Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dress Code

In a previous post about how female scientists are portrayed on TV and in popular film, I mentioned how the women of CSI are often dressed provocatively, which undermines the positive message of women in professional and high-ranking science positions.  I also described other instances in film where female (mostly young, attractive) scientists were dressed inappropriately.  We might think that such depictions are totally unrealistic, and in most cases this is true.  Scientists are not exactly known for their fashion sense, and some even might be described as being fashion-challenged.  Problems don't often arise, either with regard to provocative dress or too informal dress.  Most research institutes have no real dress code, and scientists and students tend to dress for comfort rather than for any other reason.

However, I have had to deal with students and staff who dressed inappropriately on occasion.

In one case, a female student came to her general exam dressed in a very low-cut top and short skirt.  All the other members of her committee were male, and I could only imagine the impression this was going to make.  I had instructed her beforehand to wear something suitable--not the usual graduate student garb.  She clearly did not understand and selected something that was more appropriate for a cocktail party.  I struggled momentarily with how to handle this.  On the one hand, I did not want to make her self-conscious right before her exam.  On the other, I knew her appearance would be distracting at best and send the wrong message at worst.  Fortunately, it was freezing in the conference room, and she was already shivering by the time I arrived (and admitted she was uncomfortable--from the cold, not embarrassment).  So I ran down the hall and borrowed the bulkiest sweater I could find from a secretary.  The student gladly wore it, and her committee never knew any different.  I had a talk with her before her final exam, and she followed my advice.

The other case was more refractory.  A female post-doc who was, let's say, very well proportioned routinely wore quite revealing outfits--short shorts, halter tops, etc.  I really did not care what she wore at work as long as it did not interfere with her job.  She was required to wear a lab coat and other protective clothing in the lab, but this code did not extend to other areas, such as our greenhouses.  Due to the heat and humidity, working in the greenhouse or outdoors in shorts made sense.  But she carried it to the extreme.  The male facility workers were quite happy, whereas the women who worked in the admin. office were mostly scandalized.  She identified with the movies Erin Brockavich and Legally Blonde, which gives a good idea of her attitude toward dress codes.  She often stated that it was important to her to remain feminine and sexy while being a scientist.

I eventually got a phone call requesting that I have a talk with her (she had been sent home twice by the administrative office to change into more appropriate attire).  I resisted for a while because I had not exactly been conservative in my dress in my younger days (mini-skirt era) and understood her attitude.

I finally came up with a plan though.

She was scheduled to give a presentation at a conference, so I took the opportunity to discuss appropriate attire for a meeting and generally how one's appearance can influence other's views of us as professionals.  I suggested that she invest in a good suit--fashionable but conservative.  She balked, insisting that it should not matter if she dressed attractively (i.e., sexy).

I was ready for this argument.

I asked her if she preferred her audience to listen to her scientific message or instead be judged on her physical attributes.  I suggested that the audience might be distracted by her outfit and pay more attention to her appearance than to her presentation....and ultimately conclude that she was not very professional.  She was very keen on being accepted by fellow scientists, so this question made her see herself as they might view her.  She finally acquiesced and ended up wearing a stylish suit and looking very professional during her talk.  I complimented her on her appearance, as did others.  She was excited about how her talk went (she also followed some other advice I gave), and this attitude lasted for a while.  Unfortunately, she eventually reverted to some of her previous habits.

Dress is a very personal choice, but we have to consider how our appearance influences other people's opinion of us.  I was very rebellious in my younger days and would have laughed at such a statement.  The transition (in dress) from graduate student/post-doc to faculty or other science positions is often difficult, particularly for women.  I now believe that part of one's strategy for being accepted as a professional is to dress appropriately for your position.

There is a saying about dressing for the job you want, not the job you have.

If you are constantly mistaken for a graduate student, it may be partly due to how you dress.  For women, if you dress too well, you may be mistaken for secretarial staff.  For scientists and other professionals, I think the goal should be to dress so that no one notices your appearance as being out of the ordinary (either too fashionable, age-inappropriate, or sloppy and unprofessional).

A few quotes to ponder:

"The finest clothing made is a person's skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this."  ~Mark Twain

"I base most of my fashion sense on what doesn't itch."  ~Gilda Radner

"It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes."  ~Henry David Thoreau

"Clothes can suggest, persuade, connote, insinuate, or indeed lie, and apply subtle pressure while their wearer is speaking frankly and straightforwardly of other matters."  ~Anne Hollander

"Those hot pants of hers were so damned tight, I could hardly breathe."  ~Benny Hill


biochem belle said...

I have very mixed feelings about 'dress code' for female scientists.

I agree that the way we dress influences how we are perceived-not just by others but often by ourselves. I feel more confident when I feel good about how I look. I also know that people take note when I dress more stylishly than typical grad student attire.

I agree also that in some popular TV/film, female scientist characters are dressed in a provocative manner. I would cite "Bones" as a show where protagonist and female scientist dresses with style and class.

I think this is the real issue that some women struggle with, dressing in a way that is stylish and classy (read, professional). Because we don't often work 9 to 5 and usually are not in an office, some folks (both men and women) seem to forget that it is still important to act and dress in a professional manner.

Many women want to have their own personal style. One issue is that there is an attitude among many in academia that to be taken seriously, a women has to essential strip every vestige of femininity and style from her wardrobe-the opposite (perhaps preferable) extreme to the attitude you present. I think this is why some younger women are resistant to change. Dress is an expression of personality that they're not ready to give up.

The solution (as you described for the female postdoc) is find ways to integrate into professional attire. Regarding this, I appreciate Dr. Isis's rule that you can almost always wear one amazing thing.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I don't buy this shit. If a woman wants to wear tight low-cut clothing, that's her choice, and men just have to sack the fuck up and not behave like fucking animals.

biochem belle said...

Perhaps Physioprof could initiate this campaign among his male colleagues.