On the left: Ask me about my research! Photo: Betsy Hartley. On the right: Ask me about my shoes! Photo.
I asked my (male) PhD adviser how I should dress/pack before our first conference together, expecting a response along the lines of “casual” or “business casual,” and he was confused by my question. “Just wear clothes,” he said. Which, I have to admit, is sound advice, but really wasn’t very helpful. [gilly, writing here]
A (frequently white, male) scientist will usually tell you that you can wear whatever you want as a scientist. That it’s not about what you wear, but how comfortable you feel. After all, as objective scientists, we’re more interested in your data than your fashion sense. Just listen to Dr. Zen:1
My experience is that scientists are almost immune to snappy outfits. This is more true in some fields than others, though. … Field biologists tend to be blue jeans kind of people. I’m not going to claim nobody cares, because some do, but most scientists are all about the ideas and data you have, and forget how you’re dressed about 10 second in.
So dressing like you just rolled in from a week long camping trip should be equivalent to dressing like the only dirt you’re at risk of encountering is under 3 inches of sidewalk.
On the left: Probably an ecologist. Photo: Ryan Jordan in Backpacking Light. On the right: Probably not an ecologist, according to 90% of ecologists. Photo: Erin Heatherton for SuiteBlanco on Trendencias
But that’s often not true at all. In my field, waterproof Joe there gets questions about his latest experiment while Sally chic gets called a femme fatale by colleagues she wishes weren’t staring quite so obviously at her ass.
The way we dress matters, to us and the people who see us. It’s a complicated and often unarticulated conversation where clothing and ornamentation affect how we see and present ourselves and also how others judge our likeability, worthiness, approachability, cultural membership, competency, gender, sexuality etc. For example,
When I am feeling and looking glamorous, I am slipping into an inchoate yet immensely satisfying spot between the public and private spheres. You see me in my polka-dotted ‘40s-style dress, small hat, and lipstick, and you may think I look glamorous—which is the goal. But here’s the trick of glamour: You see me, and yet you don’t. That is, you see the nods to the past, and you see how they look on my particular form; you see what I bring to the image, or how I create my own. Yet because I’m not necessarily attempting to show you my authentic self—whatever that might be—but rather a highly coded self, I control how much you’re actually witness to.
Now, that’s part of the whole problem we feminists have with the visual construction of femininity: The codes speak for us and we have to fight all that much harder to have our words heard over the din our appearance creates. But within those codes also lies a potential for relief, for our own construction, for play, for casting our own little spells. [from Autumn Whitefield-Madrano in The New Inquiry]
I am a queer woman who sees herself as femme on a lot of days. Most of this post is about presenting as feminine or femme as a woman in field-based disciplines like forestry, ecology, and geology. Some of it may apply to you, but the way your dress reflects your identity and background and how that affects how the people in your professional life treat you may well be quite different. Please describe those experiences in the comments!
I’m not going to dig into gender presentation as deeply as Whitefield-Madrano, but I am going to tackle one of the biggest and ugliest problems around the issue in my field: Femininity is read as incompetence and otherness.
As a nervous, excited undergraduate at my first conference, I was standing with a group of new acquaintances, chatting about which posters to go see. Someone mentioned that a mutual acquaintance’s girlfriend was presenting in the session and proceeded to speak in an amused and superior way about how “ridiculously” she was dressed – in a simple black skirt, pumps, and feminine white blouse with a tailored blazer. I have no idea what her research is about.
As a new, nervous graduate student, I told a professor I saw as an ally about that bad conference experience. She insisted people could wear whatever they want – but then wrinkled her nose in disgust and said, “but there was one woman who wore a pencil skirt.” I didn’t wear any of my skirts to work for a year.
One of gracieabd‘s colleagues
came into my office one day and out of the blue told me about one of his female students in a class who “spent so much time putting on so much eye makeup that she couldn’t possibly be interested in [science field] ,” and completely wrote her off.
Gracieabd was explicitly told that she didn’t “look like a [certain kind of scientist]”
When I started my job as the only woman in the department, I went to my first department meeting. I dressed up for the occasion—nothing too fancy, just a skirt and a sweater—but a few of my male colleagues started joking that I don’t look like a [certain kind of scientist]. They commented that they all wear clothes that would permit them to rush out into the field at a moment’s notice.
