Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hair Today

Someone commented to me in conversation the other day that as long as I have hair like mine, I will not be taken as seriously as I would be if I had a more "classically age-appropriate" hair style; i.e., shorter hair, or at least hair styled in a middle-aged woman kind of way (whatever that is).

Does anyone else believe this? Are women with short/styled hair taken more seriously than women with long hair (for example)?

OK, I know, I have discussed hair before. It is actually not a big issue for me, but it comes up every now and then. The aforementioned conversation was in the context of some of my new professional responsibilities that require me to spend time with a veritable sea of men in suits and ties.

When my colleague made his recent comment about my hair being a factor in my credibility gap (i.e., I am actually a reasonably competent, serious scientist, but I don't look I am), I nodded because it sort of made sense. I've had enough experiences in which people were surprised and dubious to find out I am a professor, scientist, etc., so that it was easy for me to agree somewhat reflexively with this statement about my appearance with respect to my career/position.
But after giving it some thought, my answer to my own question is that hair length/color/style is not very important. Perhaps the context of a situation is somewhat important, but in most professional situations, hair style is just a detail. Appearance can matter for a first impression, and hair style is part of that impression, but it's just part of the overall package. I could get Hilary Clinton hair tomorrow, and I could even put on a red power-suit (perhaps for Halloween), but that would not change the first-order aspects of my appearance and personality. I would remain a soft-spoken, not-tall, uncharismatic, sarcastic female. 

Some men in my field of Science don't treat women as serious, professional colleagues, but it's not because our hair is long or short or pink or yellow. I have spent plenty of time sharing stories with short-haired female colleagues about our similar experiences being in a male-dominated field. And I have had (very) short hair in the past (but not recently); in the context of being taken seriously in a professional context, I don't think it matters.

Agree or disagree?



50 comments:

Dana said...

Agreed. I think you allude to a strong point, that anyone who doesn't take a female professional seriously will do this regardless of their appearance. In addition, they are grasping for justifications for the unjustifiable if they use hair (or other appearance details) as a reason for a "credibility gap."

hawright said...

Wow, I'd really have to bite my tongue not to "react" in a typical "female" sort of way to that comment. First of all, I agree with your take on it, that irrespective of hair, a woman's position may not be taken seriously (in science).

I have had multiple hair styles and I look about 10 years younger than I really am. I often get mistaken for a student or someone in a subordinate role in my field. I have had to work twice as hard to prove myself.

Additionally, hair styles already come with cultural stereotypes which I will refrain from discussing, however it should be stated that my very short haircut over a year ago resulted in lewd and inappropriate comments regarding my sexual preference. I find this disgusting, embarrassing, disrespectful and plain immature. I feel the same way regarding a person who would have enough guts to tell me that I had to cut or grow my hair in order to be taken seriously.

really? that's ridiculous.

It's your hair, do what you want. In the words of one of my all time favorite scientists> "what do you care what other people think?" (Feynman)

rosa said...

Okay - this is not the most important post you have ever written, and I do have more to say about other issues - BUT I am a "hard" scientist with long hair and I have always unconsciously styled my hair according to what kind of meetings I am attending that day. It is not important IN THE END but it does sometimes help with particular individuals. BTW I love checking in on your thoughts on issues.

Anonymous said...

I know someone who wears a red power suit. America didn't take her seriously and thankfully she is no longer running for president.

Anonymous said...

If you are talking about your university's administration, it is definitely important, where appearances count for much more than substance. I don't think it should be, but it is. And it is not just men making those judgements, alas....

Anonymous said...

Yes.

And it's fine to have very long hair so long as you put it up in professional situations. I don't think anybody's first instinct is to take someone with butt-length hair seriously whatever their age, except maybe when the person with long hair is a male computer programmer (or maybe a female creative humanities type). And even then. You have to work harder at all other aspects of being respectable and who wants to deal with that when you could just pin your hair up (or cut it off)?

Anonymous said...

I think it probably matters a little, even though of course of course we all think it shouldn't.

Apparently the research agrees, this just out:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/fashion/makeup-makes-women-appear-more-competent-study.html?_r=1&ref=fashion

(ok that's about makeup, not hair, but you get the idea)

Anonymous said...

