The Gendered Double Standard of Academic Attire
In academia, women have to out-dress men in order to be taken seriously.
Posted May 18, 2018
Academia is a notoriously accepting of eccentricities and informalities, yet I always dress professionally on campus, as do my female colleagues. In contrast, certain men in my department are famous for their uniform of faded blue jeans, worn out sneakers, t-shirts, and hoodies. Why can male faculty get away with attire that their female counterparts would never dream of donning?
I recently attended a lunch with several female colleagues, and one of us mused, “Imagine if we dressed like [those male professors].” We all laughed and discussed the inevitable fallout—students would not recognize us as professors, other colleagues would be shocked, administrators would disapprove. Above all, no one would take us seriously. The unspoken double standard of attire is so apparent, at least to my fellow female colleagues, that the idea of us coming to work in faded jeans and an old college hoodie is ludicrous.
This gender divide in wardrobe expectations might seem trivial, but it speaks to the pernicious reality that women have not yet attained equality, even within the relatively progressive context of academia. Female faculty must look more professional than their male counterparts to have a chance at credibility, to be taken seriously (Stavrakopoulou 2014; Chapman 2015). Whatever their personal clothing inclinations, female academics are forced to consider their appearance—it is a critical aspect of their professional evaluation.
Sociological research has long established that looks matter—physically attractive people are favored in employment. However, for women, good looks can backfire. More attractive women are generally favored, but being “too attractive” or “too feminine” is a liability, especially for women in male-typed jobs (Johnson et al 2010; Li 2015). Being seen as too attractive places a woman at risk of sexualization and vulnerable to the stereotypic assumption that beauty and brains are incompatible (Stavrakopoulou 2014).
Women have made impressive inroads into academia, yet male bodies are still the norm, and women remain underrepresented in the hierarchical power structure of academic institutions (Chapman 2015). Interviews with female academics reveal a shared understanding that a woman’s physical self-presentation reflects her identity and capability (Chapman 2015). Men are not subjected to an equal standard of scrutiny (Chapman 2015).
Reflecting this, the purportedly gender-neutral website Stylish Academic is, in practice, largely a female space, with the current "Stylish Academics of the Month" list over 90 percent female. Likewise, the website The Professor is In justifies their decision to devote four posts to female fashion advice and only one to men, explaining that “men just have less scope for error than women, and so they only get one post. Sad but true, women need more advising on this subject.”
This goes beyond the inequity of an implicit, gendered dress code. Gender and physical attractiveness bias student course evaluations (Buck and Tiene 1989; Riniolo et al 2006; Boehmer and Wood 2017), and course evaluations contribute to hiring and promotion decisions. Insofar as other faculty may hold women accountable for proper appearance and attire, even unconsciously, this may further bias tenure and promotion decisions. But perhaps most fundamentally, as a female faculty member, it is disheartening that my credibility depends, even in part, on my clothes. Holding women to a different standard sends the message that women, still, do not really belong.
To be clear, I do not think that my colleagues—any of them—are sexist. It is not the men's fault that they have greater latitude in attire. It is not the students' fault that they would be surprised to see a female professor lecturing while wearing jeans. But academic institutions are gendered--they have traditionally been dominated by men, and structures of power change slowly. Institutional and social expectations shape individual expectations, often on an unconscious level (Greenwald and Banaji 1995), and the double standard of attire is one manifestation of unconscious bias.
Boehmer, Devin M., & William C. Wood. 2017. “Student vs. faculty perspectives on quality instruction: Gender bias, ‘hotness,’ and ‘easiness’ in evaluating teaching.” Journal of Education for Business, 92(4):173-178.
Buck, Stephen, & Drew Tiene. 1989. “The Impact of Physical Attractiveness, Gender, and Teaching Philosophy on Teacher Evaluations.” The Journal of Educational Research 82(3):172-177.
Felton, James. 2008. “Attractiveness, easiness and other issues: student evaluations of professors on Ratemyprofessors.com” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33(1):45-61.
Johnson, Stefanie K., Kenneth E. Podratz , Robert L. Dipboye & Ellie Gibbons. 2010. “Physical Attractiveness Biases in Ratings of Employment Suitability: Tracking Down the ‘Beauty is Beastly’ Effect.” The Journal of Social Psychology 150(3):301-318.
Kelsky, Karen. 2011. “What Not to Wear, Assistant Professor Edition: Fashion for the Academic Set.” The Professor is In. http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/07/28/what-not-to-wear-assistant-profes...
Rees, Emma. 2018. “Clothes do not make the woman: what female academics wear is subject to constant scrutiny” Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/clothes-do-not-make-woman-...
Riniolo, Todd C., Katherine C. Johnson , Tracy R. Sherman & Julie A. Misso. 2006. “Hot or Not: Do Professors Perceived as Physically Attractive Receive Higher Student Evaluations?” The Journal of General Psychology 133(1):19-35.
Stavrakopoulou, Francesca. 2014. “Female academics: don't power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed.” The Guardian.
The Stylish Academic. 2018 “Stylish Academics of the Month #2” https://stylishacademic.com/stylish-academics-of-the-month-2/