Dress for Success

Ever since I started going to conferences, I’ve been at a loss for what to wear. The men in my field pride themselves in the aloof state of their dress when presenting their results, and it’s not uncommon to see them presenting in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip flops. But for women, there is an unspoken rule that to be taken seriously, jeans and a t-shirt just aren’t going to cut it.

It’s a strange catch-22, because if you don’t dress well then you’re more likely to be blown off, but if you dress too well then you’re seen as over-compensating and taken less seriously, and similarly if you dress too femme. Conference presentations lie right in a criss-cross of gendered expectations and male-dominated culture.

As the years have gone by, and my ambitions to stay in academia have risen, I’ve taken to seeing what the other women in my field wear when presenting. Adopting this into my own presentation fashion has largely meant pant suits, although when I include the jacket it’s pushing me towards the “overdressed” side when my (male) colleagues start to ask me whether I’m doing an interview that day, and a few pieces of jewelry including my wedding ring, a small necklace, and large nerdy earrings. I’m already on the tall side (tall girls rule), so I tend to steer away from heels, although many other women wear them well when discussing the intricacies of their research.

What have you worn to conferences, and how has it affected interactions with your colleagues?


37 thoughts on “Dress for Success

  1. Cool post! I tend to wear jeans and a t-shirt but…

    1. I’m mid-career. I already have a strong professional reputation. When I was more junior, I tended to wear slacks and a nice shirt.
    2. While I identify as a woman, I’m masculine of center much of the time.
    3. I’m a theorist — I do mostly math — so I think people expect me to be masculine.
    4. I’m an ecologist, and as others have joked, there’s a tendency for ecologists to dress as though they might be called out to the field at any moment.

  2. For me, it totally depends on the conference. I just try to blend-in. There is one meeting I go to each year that is much dressier than any of the others, so for that one I always dress at a ‘business’ level, meaning an outfit that includes a blazer/jacket each day. Most of my other meetings are business casual, so I wear slacks or a skirt and a nice top.

    I try to minimize obnoxious/loud jewelry, but still maintain my personal flair with a fun scarf or something.

    I am also tall, so I tend to wear flats, but also largely for comfort because I know I’ll be walking around a lot.

  3. I find it so frustrating that there are different standards for men and women in this. Personally, I would not take ANYONE seriously who presented at a conference in jeans, a t-shirt, and flip flops–male, female, or other.

    • I agree. And yet the leading ecologist in my field presents in sandals, shorts and a t-shirt. But his reputation is enormous.

    • I think geology conferences are an exception — they tend to be much more informal, at least among those who do field work. Jeans and a fleece are totally normal at GSA even for the session conveners, though I agree this (unfortunately) flies less well for women who haven’t established themselves yet. I usually do something like dark jeans and a nice sweater. If you wear a suit you look like a theorist or a modeler — someone who doesn’t “get their hands dirty”.

  4. It’s not as if we (women) always struggle with the question what to wear. But for conferences it is a truly difficult one trying to find a good balance between over- and underdressed. I was actually wearing a white blouse with a jacket combining it with dark jeans and black vans. It probably also depends on the type of conference…

  5. Thank goodness I am not alone in this! Ever since a (woman, no less) colleague told me that it was hard to focus on my data since my committee members were busy staring at my breasts back in grad school, I am extremely conscious! (By the way, I was wearing a black turtleneck, it is not my fault if I have a size DDD!) (Apparently you should not pursue a degree in science, if you are busty!)

    Anyhow, I always (always) rehearse my outfits before I go to a conference or before I give a talk. I even have a checklist for this: Does this make me look curvy (not qualified), is this top too tight (not qualified), list goes on. So anything that makes me look like a woman, is not qualified. I stick to the shawls, jackets, non-sexy mother shoes so that I don’t invoke the thought: with that look hon, you will get a “job” (heard a male faculty refer this way to an esteemed women professor, during his class no less). I dream one day I will wear red pumps and present my data, but that will have to wait until I prove my science…

    • At my very first conference, my male supervisor pointed out a female student presenting a poster, more formally dressed with heels, a skirt, and a nice top. He said “look a how she’s dressed, she obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about!”. If I had any ideals that my science would be heard no matter what I’m wearing, they disappeared that day.

      • That doesn’t even make any SENSE. It’s so frustrating because you would think that scientists with PhDs and supposedly training in simple deductive reasoning would be able to realize how stupid that sounded. But of course, they do not.

    • NoDress4U – I think I may have gone to grad school with you OR this is happening all over to graduate students. My friend had this comment give to her in grad school and wore a turtleneck from then on, only for her to be told it was too form-fitting. Guess you can never win and it’s always up to women to avoid making men have a visceral reaction and then be forced to deal with the task of learning how to act appropriately.