Joking aside, these dudes were telling a woman that she didn’t belong in their field. That’s a message women get an awful lot of and part of why so many of us up and leave.
Sentiments like these are sexism. Almost all of us have an experience where our appearance or presentation was used to hurt us. Often the insults are tied to gender, race, and class privilege. You should know that this is unacceptable. So if you find yourself having these thoughts or god forbid, expressing such sentiments, stop. As Dr. Isis says,
I can still write a differential equation in a pair of Naughty Monkeys.
I want to dig into gracieabd’s example from the staff meeting a little, because I think it shows one of the very pernicious and definitive aspects of sexism. Gracieabd went on to tell me that while dressing nicely got her othered at the staff meeting, it’s important for getting respect in the classroom. There’s a really famous essay by Marilyn Frye [pdf] where she describes oppression as a birdcage – all these little things that add up to pen you in. You may say that women in field sciences should just wear field pants all the time; that’s just the “uniform” of the discipline. But dressing like that to teach is a problem. There is no clothing choice that frees women from judgement based on their gender, not even in just a professional context. Gracieabd wonders:
I question if I had worn no makeup and wore jeans with a pullover fleece and dirty tennis shoes to teach, would I have been more respected from my colleagues? Would I have been less respected from my students?
Most of this post has focused on the ways in which femininity is seen as less and how performing femininity is punished in field-based disciplines like ecology, forestry, and geology. But there are also strong racial, cultural, and class signifiers to dress that are varyingly privileged or punished. I’m going to comment really briefly on that.
Your cis-het normativity is showing
Dr. Zen tells us to dress authentically in order to give a successful presentation.
With too many presenters, you can tell their dress for their presentation is an act. A total put on. A sham. It’s not real, it’s not who they are, and they’re not comfortable
But also we should
Be worried not so much about how you look as whether that look will distract you or the audience.
For many queer, trans, and gender diverse people these pieces of advice are in conflict.
Money, race, and your ugly bias
I knew a Hispanic man in undergrad – sharp, endlessly curious with ambitions of becoming a scientist. Professors were constantly shocked by his performance and joked that he looked “like a thug.”
He dressed the way he did because that’s how you dress where he grew up. When he became aware of how he was judged based on his clothing, he was so ashamed. But he couldn’t afford new clothes.
Instead of saying we don’t care about what people wear, or what people wear doesn’t matter, or that everyone should wear suits or dress for digging a soil pit everyday, let’s acknowledge that the clothes we wear have meaning and then choose not to discriminate based on that meaning.
1 Who, despite his lack of critical gender analysis in that post, is flipping awesome and has some great personal style
57 thoughts on “Fem(me)inity in the field”
Me in freshman year: Baggy jeans and sweaters.
Prof: You should dress nicer! People will take you more seriously!
Me in third year: Full slacks and blouses.
Prof: Dress down a bit! Your clothes aren’t practical! People don’t take you seriously!
Me in grad school: Screw it, I wear what I want. Comfy jeans and T-shirts. Add a blazer at conferences.
Prof: You look like you’re not taking it seriously! People will take you as seriously as you take yourself!
… Oh. So I’m taking it just as not seriously as the plenary speaker, who wore a T-shirt under his blazer?
Next conference: Blouse, slacks and dress shoes.
Gossip about how I’m over-dressed.
Conference after that: Blouse, slacks and sneakers.
Gossip about how my shoes are inappropriate (I have an pedorthic condition that means I can’t wear >99% of fancy shoes, so I said fuck it and wore sneakers.
My take-home message: Female presenting means nothing I wear is right. People will gossip anyway, so I may as well wear what makes me feel better. Fancy occasions, that’s blazer, blouse, slacks and sneakers, and casual occasions, that’s jeans or sweat pants, a T-shirt and a sweater.
Wow. What a perfect microcosm of the double standards we face.
Yeah. Another takeaway from the shoe thing: Men are allowed to have pedorthic conditions, but women are supposed to put up with the chronic pain and potential disability caused by not treating them appropriately and wearing appropriate orthopedic footwear. Damn my ankles and their hypermobility and the risk of sprains and dislocations this puts me at, I’m supposed to wear high heels and totter along unsteadily and give myself a sprain by the end of the day anyway and then tough it out to wear high heels more and put myself at ever-increasing risk of osteoarthritis. While I understand why some women choose differently w.r.t. this particular no-win scenario, I’m choosing to protect my joints.
