I was going to put this article in the Montreal Gazette (via Beauty Tips for Ministers, which has some good commentary on it too) in the Thursday Links post, but I realized I have a lot to say about it. The article presents a study that says that attractive academics have a hard time being taken seriously as academics by their peers and their students. The group of academics that fares the worst? Female professors in male-dominated fields. Paging Captain Obvious!
“Men didn’t say it caused any trouble per se with their peers; they were just really embarrassed by it,” Wilson says. “But attractive women in science felt like their male colleagues took them less seriously because of (the chatter), and treated them like bimbos at conferences. They had to take extra measures to look serious.”
Well, yes, unfortunately. I’m not a prof, obviously, but I’ve seen lots of instances of commentary on appearance from students, both from seeing my peers making comments about our profs (and very disproportionately on the few female profs we had), and from some of my students when I was TA’ing. It’s nice to have some data to back up our reams of anecdotes.
And this gets to the heart of why, in spite of all the support from my friends and evidence in the academic blogging community*, I am still so hesitant when it comes to wearing stylish clothes to campus. It doesn’t get much more male-dominated than my both my old and new fields; there is a grand total of one female professor in my current department, and I’ve been to conferences (in my old field) where I could count the number of women on one hand. I very rarely wore even the slightest heel at my old department, because I felt extremely conspicuous just being a woman.
I was the only female member of my MSc research group in recent memory, in a very esoteric field with some astonishingly smart colleagues. I realized I wanted to do something useful and jumped into a PhD in a field that I had absolutely no background in (and another, though smaller, otherwise all-male research group), in a department that didn’t know me from Eve. It’s always been very important to me to be taken seriously as a scientist, because I feel on some level unqualified to be here, even though I am able to do the work. I have no (or minimal, now) reputation to give me any buffer if I screw up, and so I’m admittedly cautious about the toeing the line between being perceived as stylish and frivolous. On the flip side, I don’t want to be thought of as the woman who got where she was solely because of her charming good looks. I’ve got the publication list to squash that worry pretty flat, but my wardrobe would never pass muster in a peer review.
I find that really frustrating. I’d like to feel comfortable looking like I put effort into how I’m dressed, even though I know I’m never going to be, as my Mom would say, a fashion plate. I’d like to feel comfortable wearing heels to work, even though I probably wouldn’t given how often I run for the bus. I am frustrated with feeling like I have to chose between being taken seriously as a scientist and my wardrobe, because it’s no contest: my perceived academic abilities will win every time. And while it’s nice to have the data to back up the anecdotes, it’s disheartening to know that the anecdotes are accurate, and that my worrying about my wardrobe and my appearance is valid and warranted.
So, what say you? Do you find yourself in a similar situation? Any words of wisdom?
* I’ve noticed that much of the academic style bloggers I’ve come across are in the humanities or social sciences, with the odd woman in the (usually biological) sciences. I can’t, though, recall seeing anyone in the physical sciences. Have I not stumbled across the fellow physical scientists? Or is this lack of scientists another data point in the “women aren’t taken seriously in male-dominated fields, and don’t want to give the naysayers fodder” dataset? Say hi in the comments, fellow scientists!