Being taken seriously: the double standard

Apr 02 2013 Published by under Academia

As I was discussing bench-friendly hair the other day (currently, I've got piles of pins all in it, holding it back. It may look a little silly, but it's really comfy), several commenters wondered why I didn't just put on a baseball cap or a hairnet and call it a day (we do have to wear the hairnets to do animal behavior work, actually, cleanliness FTW!).

The issue is, aside from looking really silly in baseball caps (and I do), I actually worry that I'll look really unprofessional. "NONSENSE!" Cry my commenters! Wear what you like! You're in academia and you could wear Hawaiian shirts with holey sweatpants in to work every day and no one would care (as long as it's EH&S compliant!) because academia is about what you DO, not what you look like!

And that may be true...if you're a guy. But I have noticed a double standard here.

Everyone talks about that guy, the old one. He's big in the field and he's constantly sought after at conferences. He's got an unkempt beard and does indeed wear a Hawaiian shirt and holey pants and sometimes an old jacket. To conferences. All the time. Because he's a SCIENTIST and he is above such things as cleanliness and matching.

And that's great! That's fine for him. I wish that we could all wear what we wanted and call it a day. But...I've never seen anyone talk about big women in the field like this. And I have NEVER seen a top woman at a scientific conference dressed casually. Oh sure, she'll be more casual than a full business suit. But there is usually a jacket or nice sweater over a nice top, a skirt or a nice pair of pants (or at least very well pressed jeans), and nice (or if orthopedic, clean) shoes. I have seen some women more casually dressed (usually hiking wear), but they are much, MUCH fewer and far between than the number of casually dressed men.

This goes for conferences, but it also goes for labs. In grad school, it seemed that it was no-holds-barred. I wore my holey jeans and I see grad students of all gender identities wearing them here. But when I went into post-doc...well I don't wear t shirts anymore. When I do, I feel awkward and like I'm not dressed appropriately. I never see other female postdocs wearing t shirts either (except on weekends). It's nicer jeans (at least, usually slacks), nice sweaters or blazers, nice tops, nice flats, and one of those pieces of jewelery from Ann Taylor Loft that it seems everyone owns but me, which are designed to make outfits look more dressy.

In contrast, male postdocs who dress nicely are few and far between (though there is ONE very snappy dresser around here who's got some serious STYLE). Most male postdocs here appear to wear exactly what they wore as grad students: cargo pants or jeans and t shirts. Maybe a polo shirt. If there's an important meeting, a button down shirt.

You end up with a dichotomy that looks like this, with very little that falls between:

Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 9.57.51 AM
(All the men's stuff is from Old Navy, all the women's from Ann Taylor Loft. I have seen every single one of these at work, with the exception of that blazer that is orange, but I think that's because it is orange)

And that's just in the day to day! At conferences it gets worse. Men will stick with the button down shirt, while women feel forced to pull out the pencil skirts and heels and makeup and other things.

I say "feel forced", because I really DO feel forced. I don't mind dressing up really (ideally, I'd have a closet like a cartoon character's, exactly the same thing on dozens of different hangers, but I probably wouldn't really care what it was, as long as I was warm enough and could do bench work in it), but now, I feel like I don't fit in if I don't. Further, I worry that people will not take me SERIOUSLY if I don't.

When you reach the postdoc (and further, I imagine), you start to want to be taken seriously, whether it's as a member of your field or in front of the classroom. And at my particular stage, this comes with a challenge, I look as young as (and often AM as young as or younger than) some of the grad students I work with, and I look only a little older than the undergrads I teach. So do the guys (most of them). But while the guys just hop up in front of the class, and get taken seriously...I feel like I have to look nicer. Or I just won't get respected. I hear this from a lot of other women in my field. We feel like we have to dress "appropriately", or students, etc, won't take us seriously.

This double standard bothers me, because it's evidence of some of the deep sexism in our society. Women are required to look like, to "take care of" themselves, to look "appropriate" and "professional". Men, especially in academia, are seen as professional regardless of what they are wearing. In science, success and professionalism are supposed to be the result of what you DO. Not how you look. But it appears, at least to me, that this is only really true for men. For women, no matter what you DO, there's also an element of how you LOOK.

So while I need to keep my hair back to work at the bench, I think a pile of (somewhat artfully) placed pins is more "professional" looking than a baseball cap. Why don't I flout the norm and just go with the hat? I feel like I haven't achieved enough to be taken seriously that way, like I have to combine what I've done and the way I look to be taken as a professional.

Maybe it's just me. Is it just me? If you think it is, feel free to excoriate me in the comments.

92 responses so far

  • Ilovepigenetics says:

    Just look at how the media describes the FLOTUS. Michelle Obama's clothing makes national headlines! When Hillary Clinton was Sec of State, her looks headlined, too. That would not happen with a male Sec of State. You are correct in the implicit bias/sexism that still exists. Women are judged on looks and what they have accomplished. Men are judged on accomplishments and potential.

    • dr24hours says:

      This is absolutely true. But it is also confounded by the fact that most men's political wear looks pretty much the same (dark, tailored suit, power tie), whereas there is a great variety of women's wear. Thus, the opportunity for examination. I have seen media commentary on male politician's tie choice, but it's rare and whimsical. Not critical, as discussion of women's choices can be.