As I was about to present my Master’s prospectus to the department, my advisor told me that I was overdressed and as a scientist I didn’t need to dress that well. No one told the men that they should have dressed differently. I’m presenting at my first conference next week and I have no idea how to dress for my talk with appearing to be over/underdressed.
While you may not avoid critical comments entirely, drmellivora has a nice post on how to dress in academia. I’d also keep Dr. Zen’s advice in mind (even though I criticized it) – dress so that you feel confident and comfortable. I’d add, dress for yourself, but modify your preferences based on how you know people will stereotype you if you’re really stressed about that.
THANK YOU. Field biologist here. I’ve gotten used to doing minimal fieldwork (on-campus) in pumps and a pencil skirt on teaching days, because heaven forbid I don’t look nice to teach, and used to taking crap from people about how I dress in the lab some days, and about my footwear most days, and on and on.
1. It is very difficult to find truly close-toed shoes that are also teaching-appropriate (well, technically they have closed toes, but wide open tops, because they are women’s dress shoes, so they violate the spirit of the dress code if not the letter).
2. It is difficult (though not impossible) to haul 3-gallon jugs of water on floating docks in heels.
3. If I am engaged in water-hauling while nicely dressed, people (mostly older men) invariably will comment on my attire.
4. No, I can’t dress for teaching AND the field with the same outfit. Period.
5. I dress better to teach than to present at meetings, always, for reasons mentioned above.
6. I still get made fun of for having too many clothes.
Glad you are talking about this – talking about clothes is sometimes enjoyable, other times uncomfortable or ridiculous, but we’re always wading through layers of meaning and interpretation. It deserves serious discussion.
I think the basic rule is to wear the clothes that draw the minimum of attention to the clothes that you are wearing. The problem is easier for men, and harder for a woman the more attractive she is, but the rule really applies generally. A man who wears a tailored suit or a garish Hawaiian shirt for a talk is likely to be judged partly on that basis.
The basic rule doesn’t work here because there often isn’t a good choice for women. You bring up an important point when you say it’s easier for women you think aren’t attractive and men. I think this is because women are generally seen as sexual objects and men typically aren’t. And that’s not a problem we can fix with clothes.
The plural of anecdote is not data. Some stories about people complaining about people not taking them seriously could well be outweighed by people who AREN’T being slighted, but the loudest voice gets heard more anyway. Male colleagues who make comments about how their colleague is overdressed? Who knows if the department culture was such that how they were dressed was the norm, and that she was in fact overdressed? Talk about being quick to rush to the immediate judgment of sexism based on a subjective anecdote.
Turns out that different people have different ideas on how people should be dressed during a presentation/at a conference etc and judge others who don’t dress to their standards. How shocking.
Are you fucken high?
No, the plural of anecdote is not data. But data is NOT required here, it is not a scientific paper, it is a blog site with comments. Personal comments, personal opinions, personal anecdotes. Those are legitimate.
When making sweeping claims about academic culture in general, it’s okay to rely on a few anecdotes to determine that? By that same token, I could seek out 3-4 anecdotes of women who haven’t experienced that kind of treatment and say ‘Women don’t face judgment in the workplace based on how they dress’. Would you be okay with that same kind of claim?
So how many women have to face discrimination based on their clothing before it’s real?
That is a classic trolling argument. Just because someone has never experienced sexism, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I can believe cancer is real even if I’ve never had it.
Please take a moment to read the Comments Policy. Your comments are really close to violating it, and if you can’t maintain respectful relevance in your comments, you’ll lose that privilege.
@jason, if you want to write a blog site airing your opions, then do so. As mentioned, this site has a particular focus, which is clearly stated. Your ideas are welcome, but it would be nice if you were respectful that people write about what they actually feel and no-one should say that isn’t what they feel.
The analogy with cancer is also a good one – if you were taking medication for cancer and not coping with the side-effects, then you might just seek out a forum where others with cancer were coping with similar effects, and their anecdotes might help you (even if just emotionally to know you were not alone). It matters not that other people either didn’t have cancer, or if they did, did not experience the same side-effects.