      That being said, I always wear a jacket, or cardigan at conferences. I love pencil skirts/slim pants and try to mix/match colors of blazers with the pants or skirt to as not to appear to be wearing a suit. I’m not that far out of grad school so in my mind the blazer distinguishes me from a student, though I am still mistaken for one frequently (and then spoken down to as a result).

  6. It depends on the conference. For national conferences where interviews take place, naturally I wear more interview clothes, though despite owning one suit I can honestly say I’ve never worn a suit.

    For more local events, I go more casual, but still professional. I’ve worn skinny jeans with a nice blazer and killer heels. I’ve worn slacks and a nice sweater. I never wear dresses. I never wear much if any jewelry. I rarely if ever wear makeup. I frequently bring a big bag that fits a notepad and/or my laptop, and flats.

    What I’ve begun to realize is that even if I’m NOT speaking, I should still dress. If my job isn’t giving a talk, it’s networking to convince someone else to INVITE me to give a talk. So, I never dress like a grad student–even if I’m just watching.

  7. And for every hour women spend planning, talking, and writing about their clothing choices, most men probably spend a minute! Thanks for taking the time to share.
    I normally wear a skirt suit (usually without the jacket) and conservative heels, because that’s what I like and think is appropriate. Giving a talk at a conference is one of the most formal professional occasions we have, so I dress like it. But I really don’t care or judge when other people dress less formally. I’ve definitely had people (mostly men but some women too) comment on me being overdressed on various occasions, but I’m comfortable with what I’m projecting in that context and that’s all that matters to me. I wish that was all that mattered for each of us, but the issues you bring up are very real for women.

  8. I am an ecologist and have grappled with this. My sister is a costume expert for theatre and she has excellent advice: wear a noticeably dressed-up version of what you would wear to actually do the work you do. So the appropriate conference wear depends on the standards in your type of department. It is only since I got a job that I have presented in jeans. I usually present in some nicer trousers and a button-up shirt or attractive sweater, flat leather shoes, and some subtle jewelry and go for a similar but less special look on other days of the conference. That said, I aim for a different (more casual) look when among the extreme outdoorsy wildlife conferences compared to conferences dominated by indoor lab-dwelling scientists.


  9. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and don’t generally feel that men and women dress differently in this sub-discipline. I wear t-shirts and jeans to conferences, but definitely ‘nicer’ t-shirts and jeans. I’m a junior faculty member at a research university, and I will also wear jeans to teach (usually dark jeans, with a sweater). I have made a conscious decision to not dress more formal than the men around me just because I’m a woman (ie. I’ll dress up if I feel like it and like to, but not to make me feel ‘equal’).

  10. That depends on the conference for me (I’m a PhD student, if that makes a difference). At women’s & gender studies conferences, apparel runs the gamut…I generally wear nice pants, a cardigan with a cami or plain t-shirt underneath, and comfy but professional shoes. For sport & physical activity conferences, I wear gym shoes, nice jeans or khakis, with the same cami + shirt underneath combo (I saw tracksuit pieces at the conference I went to in November…I think that person was mid-to-late career though).

  11. As an overweight wildlife/ molecular ecologist I find dressing for conferences extremely hard to do. I try to be professional, but not too dressy and not too feminine. I’m now a junior TT faculty member and it really hasn’t gotten any easier since I was a student. I try my best to fit in, at least wardrobe wise.

  12. Conferences in my field tend to be relatively casual. A common outfit for me is casual pants (black jeans, kahki or white pants in summer), decent shirt and some sort of jacket or nice sweater. The jacket gives it some polish while the casual pants keep me from looking corporate. As for footwear, never sneakers, but also not too dressy or high (call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like the image projected by super-high heels). Loafers, nice clogs or sandals, boots in winter. I also always wear jewelery, perhaps a scarf, though nothing too ostentatious. I have no idea how this affects the way people interact with me – the main thing is that I feel comfortable and am projecting an image of myself that I like. My advice is to find a look that makes you feel confident, then focus on getting the most out of the conference.

    Students: please, no cleavage. The older generation never quite got used to this as a norm and it can distract them.

  13. Pingback: Dressing for Success in Science as a Woman | DoctorAl

  14. A colleague and I were just having this conversation, as we’re set to go to a conference soon. I agree with @Lena that you should choose what makes you confident, and for me, that means a simple look with a pop of color, a fierce lip color, and coifed hair (that’s just my personal style). So, I’ll do a simple black pant, black shirt, and black shoes, with a pink blazer and a sleek bun. Or I’ll wear a navy blue dress shirt, pants, and tan cardigan…with a matte red lipstick. I like to kind of play with my style and use traditional pieces (button ups, sweaters / cardigans) and pair with a non-traditional accessory or style item. That’s what makes me feel most confident. I don’t do jeans at conferences, and that’s because I don’t do jeans at work generally. I try to do “professional… with personality”, and make sure that even if the pieces are simple, that they fit well (not too baggy or too tight, but I think everybody should make that a practice).

