Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed

Oct 27, 2014 by

Jonathan Wolff’s blog about the way academics dress caused uproar on my Twitter and Facebook feeds this week. And rightly so. Despite occasionally acknowledging that some academics might be women, his comments betrayed his assumption that academics are male, for apparently their default uniform comprises trousers, a jacket, a shirt and a tie.

But the most galling thing about his assumption is that in one way, he’s right: masculine dress is the standard academic uniform, for academia remains an overtly male domain. As a result, female academics find their appearance scrutinised in ways a male colleague would rarely encounter.

It’s well known that the suit conveys authority and power in the workplace in overtly masculine ways. You only need to look at the tie, pointing insistently to the male crotch, to recognise this.

So when a man wears a suit, he is simply adopting the standard uniform of a conventional authoritative masculinity, as Grayson Perry recently noted in his description of the great white male. But if this form of dress is also the default academic uniform, what should a female academic wear?

In my experience, many choose to adopt feminine adaptations of the standard uniform: a shirt and jacket, with a smart skirt or trousers. This can be a help at conferences, when the obligatory name badges still tend to sit in holders designed to be clipped to a man’s jacket pocket or lapel, rather than hung from a lanyard around the neck. But I’ve been told by some women – particularly junior colleagues – that they dress like this in order to be “taken seriously”.

The implication is that dressing in a more conventionally feminine way is somehow more frivolous, and can undermine perceptions of a woman’s intellectual and professional skills. Dressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us: a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious academic, because a woman can’t be both attractive and intelligent – if indeed she can be intelligent at all.

via Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed | Higher Education Network | The Guardian.

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