And on another value of anecdotes – I have lost count of how many times, when I have called meetings of my TAs in order to share information about teaching strategies, that we have ‘discovered’ problems with particular students, and were able to address these problems, just because several TAs had noticed the same thing, and I provided a forum for them to share and discuss their anecdotes. Otherwise just one observation by one TA in isolation from the others would never have alerted us to a consistent problem.
A blog site is a blog site, it doesn’t require ‘data’ in the scientific sense.
Or, here’s a thought: Maybe it’s not an immediate judgement! Maybe there’s the entire deeper part of the iceberg that you never get to see! Maybe this conversation– and the research that inspires and is inspired by it– has been ongoing for decades. Maybe, just maybe, there are systematic patterns in terms of how judgment and gender are intrinsically linked.
Turns out that different people have different ideas on how people should be dressed during a presentation/at a conference, etc., and THOSE IDEAS ARE INFLUENCED BY GENDER DYNAMICS AND SOCIETAL EXPECTATIONS AND PRIVILEGE, and people judge others who don’t dress to their standards. And it turns out that there are people who react defensively to any suggestion that male privilege exists, and that women might be treated differently and held to different expectations. How shocking.
“Or, here’s a thought: Maybe it’s not an immediate judgement! Maybe there’s the entire deeper part of the iceberg that you never get to see! Maybe this conversation– and the research that inspires and is inspired by it– has been ongoing for decades. Maybe, just maybe, there are systematic patterns in terms of how judgment and gender are intrinsically linked.”
There are definitely patterns linking judgment and gender, that I can agree with. What I don’t agree with is assuming that EVERY type of judgment is linked to gender, as was the case in this post.
“Turns out that different people have different ideas on how people should be dressed during a presentation/at a conference, etc., and THOSE IDEAS ARE INFLUENCED BY GENDER DYNAMICS AND SOCIETAL EXPECTATIONS AND PRIVILEGE, and people judge others who don’t dress to their standards. And it turns out that there are people who react defensively to any suggestion that male privilege exists, and that women might be treated differently and held to different expectations. How shocking.”
Or maybe I’m simply someone who doesn’t feel the need to cry sexism and privilege and racism every time something doesn’t go my way. Male and female privilege, and sexism and racism all exist, I don’t recall denying that. What I deny is the use of those terms every time something doesn’t work out in your favor which is becoming an increasing trend these days. Cis-het normatively in a context like this? Please.
“My advisor disparaged someone else’s sense choice of pencil skirt.” = sexism. Really? It couldn’t be that that’s simply a comment your advisor made based on her sense of fashion and personal preference? It HAD to be sexism?
“My male colleagues said I overdressed” = sexism. No comment on departmental culture as well as East Coast vs West Coast culture, for example? No, it must be because of male privilege and sexism. It’s even clearly stated within that example that all the others wore field attire, but no, it’s because she was a woman that she was discriminated against, not because she didn’t fit in.
What I take issue with in this article is that other factors are simply not taken into account, and small issues are blown up into yet another complaint about sexism instead about the superficial nature of human beings in general and how we judge people. It’s textbook radicalism.
You’re right that clothing is really complicated and gender is only a part of that. I’m pointing out that in field based sciences, many women experience scrutiny and judgement based on sexist ideas about femininity in addition to all those other things you bring up. You’re also ignoring many of the examples in the post and comments that describe women’s frustration with _nothing_ being appropriate for them, but different standards being applied to men around them.
You’re doing what Marilyn Frye describes in her essay, looking at each bar of the birdcage separately and saying that each can’t possibly be a real barrier. It’s true that one comment from a prof about a pencil skirt really wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s not just one comment from one prof. It’s many comments and responses to everything we do as women – of which dressing is a part. The responses to our clothing are just part of the ways we read femininity as an incompetent other.
Also, sorry for the lack of clarity, but the cis het privilege bit doesn’t refer to the part of the post above it, but the brief comment below on how for many, like some trans or genderqueer people, there’s often no way to dress that doesn’t offend or distract your colleagues, esp homophobic and trans*phobic ones.