  15. I am glad I’m not the only one who struggles with this. My issue is that my normal style is fairly flamboyant (color, pattern, etc.) and also dressy as I don’t really do pants. Conferences require me to dress down both in formality and volume. I’ve found that a basic black A-line dress with a cardigan or blazer, and a printed lightweight scarf (also handy for over air conditioned venues) seems to hit the right note of “polished but not trying too hard.” I keep makeup simple and natural. I try not to wear more than one “loud” thing at a time (usually just the scarf).

    All that said, I wore a loud printed skirt, plain top, and an acid green cardigan to a postdoc job talk. It was a slight risk but I felt more comfortable in that than in the TV news anchor-esque dress that was my other outfit option. I figured projecting confidence might override looking a bit quirky, and based on the lab website the other postdocs also wear bright colors and such so I surmised it wasn’t verboten. For whatever it’s worth I got the job. I wouldn’t wear such an outfit to a faculty interview or speaking engagement. But part of my reason for being in academia is to get away with being a bit eccentric. After being miserable in an uptight, conservative lab culture in the past, I’ve tried to make sure that any lab I join is ok with me being a bit left of center.

  16. I’m an ecologist (or evolutionary biologist or limnologist, depending on the day and meeting!), and feel like there’s sometimes a tension between looking professional (meaning: looking like someone who should be taken seriously) and not looking overly formal (because, as Robin said above, ecologists have a tendency to look like they might need to head out into the field at any minute). My impression is that younger ecologists (in terms of academic rank) and women tend to dress up more at meetings like ESA.

    More specifically, when I was a postdoc, I tended to wear dress pants and a button-down shirt on the day that I gave a talk. Now, as a newly tenured faculty member, I tend to wear a skirt, “dressy” t-shirt (can plain t-shirts be dressy?), and chacos. I did wear a dress for a recent talk, only to realize when I got there that having no waistband meant I had nowhere to clip the mic, so I had to hold the mic pack in one hand and the pointer in the other for the whole seminar, which was a little awkward.

  17. It depends on the conference. If I’m going for a casual look I would wear a nice button down shirt, chinos, a blazer and oxfords/loafers. Blazers always make outfits look more put together. If I’m going for a dressy look I would wear a casual-style dress paired with a cardigan/blazer and some nice flats. If I wear jewelry or makeup I keep it to a minimum to enhance my natural beauty.

  18. Oh! So amazing that people are talking about this! I’ve definitely overdressed or underdressed a time or two (or seven), but luckily I started attending conferences as an undergrad and I’m a final-year PhD student now, so I’ve had some time and space to work things out. (It helps that my supervisor is female, glamorous, and both a kickass field ecologist and a brilliant scientist, so I’ve got a great role model here.)

    Because of my body type (very tall, slightly overweight), in winter I tend to rock either the jeans + nice top + black blazer + heeled boots look or the khakis + sneakers + nice sweater look, and then in summer the khakis + sneakers + lightweight blouse + scarf/sash look. From my supervisor I’ve also picked up the tall black boots, tights, knee-length casual patterned skirt, and then some sort of neutral top (with or without a blazer). I currently have short hair, so I have only one choice in hairstyle at the moment, but when I had longer hair my choices were up in a bun or a half ponytail — ponytails or leaving it long being too casual, anything fancier being, well, too fancy. And absolutely no makeup beyond the foundation I wear daily.

  19. I’m an astronomer. I have always liked fashion and, with the exception of the later grad school days of ultra-sloppy, have tended to dress up. I’m mid-career now and almost always wear dresses or skirts for work (unless I’m at the observatory or a lab facility). I wore jeans to work one day and my postdoc and grad student gasped. For conferences, I will grab the more conservative of my outfits (a black jersey skirt and a jacket, say) but still am always in skirts or dresses. This is generally more dressed up than my colleagues (unless European astronomers are there) but I have only received positive comments to date.

  20. I’m a postdoc. I tend to “dress up” for conferences – that is, I am usually more dressy than 80-90% of the other conference attendees. I’ve always heard the wisdom that women should be dressier than men, and women of color especially so, and that when you are junior you should be dressy so people take you serious. But the secret reason is that I really just love to dress up – I like suits and dress shoes and pretty blouses – and so I “dress up” because it makes me feel good to do so. I feel powerful and professional and confident in dress clothes.

    With that said, I have modified my conference style a bit. I used to go in a full suit, or a really nice dress, and dress heels (usually around 3″). However, the suits/dresses attracted a lot of attention. Usually overtly positive attention – I’d actually get a lot of more advanced professional academic women telling me how much they liked my bag/dress/shoes, and I was flattered, but I started wondering whether people were taking me seriously and thinking maybe I liked fashion too much to be a serious scientist (it’s ridiculous that I should have to even wonder that…). Plus, the shoes just became too freaking uncomfortable to wear trekking across huge conference hotels.

