Friday, November 24, 2006

What To Wear (Again)

The issue of how our appearance affects people's perceptions of our abilities and authority has once again been raised (NY Times essay 11/21) and once again the focus is mostly on women (young doctors in this case). There are 6 photos accompanying the essay, each showing an attractive young woman showing 'too much' skin.

Studies show that people prefer doctors who look like stereotypical doctors. I am sure this is also true of people's preference for airline pilots, professors, and President of the United States, but isn't it obvious that we need to change the perception, not the preference?

I can't comment on many of the points in the article. Maybe women doctors shouldn't have long hair -- the article says this is not hygienic (are beards hygienic, by the way?) -- and maybe there are some ways of dressing that are unprofessional (for both men and women). Nevertheless, I think that such issues should be discussed more thoughtfully, rather than just as emphatic statements about how women should and should not dress. For example: women professionals shouldn't wear short skirts because it is too distracting to others. It may well be, but how do we decide when the doctor (or professor or politician) is dressing inappropriately and when the patient (or student or citizen) needs to change their perceptions?

There are probably obvious end members where most people would agree about what is professional vs. unprofessional appearance/attire. I have a feeling, though, that there is a rather large gray area, and that a lot of women are in this gray area, not because they don't dress appropriately, but because people's perceptions of what is appropriate for women is more variable than it is for men.


Su said...


I wanted to stop by and thank you for leaving the first comment on my blog. I have been reading your blog for awhile now, and as a young female academic, I am benefiting a lot from your observations.

Thank you!

PS: I hated that NY Times essay.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear!

(Beards are of course not unhygienic, otherwise, the article would certainly have said so.)

Ms.PhD said...

btw, your site has slowed down from connecting to google analytics.

The stuff about long hair is crap in the sense that anyone doing anything remotely hygienic- e.g. surgery- would wear her hair up and out of her face. It's only unsterile if it dangles over an open surgical field, or if she's shedding (as we're all prone to do, beards or no beards).

This stuff about clothing infuriates me. Are we living in the Middle East? Are open-toed shoes really sexy or something? What am I missing here?

I absolutely agree that it's not safe for the wearer, since we do work with blood samples, glass, and other sharp objects that can do some series damage if you drop them on your foot.

But I'm disappointed that there are (young?) women enforcing adherence to these outdated stereotypes on other women.

Seems to me that if you're going to make everyone wear the white coat, it shouldn't matter much what they have on under it.

Unknown said...

I can see encouraging doctors to wear clothes that cover midriff, come to about the knee, and shoes that will minimize slips and long-term injuries while walking around a ward for a long shift. I agree, though, that the basis of the recommendations has to be hygiene and safety rather than "patients are distracted by the fact you're a woman!" Moreover, they have to be applied to both sexes equally: if sandals are not allowed, TEVAs, flip-flops, and designer ones alike all get sent home. "Those look like flip-flops," is not sufficient excuse. Orthopedic shoes don't have to look dowdy anymore, and long hair can be put in a ponytail or bun to keep it clean. I know at least one male doctor with long hair, and he keeps it neatly pulled back like everybody else. He wears a tie, too.

I think "people's perceptions of what is appropriate for women is more variable than it is for men," is a perpetual understatement. I'm struggling inside with what I want to make my academic attire in a year or so. Some of it, of course, is to be determined by the formality level of the department where I'm employed, but the question remains of how to not look too much like a student while maintaining my own (usually casual) style.

SciMom said...

As a postdoc, I ran into a student who felt any makeup, shorter skirts and most especially, dangling earrings could not be worn by any female who wanted to be taken seriously as a scientist. Many years later, I ran into this person, who is now a successful academic, wearing short skirts, makeup and short, blonde hair.

I think professional attire is what people should aspire to. I don't think we should dictate "taste" however. If a patient doesn't feel comfortable with how a physician is dressed, they can always search out another physician.

CC said...

The article made me laugh--I am doing a master's degree in Israel, and recently was at the dentist's office, and all the women, dentists, hygienists, and administrators, were wearing white coats and really trendy shoes. pointy toes, high heels, boots... I thought, I would never see this in the States, there people wear "sensible" clothes. And then I saw the article and realized that I would see it in the States.

Anonymous said...

I have an M.S. degree in a biological science and am female.

I happen to be in the "conservative" camp on this issue, both for men and women. Most of my opinions are actually related to safety procedures.

In particular, I believe that beach-type footwear is inappropriate attire in just about any sort of lab or clinical setting. Yes, I mean flip-flops, which are everywhere on college campuses.

Try this one on for size: student shows up for outdoor hiking-related field trip in flip-flops rather than the sturdy shoes that are understood by all other participants to be necessary. I don't care if that student has passed diff.eq. with flying colors - - she has just given hersel away as an airhead and probably incapable of field work!

I'm surprised that more lab safety offices haven't issued policies on this matter. Closed-toe shoes are almost always safer and more appropriate, whether hazards and procedures relate to glassware, biological things, chemicals, isotopes, or whatever. Even the kids in a high school chemistry class should wear closed-toe shoes - they deal with glassware and a few reagents.

Safety and proper attire should be taught from the start, which means high school.

Hair should be either short or pulled back so it's out of the way.
If one works with lots of moving machinery, as in a factory or some engineering situations, long hair is hazardous and dangling jewelry etc. isn't appropriate.

Otherwise, "business casual" i.e. the sort of clothes appropriate for a mildly laid-back office are best.

Anonymous said...

It's really hard to buy professional-looking clothes that aren't sexy looking. Banana Republic, for example, supposedly the leading marketer for work clothes for women in my age group, has a thing for lingerie-style tops and various other stuff I wouldn't be caught dead in at work. Take a look at a woman's magazine, and the whole thing is chock full of super-sexy, alluring women in skimpy clothes. Most advertisements for just about any product feature sexy looking women, too. So how can anyone complain when female doctors show up to work looking sexy, too? Are they supposed to be immune to the cultural messages? I dress pretty conservatively at work and for a long time avoided looking feminine in any way (no pink shirts, for example-- too girly!) so that I wouldn't stick out in a all-male environment. But these days my attitude is more, "yes, I am female, and you will just have to deal with it." Took a while to get there, though.

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergraduate student in a physics department, my chair (who happened to be the only female professor in the dept) too me into her office one day and told me to change before I taught a lab that afternoon. I was told that my shirt was too low cut and "people" had commented on my attire. I knew exactly who had commented, one of the male professors in the dept who always leered at me and made me feel uncomfortable. It irked me that I had to change when it was the professor who made ME feel uncomfortable.