      • DrugMonkey says:

        Closest it ever came was a brief mention of haircuts for Clinton and Kerry, right? Not the same league, not the same at all. Kind of shows that it is *possible* for men, just doesn't happen. What, like suits couldn't be criticized? What about Obama (and every other Pres) greying in office? Minor nothing. For a woman Pres that would be talked about. Endlessly.

      • Meg says:

        As a student of fashion, this is by design. Men's fashion has specifically been designed to be equalizing, require little effort and make all men easily appear professional.

        There has been no such pressure on women's fashion.

    • bob says:

      Couldn't agree more. I was especially disappointed by the constant discussion of Hilary Clinton's pantsuits. Even on the Daily Show (I hoped they would know better). That's about as normal/professional as it gets. What's there to comment about?

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    It's not just you. There's a double standard, and I freely admit I take advantage of it. I hardly ever wear shirts with buttons.

    What can I do? For one, I try not to to be prescriptive to my students about appearance (e.g., But in my seminar classes, it is obvious that students do care about it, and when evaluating each other's presentations, they do make comments about appearance.

    Should I try harder to "unteach" that judgement on appearance?

    • scicurious says:

      I'm really really glad you do that, Zen. 🙂 Do you ever ask them WHY they are commenting on appearance? Often just asking the question will make them think about it. I think you're already doing a lot, to not be prescriptive. But maybe asking WHY people are criticizing appearance might get them to really think about the question.

  • I have also seen this double standard, although as a women in a messy science (ecology) we were known for wearing jeans around during the summer as grad students. I definitely dressed nicer as a molecular bio post-doc. I'm a young faculty member now, and I've decided to buck the standards and be myself a bit more, and so I wear graphic tees typically with scifi or gaming themes to them. I have four separate Mario Bros shirts. I do wear them with nice pants, and the first few weeks I add a blazer on top, but by this point in the semester I've traded out the blazer for my Disney sweatshirt. The only issue I have as faculty is that I'm sometimes mistaken for a student, but typically this is not an issue since my actions and speech seem to adjust for that.

    Of course, I'm used to fighting against gender norms, so for me to do this is not unexpected to those who know me. Most of the women I work with continue to wear nicer clothing than their male counterparts. I consider my graphic tee, pants, and blazer about akin to the men who wear jeans, a collared shirt, and a blazer

  • New postdoc says:

    This is really interesting to me because I actually feel self-conscious for the opposite reason. I like to dress up slightly (about like you describe as the norm for women postdocs at your institution). As a grad student, I was often working with bleach and basically stopped wearing all my nicer clothes so as not to ruin them. In my postdoc field, I'm working with chemicals a bit less often and have enjoyed pulling my slightly nicer clothes from the back of my closet. But, this leaves me a little more dressed up than most of the women postdocs around me. I worry a little that this will make people think I care too much about how I look instead of only the science. It's more or less the same problem you describe, but for the opposite reason.

    • DrugMonkey says:

      Can't win scenario.

    • mrs.estepp says:

      Even as a postdoc, I really only pull out the dress pants and cardigans when we have a speaker I'm meeting with or a conference. Most of the time, it is the same sweatshirt and different t-shirt, jeans and my new balance tennis shoes, and then I'm lucky to dry my hair and put on mascara. This look continues to most weekends as I still come to this place or I'm running around town doing errands. Unless I have a date with my husband, I rarely venture away.

      For conferences I enjoy shopping and picking up a few newer things. I have feet issues so I have always had a disdain for heals and pointy shoes, but have found a couple of nice mary janes that I can use for conferences, etc. At the most recent conference I was at, I was still underdressed compared to some women who were in suits or suit pants and matching shirts. I wonder, though, if it is due to some people in more clinical labs vs. academic-y types. The PDs across the street at the med school have a no-jean dress code.

    • kim333 says:

      I have always liked to dress up and I don't let that be a barrier. I dress the way I want, and the rest falls into place around that (I am mid-career in academia). When I am new somewhere, I simply weather a few weeks of "Oh, do you have a special event today?", followed by a few weeks of "You look so nice, you make the rest of us look bad". After that, people get used to seeing me dressed up. It becomes part of how they expect to see me and my appearance no longer gets in the way of daily interactions. My goal for dressing up is evidently not to make other people look bad, nor is it to make myself look good. It's part of the little pleasures in life I like to enjoy. I also enjoy seeing other people dressed nicely, so I never miss an opportunity to comment when someone obviously put some thought and effort into their outfit. I hope it encourages them to continue to dress nice.

  • sara says:

    I have daily discussions about this with my husband. Since becoming a postdoc I have obsessed over my clothing, and how to look professional (i.e. not a grad student) while not looking overdressed. My husband can still wear holey jeans and worn out polos and be king of the lab. Being unable to really afford these clothes makes it even more depressing.

    But I think it's real. There's this great Hillary Clinton quote about how Obama had all this time to exercise and play basketball and be cool because he didn't have to spend 2 hours getting his hair/makeup done before every press conference/debate. He wears the same suit every day!