    So I started doing dress slacks/skirt and blouse/sweater, plus low heels ( < 3", usually < 2.5"). I get less commentary on my outfits and I still feel pretty confident and comfortable, although less so than a power suit.

    I still carry the nice bag, though. Hey, it's my vice. *shrugs* I have also just accepted the fact that I will be The Overdressed One because I damn well like it.

  21. This is a conversation that my female peers and I had on more than one occasion during our PhDs! It is a shame when you feel that your expertise in your field is somehow coloured by the way that you dress. I agree with SweetScience – I feel that presenting at a conference is the most important “interviews” we have, and so I dress professionally and smartly in line with that assumption. Hell, if someone sees me and thinks “well, she’s too smartly dressed, she’s clearly an idiot” then let them, then hear me speak about my subject and re-form their opinion. I also feel more confident when I am dressed more formally, and if there’s one place I want to feel confident it’s a conference, where I need to network, potentially with some pretty important people. Having said that, I’ve been to smaller conferences where I’ve already known people and dressed much less formally, nice jeans and flats, but only on days when I wasn’t presenting anything. Wow, I wish this wasn’t an issue – so disappointing that it is….!

  22. I am mid-career tenured in a physical science field. I also hate shopping and haven’t worn a skirt in likely over a decade. My wardrobe is minimal: I wear a lot of black and grey; my pants are black slacks or jeans. I wear boots or black shoes, never sneakers. I don’t have specific conference clothes — I wear stuff that I wear to teach. I am tall and very busty, so I gave up on blazers, as I can never find a fitting one. I don’t wear much (if any) jewelry but do wear makeup.

    To class I wear shoes, jeans, top (these days my black sweaters). At conferences as well, if I don’t present (shoes and jeans are fine). If I present, it’s slacks and a nice top with shoes.

    I don’t wear glasses and I have shoulder-length hair. which I wear down (mostly to avoid the pinhead look when I put it up).

    Most women in my field are about as dressed up as me or more. But you have to be comfortable. I simply hate shopping much more than I care about how I am perceived; this too came with age and being established. Makeup and shiny hair with a good haircut go a long way in making one seem put together (or so I imagine).

    My main issue with conferences is that I am often too cold, because the temperature settings seem to cater to men in jackets. So my main problem is forgetting a sweater or similar that I can put on when my teeth start to chatter.

  23. I’m a closet fashionista and women in my field tend to be really well-dressed. So my conference uniform is a Chanel type jacket over a silk shell or a tee with whatever jeans are trendy that year. l love cocktail dresses and sometimes also wear skirt suits. Slingbacks are a great conference shoe, not too high. I take along some of my nicest bags.

    US conferences are chilly. When I am presenting, I often chose a color or cut that makes me feel confident. Red is a power color. Is it tragic that I remember that I was wearing a midi dress last fall when I gave my big talk of the year?

    For anyone uncomfortable with clothes, schedule an appointment with a personal shopper. In a short amount of time, they will help to create an outfit that works best with your body shape and personal coloring.

  24. I’m going to my first big international conference soon and giving a poster presentation (I’m a PhD student). I LOVE wearing dresses and skirts! I enjoy fashion and I’m often a bit more dressed up than others in my lab. In my current lab you can’t show any leg – for safety reasons, so I figured this conference was a chance to wear my favorite dresses.
    I’m also toying with the idea of getting some nail art (double helix anyone?)
    I realize from the comments above that it will affect what others, and especially the “elder” generation, thinks of my science. But I also think that this is something that can change if we wear what we like and give each other some slack. If flip-flops are ok, why not heels? If a science-tie is fun, why not nail art?

  25. I work in a university and I’ve noted this double standard. Women are expected to dress up to be taken seriously but men can dress down (jeans, t-shirt etc) and still sail through. This should not be the case but that’s just the way it’s!!

  26. Pingback: A Whole New Wardrobe. | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

  27. Lot of interesting responses here. I’m a mid-PhD student and I am just starting to get the hang of the whole conference thing. I still worry about being visible in the face of potentially homophobic colleagues, so when presenting or meeting with higher-ups, I make sure above all to dress “straight”. I also make sure to continually check myself and my own judgment, and to not assume anything by how someone dresses. I’m not fond of people wearing torn t-shirts or super short shorts to conferences, although as long as how someone dresses signals respect, that’s all that matters.

    • I completely understand the desire to dress straight. I’ve done that quite a bit over the years. But at conferences, I’ve found myself wanting to connect with others, including other LGBT people in my field, so I always make sure to have either a rainbow lapel pin, or a button on my bag, or something that might lead to new connections.

  28. Pingback: Conferences, English Grammar, and Starting a PhD

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