I (a female) was told by a female professor that I had to make my hair look less crazy (re: curly) to successfully land a faculty position.

I have just started a tenure track position (!) and my hair is a mild concern but only in that it can aide in making me look older than the students. That's not really true.

jyby said...

Rosie Redfield (http://www.zoology.ubc.ca/~redfield/) has had blue and rose hair (http://www.google.com/search?client=ubuntu&channel=fs&q=Rosie+Redfield&oe=utf-8&um=1&hl=en&biw=1260&bih=660&ie=UTF-8&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi), and she is unanimously recognized as a first class scientist.

I am a man and I was criticized on my hair by a Uruguayan colleague, merely because it was semi-long and curly: it did not fit her image of a professor. I think (hope?) I am recognized by others as a first class scientist.

In my (anecdotical) experience, there are preconceived ideas on appearance on both sides of the gender gap. I will be curious to see if there more (anecdotical) evidence of a bias there.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am a male with longer than shoulder length hair. I have been told the same thing. I also don't think it matters much.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Strangely enough I also recently had a hair remark though not as sarcastic as yours. Good luck for changing the world...

GMP said...

I think appearances do matter, but there is only so much one can or should do about it. Among the battles to pick, this one is not worth fighting. Drastic changes in the appearance that are not actually desired by the woman undergoing them are likely to make her deeply distressed, which offsets any (tiny) professional benefits she could reap. No one who disrespects you because you are a woman will all of a sudden turn just because you cut your hair.

I have long hair, don't wear glasses, and dress fairly casually.
What I will occasionally do to look more serious when giving a talk is make a low pony tail or a bun, but I will certainly not cut my hair. I don't particularly like wearing suits, but sometimes do anyway. That's the extent to which I will accommodate looking like a serious academic/professional woman.

OTOH, getting older and/or fatter helps too. :)

Cherish said...

My experience, as a woman with very long hair, is that dress has far more to do with people taking me seriously than my hair. While it's perfectly acceptable to wear jeans and t-shirts to work, I try not to do it very much any more. Students, coworkers, and especially colleagues outside of the university take me more seriously when I am dressed up as opposed to looking like a student. (Although, even that doesn't work sometimes: I have been mistaken for a secretary.)

Anonymous said...

It's too bad every post can't be the most important one you've ever written.

Anonymous said...

It shouldn't matter, but it does. I'm a woman and when I see someone who's hair needs a flat iron or an eyebrow/lip wax, I think for the love, just brush or pluck!

As a graduate student, I remember sitting in on a talk that had a genealogical component of women in telomere research. Maybe they were old photos (from the 70/80) era, but I kept thinking couldn't you brush your hair?!? (This was a talk in 2005)

I know the way I dress reflects on how I am perceived. As a postdoc, I'm jeans and a t-shirt gal but my hair is flat, my makeup is on and nails manicured. When there's a talk or something, you can be sure the shirt with my hole in it has been replaced with a shirt that has a collar.

Anie said...

I'm very curious to see what people have to say about this, as I'm going on the job market next year and have been wondering about this very long/short hair issue. When I entered my PhD program, I had very, very short hair. Now that I'm nearing the end of it, my hair is very long---about halfway down my back. Although I think that my long hair is certainly age-appropriate (I'm in my mid-20s), and I can't really attribute any particular attitudinal changes to the change in hairstyle, I still worry that it makes me appear less professional.

Anonymous said...

While we might prefer to take the attitude of "who cares what other people think", research shows that first impressions matter a LOT. For a frightening article summing up some of the research in the area see:
http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2004_08_20/noDOI.9998490105442029857

This is talking about FIRST impressions, of course. Once you know someone, I don't think your hair length or eyeshadow color is going to make much difference in whether they take you seriously or not. But we do meet new people fairly often and a good first impression goes a long way and a bad first impression can be very difficult to overcome.