    • Heather says:

      I think that the trick is to have your hair styled so that it does not take too long to do in the morning and to choose clothes that you can wear without ironing!

    • renewbie says:

      That part about not being able to afford the clothes that you need to be taken seriously hits home/brings back memories for me. There are real monetary costs to this double standard. Not to mention that we spend a nontrivial amount of time thinking about these issues instead of thinking about our science or whatever else.

  • Maybe it's because we work with so much bacteria, but women around here are just as likely to be spotted in old jeans and t-shirts or hoodies. I've actually been dressing down a LOT compared to my grad school experience -- I only wore skirts and dresses in grad school, and now I actually own three (!) pairs of (albeit, nice) jeans which I wear to work.

    • This is my experience. Anything I wear to the lab has the potential to get thrown out, so I rarely wore/wear anything nice there, and I don't expect my students to dress up at all. Even right now when I won't be in the lab today, I'm wearing a gray sweater and jeans (and I'm teaching later). I did dress up much more as junior faculty, mostly to distinguish myself from the students, but now--fuck it. I'll dress up when I have big meetings and shit, but for the days I'm either teaching or working at a computer most of the day, jeans are just fine.

  • dr24hours says:

    Outside of academia, men are definitely judged by what they wear. Inside, I don't feel like I know as much. But in the business world, and other professional environments, there is definitely pressure to wear expensive, high quality, well fitting clothing.

    However, I think most men's business wear is at least basically comfortable, whereas women's business wear seems to me like it would not be.

    I have no evidence regarding how likely adherence/deviation from expectation relates to advancement/stagnation in either gender.

    • scicurious says:

      I think I need to switch to wearing men's suits. Dress shirts, pants, and vests. I bet I'd look great in a vest.

  • Jason Dick says:

    Interesting. And it makes a good deal of sense to me. Women are, sadly, judged on their looks all the time, in all walks of life. It's disgusting.

    That said, in part this is about signalling: outsiders and newcomers often feel a need to look as if they are part of the group, while people who have been in the group for some time don't feel the need to point that out. In fact, the lack of signalling can become a strong signal in and of itself: it says that this person is so comfortable, so confident that they don't need to signal. They know they're a part of the group and don't need to show it.

    I've most often seen this effect described in terms of wealth. The new rich, or those who are merely almost-rich, often feel a large need to buy that expensive car, that expensive house/apartment, and really nice clothes. But the old rich don't feel the need to do any of that. They may still just because they've got the money to do so, but they don't feel the need to prove to everybody how much money they have.

    So the question is: can you get away with dressing casually? Will people take it as evidence you don't belong, or as evidence you belong so strongly that you don't feel the need to signal at all?

  • Potnia Theron says:

    This does exist. It exists in weird ways (there are entirely different male/female standards in humanities depts, say, and let's not even open up depts of women's studies).

    Make-up is a big one, and time spent on things like hair, nails, etc, too. Hair either needs to be short enough to ignore, or long enough to put up and ignore - bench or field science. But in a med school, guys who wear jeans & t-shirts do feel the pressure to look better, and it does get commented on.

    Finally, I am also bothered by the critiques of women who like they are partying. I may not wear 4" heels to work, and I may seriously question the sanity a woman who wears 4" heels around large animals, but dammit, its her choice. The conversations that start "did you see X, she looks like a hooker today.." really make my blood boil.

    We live in a society that will judge people by how they look, even when they pretend ("hey I'm colorblind, I didn't notice you were brown"... please) not to. Its a decision each woman needs to make as to whether going with the flow (subdued and relatively tailored) is one cost that is worth it to be in academics.

  • physioprof says:

    He's got an unkempt beard and does indeed wear a Hawaiian shirt and holey pants and sometimes an old jacket. To conferences. All the time. Because he's a SCIENTIST and he is above such things as cleanliness and matching.

    I agree that there is definitely a double-standard. I did want to point out, however, that nothing you describe about your paradigmatic male scientist has anything to do with cleanliness. I dress absurdly casually at all times--lab, teaching, study section, conferences, delivering seminars, etc--but I am always clean.

    But in a med school, guys who wear jeans & t-shirts do feel the pressure to look better, and it does get commented on.

    When people comment on my clothing, I consider it a joke, laugh, and either change the topic or walk away.

    • scicurious says:

      Fair point, PP. I have seen a couple who really ARE actually unclean, but most are clean and the clothing is just unmatched or falling apart (or both).

    • scicurious says:

      But this also makes me think. When people comment on your doesn't CHANGE whether they respect you, and it doesn't INDICATE whether they respect you or not. If they were to do the same to a woman it might have much more significant undertones.

  • Bashir says:

    I think the double standard varies a bit based on where you are. More formal environments may be worse for this. There's probably an interaction with field, and departmental culture.

    I will say that having mostly women doesn't make it go away. I attend one conference that is ~70% women. They almost ALL dress nice, and maybe half the men will bother to even wear a collared shirt. Lots of t-shirts and jeans.

