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