An anecdotal story: In one of the first classes I taught as a new assistant professor, there was a girl who looked EXACTLY like a friend of mine from high school. This friend from high school was a very nice girl but wasn't very smart. My first impression of this student in my class was that she was also not very smart (note that this first impression was based only on my past experience with a person who looked like her - no fault of her own - a different hair length wouldn't have helped). She turned out to be the top student in the class, did significant undergraduate research for which she won several prizes, etc. But every time I saw her, I had to shake off that first impression. Even though I KNEW that my first impression had been wrong. It was annoying.

That said, I am wearing a T-shirt and jeans today and my hair is WAY too long because I've been too lazy to make an appointment to get it cut. Hopefully I don't meet anyone new today!

Anonymous said...

I have not worn make-up to work or styled my hair since I was in high school. As far as I'm concerned, that's one of the major perks of being a scientist (currently junior t-t faculty), and if that means I'm taken less seriously by some, it's a price I'm willing to pay. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm a female postdoc who also believes hair is "just a detail" that shouldn't affect people's perceptions of scientific credibility, but (I mean this nicely), it kind of sounds like you've been living under a rock! A big, academic one. My feeling is this is classic knowledge to the vast majority of people in the West, anyway.

That said, I'd definitely be rocking longer hair if it looked halfway good on me.

Anonymous said...

"Does anyone else believe this? Are women with short/styled hair taken more seriously than women with long hair (for example)?"

I'm the 11:08 Anon, and I realize I was interpreting your question from the perspective of a non-scientists. I think most professional people think of professional women as having shortish hair, and women with long hair are just out of the club.

Scientists like to believe they pay more attention to content, and I think we do, to an extent. The fact that sexism persists makes me wonder whether hairstyleism might too. The book "Don't Be Such A Scientist" touches on the topic of scientists' aversion to investing significantly in our appearance. It would be interesting to see how much we nonetheless (and maybe subconsciously) care about it.

To Love What is Mortal said...

I agree that you shouldn't have to change your hair. However, I also think it's good to look like you've joined us in the 21st century and you're still not stuck in the 60s. A lot of academics are. However, you sound like a totally hip FSP.

jb said...

I actually have a bias that when I see a woman with long hair at a university environment, I immediately assume she's either a researcher or professor, and not from administrative side. Is that a positive bias? Of course not, bec it is still judging based on appearances. And as one poster mentioned, it stems from having recollection of a similar person with a specific situation. Where I went to grad school, there was a female research prof who had unkempt long hair and now, whenever I see one, that's my immediate reaction. I think long hair works only if it's kept neat and tied back. But that could be due to the fact that I have an aversion to another woman's hair touching any part of me or even just brushing against me.

Phillip Helbig said...

"And it's fine to have very long hair so long as you put it up in professional situations."

Why?

As a male who has reasonably long hair (it used to be butt-length but after a chemotherapy it is too thin to wear very long comfortably) (and keep in mind that, in matters of appearance, women have much more freedom than men---just look at any group photo; not officially, of course, but then the advantages men have in some areas are not official either), my view is to do what I want. If someone doesn't hire me as a result, I am sure I wouldn't want to work for that person anyway.

I think Einstein was a good example of someone who did his own thing with regard to hairdos but was taken seriously as a scientist. People might have criticised his hairdo, the same type of people who criticised the Beatles' hairdos, but I doubt if he suffered any disadvantage in science as a result---and this was decades ago.

Anonymous said...

I will not cut my hair simply to pander to other people's perceptions of women with long hair. I do, however, put it up neatly when I need to look professional (teaching, meetings) and less neatly when it is in my way (which is pretty much every day).

If it's in my way all the time why not cut it? Because long hair is enormously symbolic and has been for centuries (and I like those symbols). Because I enjoy the seductive power of letting my hair down. Because I like the way it looks and no one gets to dictate what I look like on my time (I understand that the rules change when I am not at home or among friends). Also, I can do more with it when it's long than when it's short.

postdockery said...

Ack! Are we really so stupid a species as to not understand by now that the functionality of our brains has no correlation with the packaging?

There is a professor I know who everybody takes very seriously because he is brilliant, but he sports a long pony tail and refuses to wear shoes if he can help it, so he often comes to meetings barefoot or socked (no joke, and this is a BigNameIvyU). Despite these quirks, no one takes him any less seriously as far as I can tell.