  • Zuska says:

    I once knew a woman STEM prof who dressed a bit like a sixties flower child & whose hair was long & what you might call unkempt looking. She was good at her work. But male colleagues whispered about her - to me! - as if she was borderline crazy & sort of witchy, all because of her appearance. Because a normal non-crazy lady would never "let herself go" like that, so, crazy: self-evident. Iconoclasts, thy gender is not (allowed to be) female.

  • Edward says:

    Were I work, the male faculty are much better dressed on whole, then the women. No one cares.

  • iGrrrl says:

    Well, there was a study last year where the data were pretty clear that people think women wearing makeup are more competent. The UK's Daily Mail had a pretty good roundup:

    My experience mirrors yours, with respect to dress, both in the lab and my current job.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I'm glad I'm not the only one. I went from R1 state school to a fancy pants Med School private institution for my postdoc. I suddenly found myself feeling awkward without makeup and my bandanas were swapped for fancy french braids. My vast collection of snarky tee shirts adorned with ninjas and zombies were stashed and only come out for when I'm feeling combative. My wardrobe is comprised entirely of nice-ish knit tops which is a desperate attempt to not look frumpy while still being able to afford an accidental acetone or bleach bath.

    I can't help but compare the comments from your last post to the one's that came up on DrugMonkey last Friday about the attractiveness of female researchers. I realize that the trolls were out in full force over there but it is an interesting peek at the dichotomy you're trying to present here.

  • ilovebraaains says:

    On a related note, do you think it is appropriate to compliment colleague's/superiors appearance? One of the faculty members at my institution always has the cutest outfits, but I don't know if it is ok to compliment her or not. I know she would be pleased, but I also feel like as scientists we should be "above" things like that.

    • dr24hours says:

      I think the implied compliment contained in : "Where you you shop?" is appropriate? But social cues are often difficult for me.

    • scicurious says:

      I think it's got a lot to do with the relationship you have with them. If you don't KNOW them well enough to say something, I wouldn't.

  • I have the feeling that the dress code for men is actually quite restrictive, too. Of course, the big old silverbacks can wear whatever they want and often choose to look sleazy. That fact itself sometimes seems to be a statement rather than taste or lack thereof. Intentional.

    The 'code' is 'always casual, never too chic but also not too sloppy'. I wear very nerdy t-shirts sometimes (hooray for thinkgeek) and do get weird looks especially when going to invited speaker seminars. But I love my "White & Nerdy" Weird Al Yankovich merchandise hoody. 😛

    • scicurious says:

      Yes but does anyone take you less seriously because of what you wear? When I dress more casually, I've actually noticed that people in meetings will listen to me less and my comments will get picked on more. I don't think guys have that same issue.

  • Shiri Yaniv says:

    I have to say I think this is more of an American thing.
    I'm doing my postdoc in Israel and I wear jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops to work while others are even more casual than that - sneakers and cargo pants. Male and female alike.
    We only "dress up" if we're giving a talk, and that may also include a nice pair of jeans.

  • I cannot stand dressing up to work in a lab. I worked for a Fortune 500 for a while and despite being a lowly Lab Technician, I was required to wear nice clothes to work. I mean, slacks, pressed button downs, etc. (Obviously, male). I think the biggest problem for me was that I was uncomfortable in dress clothes and didn't feel relaxed. And I was absolutely terrified of spilling something on my Sunday's Best.

    Despite my lab coat (which the company graciously ordered two sizes too small), I still never found that I could wipe my hands on my clothes like when I'd worked in explosives or coal.

    Jeans and an inoffensive t-shirt should be standard scientific dress (with the lab coat, cool glasses, and gloves if you need em). Man/woman/whathaveyou.

  • miko says:

    One thing men can do to address this is to dress more professionally when presenting at conferences or when teaching. I think it indicates respect for your audience, particularly in the international setting of most conferences and universities. The right to be a slob is one of the least savory academic male (and mostly American) entitlements, and one that is most prevalent in the generation between my dad's (an academic scientist who wore a suit almost every day) and mine. To this generation, dressing down in diverse professional settings (i.e. not just in your office/lab) signifies that you are are cool and independent and not a tool. To me, your light blue relaxed-fit mom jeans and LL Bean t-shirt make me question your judgment about pretty much everything. It's not that it's "anything goes" -- it's the particular dress code of white male nerds of a certain age. This doesn't just set women apart as outsiders, but any men who don't share the cultural norms of this "anti-establishment" establishment generation.

    I'm also a man, yet I would much prefer to talk to you if you weren't wearing a fleece vest it looks like you went camping in, and if you would get your whole eyebrow situation under control.

    • Spiny Norman says:

      "To me, your light blue relaxed-fit mom jeans and LL Bean t-shirt make me question your judgment about pretty much everything."

      Shallow, much?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    FTR, my eyebrowns are under complete control.

  • I agree with Miko that maybe this is not so much a universal male - female thing, as an American male-female thing (not that that makes it less of a problem since most of us are in the US).
    In my home country (in Europe) the lab was much more like a fashion show for both men and women, also cause we needed to take public transportation to get there, along with people with 'real' jobs and the clothes that come with that. I know this might differ a lot in different areas in the US, but I (or most people I went to grad school with) have never had periods in our lives where jeans and a t-shirt were appropriate gear except for maybe when I had to paint the inside of my apartment.

