One appealing aspect of academia for many of us is the lack of a dress code. As a graduate student and a postdoc both women and men gravitate towards casual clothes – it’s not uncommon to see hooded sweatshirts, printed tees, short skirts, and old ripped jeans on the average pre-faculty academic.
It would be nice to think that as teachers our appearances don’t matter, and that students are more concerned with our grasp of the material and ability to teach it to them. However I’ve heard stories that have given me second thoughts: the junior faculty member whose evaluations focused on her clothing instead of her teaching – “she looks like she cares too much about her clothes, she wore a different dress every day!” or the female graduate student who dressed for West Coast weather in East Coast winters – “all the male students really liked class!” These stories, and others, are making me think about how much attention I need to be paying to my appearance as I navigate life as a new faculty member. And not only on days that I teach – at a smaller school who knows when you will run into the provost or dean!
I recently sat in on a lecture by a professor whose work focuses on gender issues in communication. One point she made was that women trade off more power than men when they dress down, so women need to dress up to gain the same level of respect. She provided us with a concrete list of ways to ensure that students aren’t distracted by a female professor’s appearance and are most likely to respect her authority. The goal isn’t to have students say “nice outfit” but “I learned something.” These suggestions would also work well for meetings with university officials.
- Wear dark colors (you’ll look more authoritative)
- Wear glasses (you’ll look more intelligent), but avoid “fun” distracting frames. Make sure you get the anti-glare coating so people can see your eyes.
- Minimize patterns and jewelry (so listeners focus on your face). However, even relatively small patterns can strobe on video. See examples on what to avoid for more formal videotaped lectures or other recorded events here and here
- Wear structured clothes and boots with heels (maximize the visual space you take up)
- Keep your hair off your face (so it doesn’t look like you are hiding behind it)
- Wear make-up (you will look more competent) – NY Times article ; original source
She also instructed women to “take up space like a man” – i.e., stand with your feet apart and embrace the “power pose” ala Amy Cuddy. Square your shoulders rather than hunching them, and avoid touching your own body. All of these suggestions will not only affect how you are perceived by others, but how you perceive your own competence – which then feeds back to how good you are at your job!
So, how can academics balance the need to be respected while staying true to our personal sense of style (and budget)? For some of us, our identity is exemplified by our clothing, makeup, and hair choices – and we wouldn’t be true to ourselves if we changed just to fit the norm. And that can work just fine; I know a woman who is in a humanities department at a private liberal arts college, and her extensive tattoos and hippie style facilitates discussions about stereotypes. I don’t mean to suggest that all young woman academics should go buy closets full of tailored black pantsuits and throw away their jewelry.
For the moment I am thinking about how the way I dress on an average day in the classroom or lab might affect perceptions of my competence and intelligence, at least while I am a junior faculty member. In particular there is a list of things that I’m planning on avoiding – visible bra straps, cleavage, short skirts or shorts, flip flops, sheer clothing – and I’m on the fence about some other wardrobe basics (skinny jeans, Chacos/Tevas, knee-high boots). I plan to start out a bit more conservatively dressed, and embrace a feminine business casual look like that depicted by some of the strong female characters on TV: Temperance Brennan on Bones (here and here and here), Kate Beckett from Castle (here and here) and Olivia Pope from Scandal (here and here).
I know it’s silly to have one’s style icons be fictional characters with unlimited wardrobe budgets, but I am one of those people who needs to see outfits on someone to build them from items in a store. I’d be interested to hear about other style inspirations! Obviously I’m not the first person to think about this – here is a great blog post about dressing for AGU, an academic conference. Many of these outfits would be just as appropriate in other academic settings. I’ve also found the blog Putting Me Together, which has a great ‘wardrobe from scratch’ how-to section. I’ve enjoyed compiling a pinterest board with some ideas. There is a lot to stress out about when starting a new academic job, but I’m looking at this as an opportunity to have some fun freshening up my wardrobe!