So I think you might be right about it being a female thing. Although, perhaps if you were wondering why nobody responded to something you suggested, and you asked a colleague about it, maybe that was just his attempt to guess what it might be, and that reflects more on him.

Anonymous said...

People have mental images of what others *should* look like. People who look like they *should* (in the minds of others) get taken more seriously. People who look different than the stereotype make others uncomfortable and therefore make these others more likely to engage in avoidance behaviors. This is true of men and women in every profession.

Anonymous said...

In response to some of the reader comments which note that they always wear makeup and have a manicure, I think it's good to do what you need to to feel comfortable in your own skin. But, it can be taken too far. If I saw a woman at a conference with long, painted nails, overly done makeup, and hair that was just too styled, I wouldn't take her seriously on first impression. So, this can backfire as well.

To get back to the original question, I have long hair that I never wear up. I do make sure it is neat, trimmed, and styled. I also look a decade younger than I am. I am a very interdisciplinary and in one of my fields, I am fairly often the only woman present. I've never found my appearance to be a problem. In fact, it makes me easier to find in a crowded room and easier to remember. I have been judged more in other fields I am a part of where there are more women. I think each field's culture plays a big role in how appearance is seen and judged.

Anonymous said...

Did you suggest to your male colleague that while you could cut your hair to be taken more seriously clearly the most effective strategy is to bind your breasts?

I've started pointing out the logical conclusions of sexist/racist/homophobic statements people make and it seems to help people understand why what they're saying is so problematic. They could also tell short men to wear lifts, black men and women to try a light facial bleaching and straighten their hair, and men who seem "gay" to wear something 'more butch'. But your colleague probably wouldn't say those things because of that whole 'getting your ass sued off' thing. Telling a woman to alter her appearance to seem more 'serious' and assuming she's not wearing bunny ears at work - is incredibly sexist.

It's reasonable to expect professionals to be clean and reasonably pulled together but ridiculous (as well as sexist, often racist, and certainly culturist) to specify what that entails and to make what that entails a WASP male model.

Does it actually matter though? Maybe - but as someone else commented I can't waste my time worrying about that - too busy submitting manuscripts.

Anonymous said...

"Some men in my field of Science don't treat women as serious, professional colleagues, but it's not because our hair is long or short or pink or yellow."

I'm a graduate student and I feel this all the time. Its disturbing to me and cross more than just the physical sciences. I have colleagues less skilled or experienced than I that get a lot more respect. Its quite frustrating. I have an inter-disciplinary fellowship and often meet with other females who have the same award in a different academic department. We have bonded so much over what feels like a constant battle in each of our fields to be treated equally and respectfully. We have discussed often how we might change our physical appearance or how our physical appearance might play a role. In the end, we always resolve to stay true to our personalities (within the expectations of an interaction) rather than change our style for the event.

As a result of my Fellowship, I often have to socialize with important individuals in the University Community. I have developed a certain sense of guiding the conversation when meeting "important" individuals so that I can figure out if they have already passed judgement on me -- or if they are evaluating me as we chat. Its quite an illuminating game to play -- and often I challenge myself to change their opinion of me through the conversation or meeting by choosing what I say very carefully. Its exhausting, but has opened my eyes to how University Politics work in both positive and negative respects.

Anonymous said...

I think the appearance of taking care of your hair is what matters more, and perhaps long hair can be mistaken as not taken care of. Long hair in itself is not an indicator, but if someone perceives that you don't take care of yourself (e.g. judging your weight, eating habits, hair appearance), then they may project that on your career.

I have long hair. I let it get unruly sometimes, and I think it matters sometimes.

But remember, a short hairstyle requires even more work! If you cut it, you'll have to take time to keep it nice and trim it more -- we're too busy doing science to do that!

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to have a somewhat current professional look. Obviously, some faculty don't, and that works for them. The tenured full prof in English can wear his old jeans and white sneakers and students will flock to take his class. But that doesn't mean he's going to make a lot of in-roads with donors or admin. A professional, some current appearance (with clothes, hair, whatever) can help you look more professional and current all-around.