    • Jonathan says:

      Couldn't agree more. During my postdoc experiences, you could usually tell who was European versus who wasn't because generally the American postdocs looked like schlubs, regardless of gender.

      It is also region dependent too; at Scripps everyone was more casual than at Kentucky, because we were at the beach.

  • miko says:

    Yup... North America is the only place I've been where it's ok for grown men to dress like children (shorts, sports team or souvenir clothing) in urban public settings.

  • Bashir says:

    When I wear slacks, a nice shirt and a tie at conferences people regularly ask me why I am dressed up. Are you presenting? Not today. Do you have a big meeting? No. A job interview? Nope. I get a lot of quizzical looks from other men (and occasional compliments from women).

    • drugmonkey says:

      I get a lot of quizzical looks from other men

      Sorry, man.

    • another anonymous person says:

      I'm a female scientist. I got this a lot as a late postdoc, early assistant professor when I dressed up for conferences. Including the very specific comment from a mentor in the field that I was trying too hard. And another from someone I respect that I was "going the enthusiastic young prof route, are you?" (or something similar).

      I now dress as similarly to the male profs in style as I can figure how to manage, usually nice jeans and a nice top, casual shoes at work, nice shoes at a conference.

  • duffymeg says:

    I've thought about writing a post on a similar topic, aimed at ecologists. A tricky issue for female ecologists is that, if they dress casually, they risk not being taken seriously, but if they dress up, they don't look like someone who can do field research. On the whole, at the annual meetings of the Ecological Society of America, the men are much more casually dressed than the women.

    • I've run into this a lot in ecology, physical geography, and other earth science-y fields. The few women who do dress up are commented on as not looking like scientists, or seen as more "fragile" and not field-competent.

    • Puffywaun says:

      Where is the middle ground there? Hiking boots? Jeans or cargos? With nice blouse? Jewelry? How do you get around that?

  • Spiny Norman says:

    The single best-known badass woman in my field usually dresses VERY casually at meetings, especially GRCs. T-shirt and shorts, Tevas, etc. Perhaps our field is more casual than some.

    • gerty-z says:

      OK, but what about the female postdocs/young faculty?

      • Spiny Norman says:

        Varies. People certainly dress up more at big national meetings than at a GRC. I tend to laugh silently at anyone who brings a dress jacket to a GRC, unless, maybe, they're giving a keynote. Doing so is uncorrelated with quality of science but somewhat correlated with asshattery.

  • Joe says:

    Agree with miko that it is good to look a little better when you are presenting.
    No ties, please. What are you, a salesman?

    In the lab, I don't care what you wear. You get respect for your data and pubs, nothing else.

    I once had a student that had previously worked in industry, and she wore make-up every day. She was also the most professional in her attitude towards her research. Do I think that because of how she looked? I think it is more likely that she learned her professional attitude in industry and was also taught (unnecessarily) to wear make-up to work. She also had the best publication record.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Thinking of the best (and best-known) scientists I know there is no -- ZERO -- correlation between formality of dress and excellence. There is also zero correlation between dress and the number of trainees whom they've had go on to productive careers.

  • Namnezia says:

    Who the hell cares? Dress up if you want to, don't if you don't.

    • Namnezia says:

      And its not luxury of not caring what I wear, since I don't really care what other folks wear either.

      • scicurious says:

        But in some ways it IS the luxury of not caring. Other people DO care and may well suffer harm from the way they do or do not dress. While you can get away with not caring, if I don't care I could suffer for it.

    • Spacemom says:

      If it is brought to your attention, then what? I'm at a new job. One month in. I went out and bought a bunch of new pants instead of wearing jeans. On one hand, I feel silly, on the other, I still feel underdressed compared to the women. Not the men.

  • Lee says:

    Our department was bring in potential chair candidates 3 out of 4 were men. All of them wore suits with ties. The sole woman, and the biggest BSD of the group, was casually dressed, which I think detracted from her seminar and interactions with the faculty. Did I personally notice? No, but my lab-mates commented on her appearance as did others. It didn't matter anyway the school couldn't afford her.

    Secondly, teaching in the professional school environment, except for exercise physiology, dressing up is a must. Those snot-nose med-school students et al., hardly respect a Ph.D. and respect it even less without the proper vestments. I personally teach my students to at least look presentable when giving seminars or talking in class, solely to avoid being judged. As others have commented, it's tough to do your actual job, physiology in my case, clad in your sunday best.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    The M.D. culture is definitely another world. But that has less to do with sexism and everything to do with cultural norms in an occupation where projecting competence to clients who are not technically adept is very much part of the job.

  • That necklace is horrible.

  • Sadly, this double standard is even more pronounced when it comes to teaching. I've read numerous studies about how students judge/rate their lecturers, and appearances almost never come into the equation for male profs but are nearly always mentioned for female profs. I do like to "dress up" and will admit that I think about what to wear each day before getting out of bed... But I put on what I feel comfortable in, and hate that I have to think about whether a student will think I am "trying too hard" or that I clearly don't care about teaching just because of what outfit I have chosen. Not sure how to change this, except to be myself and hope that is enough.