So, you’re the arbiter of what constitutes sexism? My point is that this isn’t a single instance; it’s ubiquitous. You’re ignoring the data. In fact, you’re doing everything you can to argue that this isn’t sexism, without offering anything in the way if proof or analysis other tha your annoyance that people are talking about this in a way you disagree with.
This is a blog about feminism and academia. Obviously we’re going to write about feminism and academia. Read the other comments from women sharing their experiences. Stop belittling us by saying that our experiences aren’t valid, and that we’re just bitching because we didn’t get our way. None here is saying they didn’t get a job, or whatever. The comments people shared involve plenty of inappropriate statements, regardless of any outcome.
Maybe ask yourself why you have such a vested interest in trivializing these experiences.
Perhaps we should bring back the Old English traditions of wearing academic gowns on campus. And at conferences.
This appeals to my love of pomp.
Perhaps we should bring back the Old English traditions of wearing academic gowns on campus. And at conferences. (But not in the lab or field – although lab coats and safety glasses do the same job in labs).
Another great post. And your conclusion says it all: “Instead of saying we don’t care about what people wear, or what people wear doesn’t matter, or that everyone should wear suits or dress for digging a soil pit everyday, let’s acknowledge that the clothes we wear have meaning and then choose not to discriminate based on that meaning.”
I am in arts rather than science, and yet still a minority.
How to dress? I’ve made up my mind a long time ago (somewhere between my MRes and PhD) that I will dress however I please. It may be the wrong attitude to take, but what I wear is both a mirror of who I am as well as a shield against what I am perceived to be.
In many ways, leaving the comfort of one’s home and entering the public world is equivalent to an actor taking to the stage. The self lingers, it is revealed, but it is also concealed. What I choose to reveal and how I choose to reveal it always takes second stage to the masque.
I am a woman and refuse to allow others to dictate how womanhood in the context of academia may be defined or interpreted. Certainly, I do not navigate in a void and my choices will always be shaped by society and circumstance, but as long as I am aware of that and do it on my own terms, it is still better than conforming to an ‘academic’ uniform.
Thinking again about the heading for this post – and at a deeper level I think Sarcozona is not *only* talking about the way we want to dress, but about establishing ourselves as feminine as well as scientists. And the perception is that if we seem to be too feminine, then our science is not taken seriously and if we seem to be too much of an absent-minded professor type, then neither our science nor our womanhood is taken seriously.
I must admit, I have heard men teased mercilessly by their peers either for wearing a suit and tie to give a presentation or attend an interview when they don’t normally dress like that; OR the converse, for not wearing said uniform when it was deemed appropriate. There is at least one (unconfirmed) rumour that a bloke didn’t get a particular (field-based) job because he didn’t wear a tie to the interview, when all the other men on the panel had made the effort to do so.
But this teasing and anecdotal evidence never impinges on their masculinity nor on their seriousness about science in the way that there appears to be (still, after all these years) such a dichotomy when judging women in similar circumstances. Even women do this judging.
I’m also really interested in how men can be judged when they seem to care about their appearance, especially if there’s any hint that they are expressing their sexuality or body confidence in some way. I think that’s because recognizing yourself as a potential object of desire is seen as deeply feminine, and thus distasteful.
I think you are right here – not only distasteful, but less scientifically rigorous. Which is the original point of your post, is it not?
I was lucky – in grades 11 and 12 there were only 2-3 girls in my science classes, and we all wore school uniforms and no make-up – so I learnt to cope with separating my ‘attractive’ self from my ‘workaday’ self. I also was respected academically in those classes – I usually got the top marks. So to some extent I was ‘one of the mates’ and no-one treated me any differently nor commented on clothes because there was nothing to comment on. So I guess I just assumed that was how I should be treated when i went into the workforce, and never noticed if anyone thought any differently.
But I do sympathise, and I have seen repercussions for others.
One aspect of male privilege is that we can wear whatever we want wherever we want and still “fit in”, while women’s attire is always scrutinized and judged.
that’s not what I have observed with my mostly male colleagues over the years – they are very critical of any non-conformity – either too casual or too formal in the ‘wrong’ place.
The difference is that such criticism speaks only to our sartorial sense, not to our professional competence.
It would seem to be true, however there are exceptions such in the anecdote I gave above, where it was rumoured someone (male) missed out on a job because he didn’t take enough care with his appearance at the interview. In that case, professional competence was compromised, even if just in the minds of those perpetuating the rumour. And I only heard men discussing this, not women.
