Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scientific Dress - Pt 2

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:

image

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 also want to assure JaneB and Becca that my argument is not that female scientists should be walking around looking like this:

image

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!!!

27 comments:

yolio said...

although, Reese Witherspoon does rock ;)

River Tam said...

she totally does

Eugenie said...

Does a 80's windsuit count as a good replacement for a valour jumpsuit? (Freshmen year, general chemistry class.. the prof wore the same thing every day... with the occational labcoat thrown overtop)

And one of the (male) physics professors was totally marching around the department with tight black leather harley davidson outfit a few weeks ago....


and two weeks ago a (male) physics professor wore a kilt to class... it was very very distracting (he did have nice legs)

yolio said...

Windbreaker. Hah!

In grad school was an apocryphal story of an old physics grad student. The school gym would let you check out workout clothes. So everyday, he would go to the gym and check out a pair of bright green nylon shorts, a plain white t-shirt and socks, and hand over his clothes from the day before. He never had to do laundry OR buy clothes. It was the perfect plan!

Anonymous said...

I would SO love to work in your department Eugenie, judging from the clothes!

Nat Blair said...

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.

I got exactly the kind of weird responses you'd expect when I wore an Iron Maiden T-shirt to the lab one day, different than my typical jeans/button down shirt. Everybody seemed to think they should make a comment. It was so stupid though, as it shouldn't matter.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

After spending a couple of years in the biotech sector, where the office culture was very feminine, I was glad to come back to academia. Now I can wear jeans and a shirt or sweater rather than have the entire department comment every time anyone wears something new!

JaneB said...

Best 'prof' outfit - pink, flared, elephant cord trousers, much patched, ancient decaying (like, bits hanging off and flapping) pair of cheap sandals bought on a Greek island about 20 years before, and a torn checked shirt that had washed to a sort of grey-blue colour. Worn in all seasons with distinctive hairstyle - none on top, long greying fronds from mid-scalp hanging to somewhere around the shoulder blades. Probably combed at some point as not totally dread-like but clearly not that recently.

This was the most senior professor - and resident genius - of the place I trained in the late 80s - we used to have to describe him to visitors, otherwise there were embarrassing moments...

Mind you, he changed into a Greenpeace T-shirt for a meeting with BP about some funding deal, just to 'make it quite clear that I'm not going to toe their line', which we thought was pretty cool. Then destroyed the cool by commenting that all those late 80s T-shirts with slogans across the chest 'clearly prove that women like men to stare at their tits'.

JaneB said...

Oh yeah, we had a harley davidson guy at that lab too - in his late 50s he contracted a nasty disease from his study habitat and had life-threatening complications, and on recovery sold his car, bought a HUGE shiny bike and wore leathers whenever he could... good on him, but it was a bit of a change from the cords!

River Tam said...

You guys are killing me! I love all the outfits!

Most of my professors have been pretty boring in their attire. There was one who kept wearing little running shorts and the Simpsons t-shirts, but he was pretty tame in comparison to your stories. I did go to a small conference a while back where one of the invited speakers was an older man who wore skirts (no, not kilts, I really mean skirts). He has fairly well-known, but I had never heard this before, so it caught me a bit by surprise, especially since the rest of his attire and grooming was so very male.

Dr U said...

Worst summer outfit for a male prof: a math professor in his fifties, wearing cut-off frayed jeans hot pants, combined with white tennis socks and black sandals. The impression was rather disturbing, mildly said...

ScientistMother said...

I love reese witherspoon. I think the whole point is that the science should be based on science and nothing else. Until comments like "You can not do science in high heels" (as said to me) are not believed to be accurate and until women are judged solely on the strength of their science, we will not be equal.

Eugene - wow you work in a way crazy department!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Comrade PhysioProf dresses hot but casual.

S. Rivlin said...

River Tam,

I could not find an e-mail address to contact you. I would like to send you my book.

So, here's mine:
srivlin@att.net

Send me an address to which I can mail the book.

S. Rivlin said...

River Tam,

I could not find an e-mail address to contact you. I would like to send you my book.

So, here's mine:
srivlin@att.net

Send me an address to which I can mail the book.

Eugenie said...

@scientistmother & anon-

Oh, I don't work in the department...

Anonymous said...

so if comrade physio prof dresses hot but casual, does this mean that he and Dr Isis are wearing indistinguishable uniforms? (I was going to say a matched pair, but lets not go there. . )

And my word verification is messe, which pretty much describes me!

Anonymous said...

CPP's "casual" = no panties

JaneB said...

Oh, oh, someone just reminded me of another of the idiosyncratically dressed academics in that department, so I'm adding a late comment. Tall, skinny, very skinny, with a cloud of curly grey hair that was very rarely cut... and in the summer he wore purple. nylon. short shorts. and a vest (underwear type not waistcoat). Urgh, those chicken legs and grey curly chest hair, how could I have forgotten?

Prof-like Substance said...

River Tam, I know exactly who you mean with your 1:54 comments on the skirt-wearing man and I had a far more disturbing experience with this person. Let me digress...
As a grad student I went to a pretty small but heavy meeting with a lot of big names. I was giving a talk and had the typical feeling of not having data significant enough for the audience that many grad students have. Skirt man was, at the time, still in a kilt phase. He gave a talk a few people before me using overheads and I have no idea what he was talking about because every time he got close to the O/H projector we could see through his white button-up shirt, revealing a lacy camisole underneath. At first I thought I was seeing things incorrectly, because this guy looks like Darwin, so there was no way he's wearing women's undergarments to an international meeting. However, multiple trips to the O/H projector left me convinced that this was the case. Alright, no problem, Darwin in drag, I can handle this.
The real shock came when I was giving my talk. The auditorium was stadium seating and Darwin was sitting in one of the higher seats... and that's when I found out he was "traditionalist" when it comes to wearing kilts. I would argue that there is no one thing more distracting than having Darwin's "boys" staring you down as you give a talk at an intimate, high-level conference. I'm still scarred.

River Tam said...

How did I ever forget the camisole! It was a key piece of evidence in the "maybe those are just less formal kilts" debate that some of us - who had not seen a lot of kilts in our day - had. Yes, we are definitely talking about the same individual - though I was luckily spared any peek at Darwin's boys!

Sara said...

I can vouch for the fact that some male ecologists do spend some time thinking about their appearance, my father (an ecology prof) is always asking me if the new shoes or pants or whatever he purchased meet with my approval. And I managed to get him to stop wearing black jeans. He does have a bit of an obsession with Hawaiian shirts, but I figure its an improvement from the free computer program shirts he wore when i was a kid

softball bat said...

I agree that in science n there is a dress code then, because all scientists are equal? Women in this area would change that mentality and start to dress differently.

health wellness said...

I've always wondered why scientists have that kind of clothing if you usually work in laboratories where they could dress as they wished.

katty said...

All kind of dress drive me crazy, i love the new styles and the dark colours. I think we identify with evey dress that we usually wear.
But i must to say the sensual dress in my favorit style.
buy viagra

review daddy said...

Nice dress but I think dress shirts is much better to your style.

Women Leather Jacket said...

nice post love reading it.