  • Dave says:

    When people comment on my clothing, I consider it a joke, laugh, and either change the topic or walk away.

    Love that.

    I always wear jeans but, depending on whether I'm labbing it, desking it, or in some horrific committee/admin meeting, I will mix it up with a light t-shirt (for hot labs), polo or button down. Shoes are key for the dudes. You can make a pair of dark jeans and a polo look pretty smart with the right shoes. On weekends and nights I'm in basketball shorts, flops and a t-shirt. Like CPP said though cleanliness is key as nobody likes a stinky colleague.

    People who walk around here wearing three-piece suits are either 1) MDs, 2) lost and MDs or 3) admin.

  • Dave says:

    Yup... North America is the only place I've been where it's ok for grown men to dress like children (shorts, sports team or souvenir clothing) in urban public settings.

    Whatever. This is total rubbish miko.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    I can't say that I've seen a double-standard in the 14 years since I started grad school, but maybe I'm just oblivious. I went with the upward trajectory in dress from grad school (shorts, sandals, t-shirt), to postdoc (good jeans or similar, usually a shirt with buttons and collar), to junior faculty (slacks, shirt, tie, jacket). My first year as faculty I just went with the button-down, no tie, sort of casual sport coat when teaching or in meetings, then added the tie the next year. It was kind of amusing that it gave the rest of the department something to talk about for an entire year. Granted, I work at a state university, in the west, which means about anything goes. Administrators still wear suits, so I'm not there.

    I dress this way for most conferences, though I'd take it down a little for GRC, or somewhere very warm. The results: 1) I am more focused because in my mind I'm in "work" mode and taking it seriously, 2) students, especially non-traditional students, appreciate that the prof makes the effort to look like he's taking it seriously, 3) occasional perplexed looks and comments, and 4) I wear a lab coat more often.

    It's amusing that many of my colleagues outfit themselves in casual clothes from Patagonia at prices beyond what I pay for Nordstrom or similar shirts and pants. Go figure.

    Another side of it is that I spent a couple of years after undergrad as a residential, then commercial carpenter. I made a conscious decision to not follow that career path, so perhaps the wardrobe reflects that decision.

  • Kate C says:

    Wow, lots of comments on this thread!

    This post made me think about a presentation I saw recently about recruiting young women in the earth sciences. The presenter was an older, very well dressed woman, and she had a slide up about the typical or stereotypical earth scientist - and the guy looked like a lumber jack. All plaid shirt and big beard. And she said this is hard for young women to identify with, and we should be showing off women scientists that girls can look up to... cue image of woman with long legs, heals, short skirt and business suit.

    Both the girl sitting next to me, and I, agreed that we would much prefer to look like a lumber jack. And we hoped nobody ever made us wear heals like that...

  • Alil says:

    I agree with this. I wore what I wanted in undergrad/masters but now as a research assistant I suddenly realised I needed to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe as I felt under-dressed next to the smartly dressed professional women in my department. You will now rarely catch me in jeans (a previous staple item of clothing) and my hoodies have all been swapped for smarter jumpers and cardigans although I wouldnt really go so far as a jacket as I find them quite restricting. I now even wear SHIRTS?! to work. (All on days I am not doing field work. Comfort and warmth take upmost priority there).
    Most (but not all!) guys on the team on the other hand wear jeans and hoodies and wear the exact same things outside of work.
    I quite like it now that I dress up. It makes me feel more professional and I would like it if more guys wore shirts and jumpers more at work and less hoodies and jeans, I think it would give us scientists a bit more respect from outsiders as sad to say but image does make a difference. I think it is nice to stay smart at work whether you are in the lab or in the office and it doesn't take much effort however if a guy is so very opposed to putting on a shirt to make the workplace smart and professional then so be it. I will not kick up a fuss, so long as I know I am making an effort. Some guys I have met throughout my scientific career however do have such bad dress and personal hygiene it makes it difficult to work in close quarters! (I dont mean to say that some women in science do not have bad personal hygiene, I just haven't yet met one so in my experience they are much fewer and far between).

  • Anonymous male ex-scientist says:

    FYI, the statement about presidential dress is not true. Obama has been thrown through the ringer for his appearances in his frumpy dad-jeans (ill-fitting acid wash that should have stayed in the 80's).

    As a grad student I never noticed a big difference between male and female's casualness (we were all pretty casual, jeans and t-shirts for both sexes) save for conferences (I was always button-up, sometimes a tie, dress pants and dress shoes) and presentations (always a suit, better to be a professional among slobs than a slob among professionals). We did have a female grad student in our lab that adopted our supervisor's (male) dress code (jeans and a golf-shirt, every day) including conferences, she did swap the golf-shirt for a button up for conference presentations, and black jeans instead of blue jeans).

    Whether as a trainee or now working for a research granting agency, I've never felt that I've judged anyone's science (male or female) based on their appearance (that said, you still notice people, no matter how big their name is, that look like slobs, and maybe wouldn't sit next to them at the dinner...).