This can also be a problem for people who are dressing professionally, but with the same hair and clothes they wore in the 80s.

Anonymous said...

I am always amused by the conversations scientists have on these types of topics. Yes, we should be judged by what's inside rather than outside, yes if our science is lame no one will care what our hair looks like and yes we're all too busy submitting manuscripts to care. But the fact of the matter is, we are judged, at least to some extent by our appearances.

If you are Professor Uber-Famous, you can go to meeting barefoot. But most of us will not be uber-famous. We'll be lucky to be quasi-famous. And in that case, perhaps a carefully cultivated appearance of competence (tailored to field and environment, of course) might not hurt.

Your appearance will affect your career, at least to the extent that first impressions are involved. What you choose to do with that information is up to you.

wombat said...

Huh? This is a thing? Oh great. I love my long hair and I wear it down half the time. I had no idea having long hair, and wearing it down was considered unprofessional. I'm a PhD student, a mother in my 30s, and I try to dress for my age. I dress much more nicely than most of my fellow students, and I wear makeup daily (most others don't). I don't wear t-shirts even to work in the lab. I always thought dressing nicely and primping makes a person look more professional. "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have", right? This is frustrating, because I can't figure out if my look makes people give me more or less respect. Maybe I need to whack my hair off, eschew makeup, and start wearing fugly, ill-fitting clothes if I want people to respect my science?

Old Biddy said...

Agreed. In an academic context I think it does mainly come down to sexism. Male faculty can be as dressy or as casual as they want and it's seen as a matter or personal choice, but it feels like there is a fine line that women are expected to adhere to WRT hair, clothes and makeup. Not too casual, not too dressy, age-appropriate, etc. It pisses me off.
Yes, I know that first impressions matter, and I don the appropriate clothes and even makeup when necessary, and put my longish hair under control when needed. However, I believe that as long I bathe, brush my hair and teeth and wear clean, somewhat appropriate clothes, all other aspects of my appearance are my own damned business. I get very cranky when people suggest that purely optional things such as nail polish, eyebrow waxing, makeup, etc, are necessary.

Kea said...

Did you suggest to your male colleague that ... the most effective strategy is to bind your breasts?

Yes, this is in fact true. In my field, if one cannot emulate the behaviour of the men, one is thrown out, especially if one is talented. I am not making this up. Men regularly tell me that I don't deserve respect, because I am not 'Manly' enough. Over the decades, I often wear baggy clothes to hide my shapeliness, but then I look too ratty and 'unclean'.

The hair is all a part of this focus on one's image. Women need to be kept in their place, lest the last brick wall one day shall fall. Since you don't seem to care much about the bigger feminist issues, you might want to cut your hair. You will be taken more seriously, for sure.

MamaRox said...

Do whatever you want with your hair.

I *do* feel more confident with a hip(ish) hairstyle. The ponytail/bun thing wasn't working for me, in part because it emphasized my youth (I'm in my late 30s, but still 25 years younger than most of my colleagues), but also I realized that I would look and feel better with a different hairstyle.

I don't wear make-up or spend a lot of time on my appearance. However, at a minimum, I do get a good haircut a few times a year and try to wear pants from this decade.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

There are a couple of context in which hair length or style matters: in food preparation and in shops with rotating machinery. In both of these contexts hair must be bound in a way that it can't cause problems (hairnets in food prep, no loose ends in shop).

A young woman with long hair died in a shop accident last spring: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/nyregion/yale-student-dies-in-machine-shop-accident.html

In contexts where health and safety are not major concerns, hair length, style, and color are personal preferences that should not be taken into account in decision making.

There are a lot of supposedly adult people still playing middle-school status games, though, so there are times when one might modify one's appearance to affect the reactions of small-minded people in power.

Anonymous said...

I think it is weird that some people think long hair is totally fine AS LONG AS IT IS TIED BACK OR PUT UP. What? We are not talking about safety or food prep here. We are talking about teaching a class or going to a faculty meeting. Why can't women with long hair wear their hair down and look professional?

Anonymous said...

People often assume I must be from the communications or urban studies department as I am far too well dressed to be a mathematician.

