Before I get started, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who commented on yesterday's post. I think it is safe to say that it is the most interesting discussion I have ever had here at Professor Chaos. Thank you all so much for thinking about what I said and sharing your thoughts and opinions on it. For those of you who did not comment, even if you did not like my post, please go read what these intelligent men and women are saying about the role of clothes in science - it is well worth it.
Because I had to be away from my computer last night, I didn't get to participate while it was unfolding, which left me in a position this morning where I could either leave a multi-paragraph comment on yesterday's post, or just write a new post. Because this is just my part of the discussion on yesterday's post, please leave any comments to this post on yesterday's post .
The first thing that I found really interesting about the comments I received was Rosie's null hypothesis: Many good scientists, male and female, have decided that putting more than a minimal effort into one's appearance is a waste of time that could better be spend doing science.
I agree that this is part of the reason for the similarity in dress, but I think it is clear - both in my experience and apparently in the experiences of various of my commenters - that what may have started as time-management has become de facto "uniform". If you have enough time to care about your appearance, you are not serious about science. For those who doubt this, I have two independent pieces of evidence aside from "I say so". If scientific attire was truly random drift, guided only by ease of choosing and dressing, I would expect a wider diversity of attire both within and across fields. For example, if it's really just about minimizing time expenditure and not about some uniform, we should also see men wearing this:
Ah, the velour jogging suit. I'd pay big money to see a big name scientist give a seminar in one of these. Again, if people in your department tend to wear velour jogging suits, please let me know. I'll add it to Eugenie's clog story on the list of strange things in the world that convince me that life will always be interesting.
Yet, for ecologists, the predominant mode of dress is Tevas, fleece, and outdoor wear. This could be because our research constraints, such as those experienced by Silver Fox and Ecogeofemme, have directed our random drift through the universe of clothing. Those constraints are real. But, when ecologists show up at the annual meeting dressed like that and those ecologists include the theoretical crowd (some of whom I seriously suspect have never seen an organism in the wild and definitely do not have lab protocols to observe), I begin to suspect that our "careless attire" is not careless at all but a uniform. Second, go to school one day deliberately flaunting the uniform. Wear something different. It doesn't have to be flashy like those Naughty Monkey shoes, just wear something different. A nice long-sleeve shirt with a feminine cut, plain slacks, some nice feminine sandals and subtle jewelry would be enough for me to stick out in my department. How do people respond? Do they pass by without a glance or do you receive looks and/or comments? Better yet, do people keep asking you "what's the occasion"? Do they remember you because you wore something different? There is a graduate student in my program who wears heels - she's aware of the ecology dress code and refuses to submit and I love her for it - yet everyone, students, postdocs, and professors know exactly who is being referred to when someone describes "the one who wears heels".
I think Becca is right when she said: Another question is "If young women cannot see androgenous, or less-than-totally-hot women as living a life they would want, then isn't something terribly, terribly wrong?"
I agree, it would be just as bad for the recruitment and retention of women in science if we all dressed like Scientist Barbie. My point, which I apparently did not communicate effectively, was not that we all needed to doll up, but that we had allowed the androgynous look to become a uniform and it is not just our male colleagues that discriminate against women who violate it. If there really is no dress code in science (which I think is a concept we all find attractive), then why do we all look alike? Why do many of us feel like we have to follow some unwritten dress code to be taken seriously? I think it is explicitly clear from the comments by Yolio, Citronella, Zinjanthropus, and Peanut (I love the purple sequined flipflops), and implicit in some of the other comments, that I am not alone in this feeling.
I also did not mean to leave out my academic brothers. And I deeply thank Odyssey and Anonymous for pointing out that this is a broader issue. After reading my post, General Disarray came into my office to talk about how he loves wearing his $50 dress shirts (a huge splurge for an ecologist) tucked into khaki slacks, but he feels like he stands out like a sore thumb when he does, so he only wears those outfits when he teaches. He was so agitated about feeling like he was constrained by some dress code to prove he's "serious" as a scientist that he threatened to wear a suit today to assert his independence (General Disarray may love his dress shirts, but he is most definitely not a suit-loving man).
Which brings me to my final point. I wanted to highlight a comment by anonymous: I don't want to "stick out" to the men in our department any more than I have to - they are the vast majority where I am, the ones with power eg to hire and fire, and the ones who most definitely judge female ability based on clothing and manner (not all of course, but there are enough. .).
I would never recommend that someone sacrifice themselves on the altar of couture. The point of this whole thing is that people should wear (and be) what they are comfortable with. Some of us may not be in a position to dress the way we want right now, but hopefully some day you will be. But some of us may feel that we are in safe enough positions in our careers, and have the inclination, to "act out" a little. One of my clearest memories as a graduate student was sitting at the ecology meetings waiting for a highly respected young female full professor to give a talk. I had never seen her before, and when her name was called, down the aisle walked this woman in a black leather jacket, a black miniskirt, and knee high black boots. I was stunned. I thought, surely no one will take her seriously. You know what, years later she's still a highly regarded and respected female full professor. That moment made quite an impression on me, and I will admit, that this year I flaunted the ecologist code at Milwaukee as far as I felt comfortable. I wore embroidered, bright red Naot (Phagenista, I am totally with you on that one) sandals with a heel. They were quite....noticeable. I could have bought the brown ones when I was considering my summer footwear (I only have one pair of shoes for each season), but I deliberately didn't because I was feeling rebellious and I was tired of trying to "fit in". So this year, I wore bright red non-Tevas, with capri pants, and casual but feminine cut shirts at ESA and enjoyed every minute of it. Don't know that I changed the world with that decision, but damn, it felt good.
Thanks again, everyone, for the most interesting discussion I have had the privilege to be involved in, in a very long time!!!