places, but it certainly has been heavily influenced by the world we live in where the pinnacles of power and success are define by masculine characteristics. And feminine characteristics, by association, are seen as signs of vulnerability and weakness. But recently, I have started to notice that my tough guy exterior is beginning to crack. Despite decades of fighting it, I have a developed a feminine style of teaching and leadership. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the lowering of my defensive shield has also coincided with increasing success in my teaching and mentoring of students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I am learning that by trying to be one of the boys I was wasting my energy, dampening my own creativity and forgetting how to take intellectual risks. I realize that more I try to act like one of the boys, the less I have to offer the world. I had lost touch with my inner girl who was once fierce and confident. So instead of trying to show the guys that I am just as tough as they are I have painted my nails red. I am learning to embrace, not fight, the positive feminine traits I have and I am ready, once again, to be fierce and take some risks.