There will always be people who make foolish snap decisions based on appearance. Sadly we cannot all be sensible in all areas of our lives. All we can do is try to set examples for those sensible enough to notice.

People always assume my wife must be so proud of her professor husband who lives an unimaginable (to her) life of the mind (or whatever). However, she is an award winning author, stay at home mom and principal bread winner! She just smiles and nods and adds to her list.

Anonymous said...

Unless you are doing lab work where your hair should be tied up and out of the way I don't see how it matters how you wear your hair.
So I wear a ponytail, jeans, sneakers and no make up. Walking around maybe I blend in a little with the students, but I feel comfortable and am able to go into the lab without changing shoes, messing up "styled" hair or removing my make up.

Anonymous said...

Very long hair on someone middle-aged or older sends a strong sociological signal: the wearer is apathetic towards/unaware of/consciously rejects norms of professional appearance. I would argue that this signal is approximately the same whether the long hair is on a man or woman.

Anonymous said...

I am a 50 year old woman with long straight hair. I will cut it to an age-appropriate shorter length when 30 year old women stop calling themselves "girls".

Phillip Helbig said...

"Very long hair on someone middle-aged or older sends a strong sociological signal: the wearer is apathetic towards/unaware of/consciously rejects norms of professional appearance. I would argue that this signal is approximately the same whether the long hair is on a man or woman. "

This might be true, but in that case it is all the more reason to do it, even if you wouldn't otherwise. For "wearing long hair" substitute "offering a job to a black person" not all that many years ago.

Alethea said...

It's not fair, but I think female scientists' appearance is judged more harshly than males'. Alas, I've become a hair conformist. Possibly because as a 4th year grad student I still look 16!

In high-school and college my hair was blue. I was worried about interviewing for grad school with blue hair, so I died it back to my natural color. Three years into grad school I died it blue again (I figured my PI was too invested to complain at that point). But then I had a conference and rotation in a prestigious lab to train in a new technique, so I died it brown and cut it short.

It does seem that once you reach a certain level, you can do what you want. A renowned physiologist in a nearby prestigious school has knee-length hair, flowy skirts and always wears sandals and silver bracelets. But then again, she's in her 60s and everyone in her field knows she can kick their butts.

Anonymous said...

If mean can wear a beard to work, why cannot women wear long hair to work? I have long hair, and I do pin it up, but I do not think it matters too much. I also wear traditional (Ethnic) clothes to work.

EliRabett said...

Works both ways

Anonymous said...

I think that for many scientific fields, if you look like you spend too much time looking nice, then you are perceived as not spending enough time on science.

Long, beautiful hair... well that takes some time to take care of, or least I think that it is perceived to.

But we're caught in a bind, given the good references cited earlier to research that shows that someone who takes a little time with their looks will be perceived as more competent.

So, what to do? Well, do what you WANT of course. But if you don't mind playing the game, then it seems the best calculation to try for a look of "effortless beauty", and back it up with a comment like "Oh, I look nice? Thank you. But really, I just threw it on."

profacero said...

Just don't have a bad dye job. One of our senior administrators has hair dyed from box in a bad color on her, and also chews gum in meetings. She should get hair done by someone who knows what they're doing, and ditch the gum. It's just not a professional appearance and it doesn't show respect for the entities she's working with.

profacero said...

P.S. short hair actually takes the most maintenance - you have to keep cutting.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Odd that I should only see this post now, two days after I cut my way-past-the-shoulders curly hair to a just-at-the-shoulders style. That said, I ride my bike to work, so most of the time I (early forties, FWIW) arrive with my hair in pigtail braids to keep it off my neck when I ride, and sometimes I just don't bother to take it out.

On a related note: what about women going gray? At the recent haircut, I also had the hair dyed back to its natural (darker) color so I could let the gray come in naturally. This is something that I've been planning to do for a couple of years now, but when I mentioned it to a couple of slightly older female colleagues -- very much couched in a "this is for me; I'm not judging anyone else's decisions" way -- things went dead silent, there were significant glances, and language more appropriate to an intervention. What's up with that?

More on-topic: Do we think that a woman who lets the gray come in taken more seriously, or less?