Dressing for Success?

Women’s attire is so often the focus of media attention. I expect the relative merits of Andrea Leadsom’s and Theresa May’s wardrobes will be dissected as front page news for weeks, along with Angela Eagle’s. Focus on the importance of clothing in the job market was recently highlighted in research from the Paris-Sorbonne University, which apparently showed that women who wear low-cut tops in photographs attached to their job applications are up to five times more likely to receive an interview invitation than those with round-neck clothing. I’m not sure what sort of jobs were under consideration, but as scientists, or indeed any sort of academic, does it matter how we dress?  Is it too naïve to think that the evidence of merit should trump any superficial decisions based merely on clothing?

There was some discussion about the significance of this point in the comment stream on an early post of mine.  As gerty-Z  said in those comments

Professional attire can be…tricky

She highlighted the issue of safety in particular: long floaty dresses, currently back in fashion, might be regarded as a case in point here, and open-toed sandals are certainly banned from many, possibly all, labs. But there are other reasons beyond safety for thinking carefully about one’s attire and the messages which may be conveyed, intentionally or otherwise, by one’s sartorial choice.

Let’s start with those interviews. A while back US blogger Female Science Professor posed the question on Scientopia  of what one should wear for an academic job interview, and specifically whether a suit (and tie) should be worn.  The answers were collated here,  where I was surprised to see that Astronomy seemed to be singled out as a sub-discipline where suits should not be worn. Even more troubling – to my mind – was the response from an anonymous respondent

Call me old fashioned, but i believe that females should wear something a little sexy and wear some subtle makeup. I really think this helped me with being accepted to 3 TT [tenure track] jobs in earth science.

Actually old-fashioned is not what I’d call it, but inappropriate. It really worries me that someone felt that sexy was the right way to set about getting an academic job, possibly even worse that they felt they’d succeeded three times; this is where conflicting messages may arise. If you wear (and I’m assuming the respondent was female) a sexy little number what are you subliminally saying about yourself to the interview panel?

Get me on your faculty and at the very least I’ll be a sight for sore eyes at faculty meetings.

Surely not what you want to convey! These are jobs about science, so in my book the message should be

I’m a serious professional, this job is important to me so I have taken the trouble to brush my hair and find some clean and smart clothes, but what I want you to do is concentrate on my science so listen hard….’

Clothes should not be distracting the panel – and the interviewee presumably just assumed the panel would be at least mainly male, which I would like to believe will in itself be a miscalculation – but neutral.  Some of the commenters on my earlier post absolutely saw any personal remarks about their clothes as demeaning and inappropriate in a professional setting (though probably not at the Christmas party), so one must assume that implicitly they wanted their clothes not to be the story in such a setting, interview or not.

Received wisdom has it that it takes less than 10 seconds to form an opinion of someone based on their overall appearance, and that certainly includes dress. If you want to be taken seriously – at a conference, in a committee meeting or indeed at an interview – it’s worth thinking carefully about what that first impression might be. Hence I do think it matters what we wear; and I’m inclined to think it matters more for women than for men. Maybe I’ll be shouted down on this, although clearly Laura Bates agrees with me in her piece discussing the Sorbonne research I allude to above.  Nevrtheless, it is true that for men too there are issues.

The late lamented David Mackay  absolutely changed his style of dress when he became Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He moved on from the shorts and sandals that had been his customary accoutrements when a mere professor in the Cavendish, switching them for wearing an unexceptionable and unmemorable suit and tie. He knew most civil servants would take him less seriously if he were so ‘peculiar’ as to turn up in the ministry dressed in his younger self’s garb.  Many other academic males I know have replaced the jeans and T-shirt of their youth for something more conventional, be it a full-blown suit or just an open-necked collared shirt coupled with trousers rather than jeans, in order to convey greater gravitas.  However, one problem I see for women is that, because they have a wider variety of outfit types on offer to them, which convey different degrees of (in)formality, there is more scope for ‘getting it wrong’ than the simple uniform of a suit (or not) for men.

When I was a postdoc at Cornell at the tender age of 24, and hence much younger than the average US postdoc, I learnt that dressing like a student (i.e. wearing jeans) led to trouble: people didn’t believe I was a postdoc. The most memorable occasion on which this was manifest was when, in the Faculty Library (I was at that point in an Engineering department) I was accused of stealing my husband’s library card because, as a postdoc, I had a faculty rather than student card (OK my name may have confused them too, as Athene is just plain odd and Donald is obviously a bloke’s name). Nevertheless, thereafter I vowed not to wear jeans again and look less than my age – or status – and have stuck to that ever since even though it seems improbable I would be mistaken for a typical student anymore!

With only 10 seconds in which an unconscious mental pigeonholing takes place in the brain, your appearance and not your words of wisdom will be the dominant component of the impression you leave with someone when you meet them for the first time. Not for nothing was First Impressions the original title of the novel Pride and Prejudice. It is one form of unconscious bias that we probably all suffer from. So is ‘sexy’ the first message you want to give, or ‘young and scatty’ or even ‘hippy’? Wouldn’t it be better to come across as ‘serious, clever and competent’? But I absolutely don’t think that means that all women of whatever age should dress in unrelenting black and reach for the horn-rimmed glasses. In fact, very much the contrary. For situations other than an interview, such as speaking at a conference or sitting on a committee, both situations in which in my field women remain a minority, wearing something bright may actually mean that people are more likely to remember you, something that has the potential to be a future advantage. I know a woman who dresses in a conservative trouser suit – it just happens to be bright red, a colour she can carry off.

As far as I am concerned the bottom line is that one should not only be comfortable in one’s clothes but also should be comfortable with the message they give out.  People may remember the clothes and, as with a police caution, use it against you in the future.  There is no single way of being right, but there are definitely many ways of being ‘wrong’. But I hope such factors do not decide who becomes the next Prime Minister.






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2 Responses to Dressing for Success?

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    In the early 1990’s, when I had the honour to be St Andrews’ first female professor (in any discipline), I was was accused not only of borrowing my non-existent husbands library card (in the library), but also of signing his cheques (in the post-office). Card and cheques clearly said “Professor Ursula Martin”.

    The advice I often give people for interviews refers not so much to dress as to general presentation – try and leave your stuff, your backpack, your plastic bag, your jacket, your cycle helmet, your spare shoes, your water bottle etc etc elsewhere so that you can walk into the interview room, make eye-contact, shake hands and sit down unencumbered except for a plastic folder with your application in it, a pencil and an unobtrusive handbag. That way you can also make an equally polished exit without scrabbling around for your bags.

  2. Kate Jeffery says:

    I think how a person dresses is a complex mix of how they usually see themselves and how they see the situation they are in. If someone normally wears makeup and high heels but puts on flats and horn-rimmed glasses for an interview, or indeed the other way around, then they may feel uncomfortable – and if it’s totally unnatural then they may look decidedly strange. The high-cut-top person in the article you cited looked weirder to me than the “sexier” one, who also looked more normal (given current fashion).

    I think it’s complicated. I also think customs are changing. I’ve noticed that scientists have become more sartorially casual over the past few years – it has become less usual, for example, for a viva candidate to turn up in a suit and tie (though maybe not in Cambridge!).

    As for dressing to look sexy – well one could say that young women ought to change how they dress for interviews, but you could also say that interviewers need to learn not to associate looking sexy with being dumb. It would be good for both sides to adapt on this.

    Regarding government – I can only agree with you. That said, the only slight glimmer of pleasure I have been able to get out of the calamitous political events of the last fortnight is that we’ll be seeing more of Theresa May’s fabulous shoes…

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