Academic dress code or why women seem to think about clothing more than men


Last week we saw a blatant example of not considering the implications of your wardrobe. There are a lot of good perspectives on That Shirt worn by Dr. Matt Taylor not the least Terry’s own last week; on twitter #shirtstorm or #shirtgate. Rather than discuss the incident itself, which has received plenty of play already and been written about more elegantly and thoroughly than I can, I want to write about academic dress codes in general. As the initial dust settled, it struck me that the incident highlights what I often see as a difference between female and male scientists, mainly that women scientists tend to think a lot more about what they wear than men. Now before we get into gender stereotypes of who likes to shop for/think about/etc clothes/shoes/whatever (stereotypes which I’ve seen broken from along the gender spectrum), I specifically mean that academic women tend to think about what they wear and how it is perceived much more than men regardless of whether they have any interest in clothes/fashion or not. For some great examples see Tenure, She Wrote (expressing your femininity, dressing for academia, looking ‘too’ young). You only need to follow the comment treads to see that these issues hit a nerve.

So what struck me about That Shirt, was that for me it emphasized the lack of forethought both by the wearer and others around him. And yes, that freedom is usually gender-specific. And I was reminded of a few of instances early on in my career that have obviously stuck in my head.

While I was an undergraduate (or shortly thereafter) I remember a comment/discussion (details are fuzzy now…) that came up in conversation with a female assistant professor. She was talking about not being taken as seriously as her male counterparts and that what she wore was important. For example, she often got comments whenever she wore a skirt and boots. I remember taking it in, but not quite believing it—I was young and thought her outfits quite conservative, including the boots.

Fast forward to my time as a masters student, when was at an undergraduate’s presentation of her honours project. There was a tiny bit of skin showing between her jeans and T-shirt throughout the presentation and one of the first things her young female advisor said to her after the presentation was about pulling down her shirt. I remember some of us young female researchers discussing it afterwards and thinking how silly and conservative it was to make such a comment. Surely you would be judged on your presentation, not your clothes. And we reasoned it wasn’t overly sexual in nature, more causal/science sloppy than crop top.

As an insecure PhD, I remember distinctly watching a presentation of a younger female scientist (I have no idea what level she was at) in a formal business dress/power suit. I remember it coming up after the session when talking with other grad students—the general consensus was how weird it was to wear ‘business clothes’ for an Ecology conference where field clothes are often the norm. We all quickly agreed that it was weird; wanting to disassociate ourselves from someone who was clearly not part of the ‘in crowd’.

Now that I’ve been around a bit longer, the things that I heard younger female profs say ring more true than they did to my naïve self: as a female scientist, you likely will be judged by what you wear. It is unfortunate but so often true (we see it all the time in the news and rape cases but so wish to be shielded from it in our professional lives). When I give a talk, interview or teach, I think about what I am going to wear and how it is going to be perceived. Some times I purposely wear things that are professional but more feminine because I also rebel against the idea that all ecologists need meet some kind of ‘jeans and a t-shirt, I don’t care how I look’ dress code either (for example see this article). But I walk the line thoughtfully because I do want to be judged for what I’m saying more than how I look/what I’m wearing. When I do dress up, I often want to contrast the other speakers and a positive example to the students in the room that they can decide to wear dresses and nail polish if they want, even to an ecology meeting. But I always think about my audience and keep that in mind when I make these choices. I wish I didn’t have to think about my clothes but I know I would never be caught in That Shirt because I always think about my clothes for public events. And from conversations in person and over twitter my general sense is that men generally give their wardrobe much less thought and in general as audiences we often give them much more leeway too.

After this week I wish I could take my younger self and say a few things. First, listen to the ones who have gone before, they’re mostly looking out for you. And don’t be part of the problem and judge your fellow female colleagues on what they decide to wear. Think about their science and as long as their not wearing That Shirt, enjoy their expression of themselves. We don’t all have to wear the same uniform but we should all strive to be professional and treat each other accordingly.

10 thoughts on “Academic dress code or why women seem to think about clothing more than men

  1. Thanks for this – I’m a new phD student, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about more and more recently. It’s tempting to write off wardrobe concerns when I see my male friends perpetually in ratty jeans and t-shirts; I just wish we had the same freedom not to care so much.

  2. Not to the same extent, bit the same is true of male academics. I’ve had conversations criticizing other men’s overly formal attire, and I often intentionally underdress to be provocative, and because I don’t think science should have a dress code. With that said I haven’t ever seen a man get called out on his dress by a senior scientist.

  3. I like very much the idea of enjoying each others’ expression of ourselves. For many people, what you wear represents a part of your identity, consciously or otherwise. We are worth more than the science we produce, we are individuals, and that individuality is valuable, especially in all its diversity, from boots and crop tops to bow ties, tattoos, piercings, and cowboy hats. We don’t need to conform, but we do need to have respect for each other.

  4. I work in biomedical sciences. Although it sounds like the standard dress at meetings is a little more formal for us, one of the reasons I was initially excited about a science career as an undergrad was the casual “jeans-tshirt” day-to-day dress. However, now that I’m older (senior postdoc looking for faculty positions at small research universities), I occasionally find myself annoyed with PhD students (mostly males – as you say, females seem to be more concious of it) who don’t dress up to give a seminar. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I’ve come to feel that it’s both disrespectful and that the overly casual student is not paying his/her dues. At least throw a blazer over your tshirt and jeans!

  5. Hi Amy – I discovered quite recently that when I first started going regularly to SCAPE meetings, it was assumed by some of the female ecologists who attended that I was gay because I was quite well dressed and did not wear field clothes. Make of that what you will….. :-)

  6. Two thoughts: first, there is always the separation of day-to-day wear from giving a talk, etc. I certainly spent most of grad school in jeans and a T-shirt. I don’t see a real problem with it but when you don’t want to be seen as ‘just a grad student’ that clothing choice often hinders a perception of any kind of authority, especially for women. It may not be fair but there it is. For men, at least in ecology, the unfairness comes on the other side as Jeff says: dress well and get labeled as gay (not the first time I’ve heard that so you’re not alone!). I like that I can pretty much wear what I want as a scientist but that freedom unfortunately doesn’t free us of how people perceive us.

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