Saturday, July 01, 2006

What to wear?

I saw an amazing -- as in amazingly inane, off-base, bizarre -- thing on the web recently. A woman wrote to a fashion adviser, asking for advice not for herself, but for the female colleague of her husband. The female colleague of the husband did not ask for or need advice, but the woman writing to the fashion adviser was concerned because her husband's colleague wasn't dressing well enough to succeed in her career.

This caught my attention because the apparently poorly dressed woman is in a job similar to mine - science professor. The ignorant fashion advisor confirmed that yes, in fact, the female science professor could be harming her career as a researcher by not dressing appropriately. She might not be productive enough at publishing and getting grants because she is not wearing the right clothes. There were links to sites where one could buy the *appropriate* attire for a female professor, but the recommended garments were hideous.

Does one's appearance matter in academia -- specifically in the corner of academic with which I am familiar: the physical sciences? There is no one answer to this because there are different phases and aspects of one's career to consider:

1 - grad students. It doesn't matter what you wear in grad school (unless you happen to have an advisor with a dress code), but it might matter what you wear to conferences or a job interview. In my field, only people with connections to industry, government, or administration wear anything resembling a business suit. When I was a student, I was advised to wear make-up and do something with my hair and dress up more or I would never get a job, but I ignored that advice, and here I am!

2 - professors

a - teaching. Some of my colleagues (male and female) have done "experiments" to test whether what they wear has any effect on their teaching evaluations. It turns out that when these colleagues have dressed well for every class in a semester, their teaching evaluations are higher than their usual average. It isn't a huge effect -- a lousy teacher isn't going to get great evaluations because of their wardrobe -- but my colleagues believe the effect is statistically significant. I tried dressing up early in my career just because I looked so young and had trouble convincing people (students, staff, other faculty) that I was a real professor. It didn't work very well. Students would come to my office and look around and say "Wow, it's so great that they give you an office even though you're not a professor." I would say "Why don't you think I'm a professor?" and they were startled and had no answer. Other times, I'd be sitting at my desk working in my very own office and someone who didn't know me would come in and (rudely) order me to tell Professor X (me!) something or give her something. They thought I was a secretary. I learned two things from this: (1) many people don't treat secretaries very politely, and (2) even today, people see a young woman and think "secretary" before they think "professor", even if there are visual clues to the contrary. Anyway, nowadays I don't dress up in any particular way to teach, but I don't wear T-shirts either, and I don't think my students or my career are harmed by my appearance.

b - research. How you dress has absolutely no effect on research, on grant success, on publication record. Some of the most talented women in my field dress abysmally; others always look fabulous and stylish. IT DOESN'T MATTER.


Unknown said...

You can't win, can you? A smartly-dressed woman will be mistaken for a secretary and a casually-dressed woman will be mistaken for a grad student.

Maybe we should don the full Mad Scientist lab coat and crazy hair get-up.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I am a grad student in physical sciences. As a TA, I was teaching a class for four semesters. I look quite young, often people think I am a teenager. My personal impression is that dressing in nicer clothes gives me a little more authority in the class, helps me to distinguish myself from students. I have no clue about the impact on evaluations though.

Another thing I observed through my teaching and talking to other TAs is that men have somehow naturally more authority in the classroom than women. Why do you think that happens?

Anonymous said...

What wonderful posts. All of them. I just found your site and I'm thrilled. I can't say how much I agree with everything that you have written - it's been my experience as well - and it's comforting to see it (all of your posts) presented in this way.

I love science, love being a scientist, love having a research laboratory - but like you, am frustrating by what I observe from time-to-time (or more frequently).

I'll keep coming back. I haven't been as anonymous as you - thus, can't express myself quite so directly - but please know that we're all there with you! Here's to NSF funding, a lab full of students (I'm not having some of the problems you've written about - perhaps I'll talk about that more later), and an interesting job!

Anonymous said...

I like to wear a suit to conferences, just because it makes me feel GOOD, and like a postdoc rather than a grad student. (When I was a grad student I couldn't afford suits.) Sometimes though I do wonder whether it isn't more effective to dress like a total NerdGirl to come across as CRAZY SERIOUS. You know-- not wash my hair for a few days, dress in formerly-black t-shirt & jeans, and wear some sort of DNA/interplanetary/atom-themed pendant. Unfortunately this is not my style so I am sticking with the suit.

Wanna Be Mother said...

wow, i like to idea of the uger nerdy outfit.

I never know what to wear for these things

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. FSP,

You are a sexist. You have a lot of ego. You are materialist. You are soooo selfish! Do you really feel the entire world owes you something?????????

A Female!

问题多 said...

haha. i have exactly the same problem. i often have students coming to my office asking me where is the professor or where is the loo.

Anonymous said...

FSP - I'm working on my PhD and recently secured a job as an assistant professor teaching 3 different Communication courses. I'm a 25-year-old female and I still get carded at liquor stores! Needless to say, I look quite young! Any suggestions for taking on these undergraduate students?

Anonymous said...

I found your post to be quite interesting and still relevant today (Jan. 2011). I am frequently curious to see how other female graduate students in the physical sciences (chemistry for myself) are expected to dress. Most suggestions do not take into account the reality of my daily activities. Conservative high heels, for example, would merely appear foolish as we have no elevator and park quite far from the building. Also, nice dresses and blazers do not account for the need to cover your legs in the research lab or the possibility they will be destroyed by a chemical spill. It's nice to know it's considered normal for a graduate student to dress casually.

Anonymous said...

I found all the posts very interesting and informative.
I just graduate with a PhD in mechanical engineering and immediately started to teach in the same university as an instructor. During my student life, people usually thought I am a model(I love fashion too) and I enjoyed it. However now I feel I like to be appreciated as a professor and not confused as a model. Specially when teaching for 40 male students. I tryed to change my outfit to wide leg dark jeans, heeled lace up booties and fitted blazer, and I feel the respect. However I'm feeling board and not being myself. What would you suggest? Can I start to wear as I please, without showing skin, or it will harm my image? Thanks for the out put.

DNAcrazy said...

Superb post! Please tell me if this was the article you were talking about.

I actually read this article and immediately after, stumbled to your response. The article was so depressing and I was incredibly relieved and refreshed to read your response to it. I really like the casual atmosphere in Science although I also believe that men and women who like to dress up should not hesitate to do so. At least until now I have never been witness to an attire-based prejudice and I hope this doesn't change.

Criminology Prof said...

Glad to see some good writing on this topic.

My institution has a business-business dress code neatly defined for both fact we only recently dismissed the requirement for all female employees to wear hosiery.

Amongst this mandate, I too, find myself looking young, trying to carve out authority, shocking my students with my PhD I earned at age 30 with a baby in hand, and dressing in a way that says "take me seriously, but don't let that be the only way you judge me."

The body part my students should be staring at is the naked one. Yes, my head. I have learned not to be sexy but to be stunning with clothes that fit my body, clean lines, sharp colors, classic styles.

Students appreciate a professional look, and I have learned that dressy flats are as good as heels any day. Ask any podiatrist....stay away from pointy heels for hours on only get one pair of feet, that's it.

Skirts are not even a must-have or even practical given snowy climates....put a form fitting trench or a cute pea coat on top and you have the feel of a skirt without the annoyance of one.

Statement jewelry and scarves can also bolden up a plain top or the way, .....90% of my closet is from second hand stores, but it looks like I have a designer buyer.

The fact is gender stereotypes, academic male privilege, and immature undergrads will always be a given.....I wish it wasn't that way, but heck, what can we do about it. Make it work for you, dress up, feel good, forget the rest.