And I have also heard men denigrating students’ seminar performance on the basis of their hair styles, tatoos etc. Many times.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, I agree with you. About two years I was told by a teacher that I didn’t look like a young lady that goes into a science field. Of course I knew better, but I wondered how many times this same teacher told other pupils that they weren’t worthy.
Thank you so much for writing this. As a grad student, I battled with this greatly. I always have looked younger than I really am, so I learned quickly that teaching in jeans and t-shirts didn’t garner much respect from undergrads. When I began adding trousers, blazers, suits, and such, then I got more respect from undergrads but was seen as snooty and arrogant by other people. After a couple of years into my PhD program, I became reacquainted with my love of fashion and began wearing more dresses & heels. That was sneered at by faculty in my department. A fellow grad student was even told by a faculty member that she had spent too much time fixing her hair one particular day, and that it must have meant that she wasn’t spending enough time on her research. She had spent 10-15 min fixing her hair that particular day.
What’s funny about all of this is that my research involves both field work and lab work, and I love that. I am equally happy in field clothes & boots and dresses & heels. One colleague told me once when we were in the field together that he couldn’t believe I enjoyed field work so much because I was so “posh.” (His choice of words, not mine.) He was surprised that I enjoyed putting on makeup & cute clothes when we went into town on off days, yet spent my time at our site in hiking gear.
What we choose to wear presents an image at that particular point in time, but it does not constitute who we are or really anything about the quality of our work. Academics need to accept this and move on. I struggle with being judged by other academics in many ways, but one thing I have come to terms with over the past couple of years is wearing what I want at conferences, in the classroom, and elsewhere in academia (within reason, of course). If somebody has a problem with what I’m wearing, it’s exactly that: THEIR problem.
A few years a go I had a very bright and able student studying for a PhD. She always dressed well, which included significant makeup. Being in close proximity, as her supervisor, made me suddenly aware of how others (male and female) judge people on their appearance. Actually I was shocked that people who barely knew her made (incorrect) assumptions about her considerable ability. Perhaps more shocking to me was that I personally was judged by female professors for even deigning to act as her supervisor. She did very well with her studies and got out of science at the first opportunity.
I had an experience in grad school that schooled me on this quite well. We had a prospective graduate student interviewing at the lab, and she showed up in very feminine business formal, including high heels and make up. It felt very out of place at an ecology lab, and I admit that I judged her poorly on it. However, when we went to look at the field site (in New England, in winter) we found that the door was blocked by a substantial chunk of ice. She immediately made excellent use of her high heel as an ice pick. I never judged her on her attire again (and I’ve tried to apply this lesson to others as well).
Personally, I’ve really appreciated the fact that there does seem to be a female professor uniform in my field. It’s not perfectly consistent, but I like knowing that there is a basic costume I can buy and know it will fit in and work. I’ve always kind of envied men the ability to have very clear categories of “business casual” etc and know that, if they wore the right category, it would work.
Let’s not pretend the judgment on appearances is a problem limited to women. I am a laid back guy, and dress as such, but I have lost count of the amount of times people ignore my ideas because I am not in a shirt. The idea you can wear what you want is ridiculous. You have to wear what is appropriate and will deliver the right message to the person you are interacting with, and this applies if you are male or female. For example, talking to a policy-maker, I should be very smartly dressed, but in the field a different outfit is needed.
No one is saying this is limited to women. But let’s not pretend that men and women are subjected to the same kinds of judgement. Guys have a lot more leeway in most environments. Pay attention to what people say about clothing, and who wears what at conferences. Read the comments here, where people have shared their stories. Pay attention.
I am a woman in the IT field, and I have similar experiences. I frequently have to work with highly professional client (lawyers, CEO’s, CFO’s etc.) and if I dress in business attire I am told no one will take me seriously, but I am not allowed the slacks and blouse/polo style of my male colleagues because I’m disrespecting the client by “not taking their position seriously”.