  • phagenista says:

    When we're discussing women defying expectations by wearing loose-fitting t-shirts, are we sure the implication isn't that the women should we wearing something more form-fitting to show off their figures and not the assumed reason of appearing more professional? At conferences, I've overheard male professors discuss how the breasts of a female grad student look in that top (while the she was presenting!), and that's just what they were saying loudly enough for women in the audience to hear.

    The comments about researchers in 4 inch heels being assumed to be hookers would appear to go against this, except that no one said that society hadn't put women in a no-win situation with regards to dressing.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    My thesis advisor was a med school department chair. She would typically wear faded jeans & a sweatshirt to the lab unless meeting with med school committees, a philanthropist, a Dean, the Provost, or the Chancellor. She'd dress damned snappily if she was planning to go out to dinner or the ballet. The unmistakable message: dress right when it matters or when you want to. The rest of the time, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

    Thinking about it now I am still really, really glad I got to be in her lab for 5 years. What a badass.

    • Mac says:

      "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." This is my motto!
      This is my approach and so far it's working. Dress for what you need to do and do it well. There are double standards but in most environments I've worked in the consequences of ignoring them and getting on with your work are minor.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "Obama has been thrown through the ringer for his appearances in his frumpy dad-jeans (ill-fitting acid wash that should have stayed in the 80's)."

    A standard that GW Bush was never held to. What, I wonder, could account for this difference?

  • Martin says:

    Alas, this piece quite accurately reflects the state of academia right now, at least on the science side. I, for one, despite the whole being male, really don't appreciate the the sloth in presentation of my male colleagues. In grad school I had professors showing up to work in shorts and t-shirts and it set my teeth on edge; you're here to do science first, that softball team thing is really really secondary or at least should be.

    What I find odd in the situation is that there is also a confused double standard on male dress. On the one hand, there is certainly a pressure to conform to the dress down, even if subtle ("What's with the tie? Hot date tonight?"). But walking around around conferences in my suit & tie had people responding to me with respect than seemed well above my paygrade. Oh people.

  • Bee says:

    What what, wait, what? Eh, sorry, doesn't compute. I don't think I've ever put on high heels at a conference. No, make that, ever. I don't even have high heels. I think. (Not entirely sure about the whereabouts and whatabouts of my houshold after 3 postdocs.) Do you really think people expect me to wear girly stuff and so on?? Crazy thought that. If anybody ever gave me advice on what to wear for a seminar/job interview, it was "no dress" and "no large jewellery."

  • Karen L says:

    After browsing through everybody's comments on everyday grad dress, I was surprised that nobody commented on looking young! I can completely relate to often looking younger than grad students - sometimes even younger than the undergrads I train. I also tend to dress up in order so that others would take me seriously. If not, people tend to mistake me for being in high school. As a result, my wardrobe tends to look more mature (my mom actually says I dress too old!). On most days laziness gets the best of me so I'm clad in "grad-ware", but I definitely dress up for conferences.

    As to whether I should have to do that, I don't expect it to change any time soon. People's view of me changes pretty fast after I open my mouth - as I certainly don't talk like a 16 year old! Although I wonder if the difference in people's attitudes towards me is because of the way I dress. I find that sometimes when I do dress up, it unconsciously gives me more confidence, so is it my own confident behavior or the way that other people see me that makes them treat me differently? Maybe it's both. You're in good company looking young sci! I always find comfort in thinking when everybody else is 60, I'll still look like I'm 40... or younger! 🙂

  • Sheila says:

    Huh? I wore Tshirts and jeans right through grad school and postdoc, and it was only 3 years into my first job that I stopped wearing free Tshirts from companies. But that was almost 20 years ago, and I'm disappointed to hear that things have changed. The lack of focus on appearance was one of the nicest things about science.

  • [...] For more thoughts about how women scientists should dress, you might enjoy this article about a double standard for men and women in [...]

  • Jenn says:

    I work for an Engineering company. The company does not have a dress code and that's one of the perks that's brought up in the interview process. I wore a nice skirt, blouse, and jacket for one of my interviews and was told by the interviewee that I was overdresssed.

    Most of my co-workers wore t-shirts and jeans, so that's what I wore after a couple of weeks. My fourth month there I was taken aside by HR and told that I wasn't dressing appropriately. I asked what I was wearing that wasn't appropriate, but they wouldn't tell me. I asked what I should wear and they told me business casual.

    It was frustrating because I didn't want to risk my job, but I felt like there was a double standard between the men and the women in the company. A man in my exact position was not wearing business casual. Only some of the managers wore business casual. During the summer most of the company wears shorts and flip flops.

    For a while I documented my outfit for the day and the outfits of my co-workers who had the same title as me, but eventually I gave it up.

    • Spacemom says:

      That is gender discrimination. If you have it documented, you should bring that to HR and let them know that you are documenting this. Show them examples and remind them how there is no dress code. Be firm.

  • dima says:

    I'm a librarian and was required to attend a training session where we were told that we had to wear our professional clothing to even work in the garden because one never knew who we would see that we needed to impress. No men were in that training session.