Pingback: Skirts | Gravity's Rainbow
Beyond how we choose to clothe ourselves, as a group, women in the sciences have failed to discuss the impact of body type. I think the stereotypical female ecologist is petite, small breasted, perpetually upbeat, whip smart, and full of energy (I’m always reminded of Peter Pan).I am a field ecologist and a large breasted woman. My female colleagues trend toward the masculine “ideal” when it comes to field clothes. When I have worn identical outfits worn by smaller-breasted female ecologists in my department, I have been called “butch”. Whereas a small-breasted woman wearing minimal make-up, cargo pants, field boots and a t-shirt equals ecologist, a large-breasted woman equals lesbian. I could not possibly wear the same outfits worn by my female colleagues to teach because they would place my breasts “front and center”. I shudder to consider the comments I would get if I wore anything remotely feminine in the classroom. I have been accused of receiving positive student evaluations because of my breast size. It has been made obvious to me since puberty that my physical appearance is a distraction. Young men stare. Females look disapprovingly at me. I can’t be too silly lest I’m a bimbo. I have to be serious, tough, and unyielding in order to be taken seriously. The whole thing exhausts me.
Thanks for bringing this up. It’s incredibly important and not just a problem in science. It starts early and lasts forever. In the post from Dr. Isis linked above, she describes the torture in school she went through when she developed breasts. I said in my post that expressions of femininity are othered and read as incompetence. This is part of sexism in general, where anything female is considered not as good. Having breasts is a very strong indicator of femaleness (but not surefire – shoutout to chubby dudes, gender deviants, intersex ppl, trans folks!) and as a marker of such, gets a lot of negative attention add discrimination.
I’m glad you brought up how when you dress in a less feminine way you’re called a lesbian and when you’re dressed in a feminine way you’re too sexy. It’s a major amplification of what lots of women experience, where we’re punished both for not being “pretty enough” to desire and for being sexy. Constant objectification.
Also shows how many people are reading clothing as sexual availability, which is just wrong – esp in the workplace.
We have had a couple posts about this topic on womanofscience.wordpress.com (http://womanofscience.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/womens-issues-what-not-to-wear/ and http://womanofscience.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/womens-issues-vpl/). The one on Visible Panty Lines is a comedic take on the issue. How many guys even know what VPLs are, let alone care? My husband has his boxers hanging out his pants half the time when he teaches majors. When teaching large service classes, he does try to shave and groom the day he teaches.
As a woman in the physical sciences, I felt like, as a student, I had to wear clothes at conferences that were dressed-up but masculine enough to get across seriousness. Also, I am an experimentalist, so I felt like I had to look like I could run into the lab at any time. Female theorists were able to wear skirts and still be able to be taken seriously, and they do not have this issue.
Now, after achieving tenure, I think about what I wear in terms of the statement I want to make. At a recent trip, I gave a departmental seminar in jeans, sweater, and Converse All*Stars. The next day, I wore a sweater dress, knit tights, and high heel booties. I purposely did this to make the point that I can wear whatever I want. I struck up a conversation with another WomanOfScience who also spoke at the conference. She was dressed as I was the day before, and we chatted about clothes. She told me that she dressed in skirt/heels style the day before. I felt good that we were each representing different looks for female scientists.
I have had a woman peer mentor who I talk to about this issue with. We both decided that dressing up a bit for the first few days of teaching was important for establishing control in the classroom. My male counterparts do this too, wearing ties the first few weeks and dialing back. At first, we actually had blazers in our offices that we threw over our clothes. Eventually, I realized that dark jeans, tennis shoes, and a preppy sweater over my t-shirt is fine for my students.
One male faculty once told me that he cannot change his appearance over the semester, or his evaluations would go down. For instance, he grew a mustache over the summer and had to decide to shave before classes or keep the ‘stache for the entire semester. I tested this theory by cutting in bangs part way through the semester with no negative consequences.
I do think the bar is higher for women. I have known two women at my institution who had negative comments from women (gender revealed from handwriting analysis) about their clothing being too revealing. One student commented, “Prof. WomanOfScience should show less of her body,” of my friend who always dresses up and wears business-type attire that can be a bit low-cut. I am jealous of her excellent, high-end attire, and was surprised to hear this comment. Another woman in my department was told that she looked like a “french whore,” which was over the top offensive. This woman actually wears trendy, indie-type clothing that is not revealing at all, so it was strange.
Very nice post. I try very hard not to judge based on clothes, but I know that I’m probably as guilty as the next person.
I talked now and again about my clothes on my blog. If I dress down, people think I’m a student. If I dress up, I’m mistaken for admin staff. I really struggled for a long time with how to dress as an engineer/scientist and finally decided I just had to look like the guys: either a button-down (fitted) shirt or sweater, jeans or slacks (depending on how formal) and a nice slip-on shoe (that allows me to wear orthotics so that I don’t die from foot pain). The one thing I have refused to do, however, is cut my hair. I wear my hair *very* long because that’s the one thing that feels very feminine to me and I want to keep it that way. I imagine people critique out of ear shot, but it’s non-negotiable. 🙂
What I learned up to this point in my academic career as a very young scientist…think outside of the box and stop trying to dress like everyone else. I’m about 5-10 years younger than my peers and in order to be taken seriously, I had to find some way to not bring attention to my age or my gender. This was especially important, given that I was the only female in my department as a graduate student. All the professors and other graduate students were male. I have often had to teach undergraduate courses with most of the students my age or older. I found that if I just dressed uniquely and differently, my age and my gender were less likely to even be considered. Bottom line though, take some pride in your personal quirky style and stop listening to the opinions and comments of others. Be bold and do what you want. People will sense your comfort of style if you own up to your style. And if people still feel they need to comment, then those people are just exposing their sallowness of character and (see above) you should definitely ignore their opinions.
FYI if you want professional clothes that also work well as outdoor clothing in the field, you might want to start here:
Or better yet, find your own style.
Great post, thanks. I’m a more senior female professor in ecology/evolution and have noticed many of the difficulties people mentioned already. One way I’ve found that may help junior women with some of these issues is to bring up, semi-jokingly, that I’m happy to talk about clothes and how to dress whenever I do a women-in-science event as a seminar speaker or even if I’m just with a group of women grad students. I also always tell postdocs and anyone on the job market that we can discuss what to wear to interviews. Often people are really happy and relieved to have an opportunity just to discuss how they feel about these issues — most seminar speakers won’t acknowledge them. It’s not that I feel I have the last word, I just think we need to be talking about the issues. So you might consider broaching the topic if you’re in a similar position.
Reblogged this on Women in the Academy and commented:
“Instead of saying we don’t care about what people wear, or what people wear doesn’t matter, or that everyone should wear suits or dress for digging a soil pit everyday, let’s acknowledge that the clothes we wear have meaning and then choose not to discriminate based on that meaning.”
Pingback: I can haz job? Tips and tricks for the academic interview | Tenure, She Wrote
As an undergrad at an elite private university who comes from a low income neighborhood I can attest to people constantly judging me based on my clothing and being surprised by my performance and understanding. Thanks so much for posting this.
Pingback: What I’m Reading | On the Border of Biology and Bioinformatics
Have you considered the concept of femmephobia vs. sexism? http://qspace.library.queensu.ca/handle/1974/8271
Pingback: Why You Should Care | The Asexual Agenda
Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | Should You Dress Up For A Phone Interview? That’s Absurd!
Pingback: Feminine field work. - The Way of the Geophysicist
Thank you for posting this. I am new to the biology career field, and am still looking for my work wardrobe identity. As an undergrad, I had a pretty casual dress code. Not a slob, but jeans, a T under a cardigan, comfy shoes everyday. I am currently working as a biologist for a forest service nursery and have the option to wear a uniform, and I am kind of relieved because it takes the guess work out of it. I am digging in the dirt a lot, so I need field practical clothes and the uniform is very utilitarian, but I don’t really have an identity in it. Recently, I attended a nursery conference, and I found myself wearing what I wore in college and feeling like I needed to up my game a little. The men all wear jeans or hiking pants and a fly fishing button up or fleece but I noticed the women would put more effort into it in a polished way that I admired. I was actually googling “what should a biologist wear at the office” and your article popped up, and it is refreshing to know I’m not alone in trying to find professional work wear that I feel comfortable in and says I’m a badass scientist that has her shit together. I don’t care what anyone says, your clothes speak for you and they speak volumes. To say “wear whatever, it doesn’t matter” is lazy and dismissive. Thanks again.
Love this, thank you!!
Great article and outfits! Wanna share this video with you – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HY66FZ207Hs
Pingback: Wearing academic life | The Slow Academic