  • Spacemom says:

    I recently changed jobs from a well known astronomical observatory to a well known scientific lab. I now feel that I can't wear my jeans every day, that I wear ballet flats instead of sneakers, etc.

    Why is this? Some men here dress very well. We call them the managers. But for people like me, the males either wear polyester pants, dockers or jeans. This is silly.
    Yet, I have gone 4 weeks without my jeans.


  • Jane says:

    I think any double standard is primarily enforced by the women themselves. We're the ones who pay attention to clothes!

    I'm a postdoc (sort of) in mathematical biology, look younger than my age, and am TA'ing two classes this quarter. On teaching days, I do dress a little more nicely, but that means a polo shirt. The rest of the time, it's t-shirts or sweaters, as the weather dictates. Realistically, the students are going to take me seriously no matter what I wear. It's either that or learn programming on their own... 🙂

  • Geek Goddess says:

    I'm not in academia, I'm the director of an energy-related company. I came up through the ranks with my engineering degree, doing first process engineering and then project management.

    I never considered wearing a skirt and heels, slacks and a nice silk blouse, as 'dressing up'. To me, dressing up is what I would wear to a cocktail party, formal night on a cruise, a Christmas party: something with sequins or beads. I wear some jewelry, usually earrings. I have lots of shoes with heels (never 4"), as well as flats. The only time I wear jeans with a t-shirt is when I am in a field location, and frequently I wear golf shirts - collar, a couple buttons, maybe the company logo. I used to wear suits a lot (skirt and jacket) but now I'm casual and wear simple skirts or pants, and a blouse or light sweater. I might spend all day at my office, or I might be running around the city meeting with producers, partners, potential clients, or the financing companies or bankers. They are nearly all men, and the standard uniform is slacks and a button down shirt or a golf/polo shirt (in the summer). A few of the men wear ties, but randomly enough that it's not really even noticed. The attorneys all wear ties, I've noticed.

    The engineers at the various contractors all dress 'business casual'. My sister company has a dress code that says no jeans except on Friday, no tshirts, no bare toes. They have clients dropping in and out all the time.

    What I notice is people saying "I'm more comfortable in jeans". That, I don't get. Jeans aren't different than any other pants, except that often they are stiffer/thicker than knit or worsted wool pants, and sometime more constricting. I think if you find 'nice clothes' uncomfortable, you need to pick different clothes.

  • Heather says:

    I think this is cultural conditioning as much as a possibly sexist double standard. That is, there are culturally specific ways to be sexist. But where I work, there is no double standard in dress based on gender.

    My lab, in France, is run by one of the (casually) best-dressed men I've had the pleasure of working with, but there have been many. An assistant professor colleague is one of the others. I should qualify it by disclosing that he *really* cares about how he dresses, and is remarkable even here (he does excellent things with ascots and studded leather cuff bracelets, to give you an idea). The lone male grad student in our group is more into T-shirts, but he's got some excellent long-sleeved shirts as well. Today he's got on cream-colored slacks, something like Roadsign shoes, and a short-sleeved printed turquoise camp shirt with a collar. Guys here never wear high-top sneakers or cargo pants.

    As the American import, I often feel like the worst-dressed person in the group, though I've also learned to fit in when needed. Our group photo doesn't do my observations justice and the guys are in the back, or I'd link to it. (Well, here:

    The women with longer hair seem to do fine with butterfly clips and elastics 🙂

    Here are some of the other group photos from our colleagues in the neighborhood:
    (This all-male group is run by the seated woman:
    (I think this was taken on the day of a Ph.D. defense:
    (Comprising many bioinformaticists, perhaps more casual than bench scientists? -

    Noted about necklaces, though.

  • Thanks for writing this, Sci. I've definitely noticed such a double-standard, particularly since starting my postdoc (I wore a hoodie the other day because I felt like dressing casually and someone asked me if I was sick, because I didn't look as nice as I usually do). I've had several female faculty friends warn me that I'll be taken more seriously as a professor if I wear make-up (which I don't genrally do). I've also been told I look "22, tops!" (I'm 32), which doesn't help. And, as I alluded to above, in an outdoorsy field, dressing too femininely can also be seen as a liability.

  • Ruby Stubson says:

    There is so much truth here. The difference between men's and women's professional clothing is innately different (think about a men's suit vs a women's pant suit). Even when men dress up, they can get away with slightly ill-fitting suits whereas I feel super slovenly if my pant suit doesn't fit well.

    I've also noticed another difference between the clothing of the two sexes. And that is: how much to wear. It is very common for women's dress clothing to include a sleeveless top, a sheath dress, or a skirt. However, this doesn't really work in a professional environment because men's dress clothing includes a suit and jacket, and as they (usually) are in the dominant roles, they get final say over the (very cold) temperature, thus resulting in goosebumps and shivering for the women.

    I'm very conscious of my attire and have actually started developing a set of rules for what to wear. I've definitely received comments on my attire choice (a decent blazer and a scarf in the midddle of summer), and so I know that people pay attention to what I wear. Yet I still wear feminine clothes because I don't want to look like a slob and be treated as unprofessional.

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