Clothes do not make the woman: what female academics wear is subject to constant scrutiny


The grand orator at today’s graduation couldn’t be bothered to take out her facial piercings! Gross! What a slob!”

This tweet, written last November, was clearly designed to be offensive, and it hit home, blindsiding me and briefly knocking my confidence.

I had gone for the role as public orator because it troubled me that it was still possible to sit through a graduation ceremony without hearing a woman say much beyond reading out the list of graduands’ names. Writing the address is hard, time-consuming work, so a spiteful, grammatically dubious criticism of my appearance did not exactly hit the level of appreciation I had been hoping for.

A couple of months later, my local newspaper shared a picture of me at a book launch. This motivated another tweeter to ask: “Why has she got those stupid studs on her face?”

There are several conclusions I could draw from these two incidents. First, both tweets, bizarrely, were posted by local men called David. So, it could be that all men called David living in Chester find facial piercings “gross” or “stupid”.

Second, and rather more plausibly, my role as an academic was seen by some as being somehow fundamentally at odds with my appearance. The ad feminam nature of the tweets served as a reminder that women who occupy public spaces will inevitably attract comments based not on what they do but rather on how they look while they do it.

This wasn’t news to me. If you write a book called The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, you quickly discover more than you ever imagined about being a woman in the public sphere. But it still rankled.

It’s an identifiably male body that’s regarded as the normative one in most professional fields: he is “an academic”; she is “a female academic”. As Francesca Stavrakopoulou, professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter, wrote in The Guardian in 2014: “Female academics find their appearance scrutinised in ways a male colleague would rarely encounter.” A male lecturer is permitted to wear jeans, hoodies and T-shirts, or a “fraying tweed jacket, accidentally accessorised with a splodge of egg yolk down their tie”. But “a female academic who looks similarly casual, or scruffy, or unkempt, risks becoming the target of a range of sexist assumptions”.

Of course, I’ll probably never know whether the Davids of Chester would take to Twitter to rail similarly against a pierced male colleague. But at graduation ceremonies, the norm is particularly visible. For women, the unassuming safety pin becomes vitally important on those days where hoods disappear up over shoulders or slope off down arms because they are designed either to be held in place by that weirdly pointless and frankly phallic signifier of formality, the tie, or to be attached to a shirt button. I rarely have buttons on my graduation-day outfits, and I certainly never wear a tie.

My Davids were prey to the “halo effect”, cognitively constructing me as the sum of my parts and making judgements based on little more than unconscious bias. Groundless inferences are made in the blink of an eye (if she’s fat she must be lazy; if she wears heels she must be slutty; if she’s pierced in the “wrong” places she must be a slob), and the female lecturer’s body becomes home to numerous intersecting assumptions.

Academia complicates the appearance/gender/professionalism matrix because it has traditionally been a radical, non-conforming space. To quote Stavrakopoulou again, “the message is the same: unless women dress modestly and conservatively, they look out of place in academia, because fundamentally, they don’t have the right bodies to be academic authorities”.

The “wrong” body isn’t only about clothing or physical modifications, however. The more female academics I spoke to, the more it became painfully clear that the criticisms of their appearance that they had heard voiced by colleagues, students or members of the public were imbricated with wider assumptions about race and ethnicity, sexuality or perceived physical fitness or ability.

Tailors Dummy

Business Insider is a website that I end up on only when I follow the white rabbit of connected links from an altogether different website, where the lure of an article promising to make me more productive in just five minutes has proved too strong to resist.

A headline that caught my eye recently was: “People with an Offbeat Sense of Fashion Get More Respect”. The report focused on a Harvard Business School study that found that in an experiment in which students were asked to judge the status and competence of “a bearded professor wearing a T-shirt” compared with “a clean shaven one wearing a tie”, the bearded one won.

I clicked from this piece to view the article “10 Essential Rules of How to Dress for Work”, and despondency began to set in. Apparently, I should “consider suit separates…the new godsend, as they make buying off the rack easier than ever”. I’m happy to consider them as long as I never, ever have to wear them.

I should also “wear a low profile watch”. The watch that I wear is a recently acquired Fitbit; I’m incapable of telling the time on its kinetic face without waving my left arm around with all the understatement of someone directing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier’s flight deck.

This feeling that academia’s rules of “professional dress” are both gendered and unlike those that apply in most other professions is borne out by the artist Jorge Cham, who, in his “PHD: Piled Higher and Deeper” series satirising university life, published a cartoon in 2011 called “Academic Dress Code”. The academic moves on a chart from “white tie” through “wizard robes” to a career destination of “hobo-chic”. The implication is that “hobo-chic” is a mark of success, but primarily for the male academic (of Cham’s six figures, only one appears to be a woman, dressed in a pyjama “worksuit”).

Reading the often brilliant work of the late Sunday Times columnist A. A. Gill reminds me of watching footage of Thierry Henry’s famous solo goal against Tottenham in 2002. The goal was sublime, and I can admire the skill, but the admiration is compounded by a Spurs fan’s rage. And it was rage I felt when Gill directed an openly misogynist attack at Mary Beard in 2012, concluding that she “should be kept away from cameras altogether”. But Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, knows all about the different standards that female academics who dare to put themselves on a public platform encounter – whether that’s in front of a BBC Question Time audience of 2 million viewers or a seminar of a dozen people.

In her most recent book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, Beard writes that the goddess Athena was, according to the ancient Greeks, “not a woman at all. For a start, she’s dressed as a warrior, when fighting was exclusively male work.” I recently asked Beard for her thoughts on how women in academia are judged on their appearance. “After I had been attacked by A. A. Gill for looking ‘sub-optimal’ in my TV programmes,” she told me, “I bumped into a colleague from maths. He said he couldn’t understand what Gill was going on about. In his eyes I just looked ‘normal’.”

But what does this desire to celebrate “normality” mean, especially in academia, a profession where exceptionality is the gold standard in almost all other respects? Sharon Mavin, director of Newcastle University Business School and an expert on gendered media representations of female professionals, argues that “women remain extra visible as women and invisible as professionals/managers/leaders”. Hence, “their authenticity is judged through the lens of gender, as women and as bodies against a male ‘norm’.”

Isabel Davis, reader in medieval literature and culture at Birkbeck, University of London, recalls a male colleague’s comments on a female interview candidate. The woman had worn a suit. “I remember him saying: ‘She looks like a very good girl.’ He meant it as a bad thing.” The comment stuck in Davis’ mind. “The subtext”, she told me, “was that the candidate would be a good administrator and teacher but that she would have uninteresting research, as if the rest of us are all unrelentingly radical.”

A female academic working in Scotland, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells me that disability is also perceived, like femininity, to be another unruly deviation from the professional norm. Such ableism can therefore compound the effects of sexism. Like mine, her bad experience occurred at a graduation ceremony. A chronic illness means that she is often reliant on a crutch, and she recalls how, as she lined up with her colleagues to process up a short flight of steps to the platform, she was told to leave her crutch behind.

“When I said ‘I can’t do that: I need it to get up the steps’, I was told that I should have told them [that] beforehand, or brought something more in keeping with academic dress,” she tells me. “At the same time, a male colleague using a wooden walking stick was not challenged.”

So many of the women I spoke to report having been taken to one side by well-meaning colleagues and advised to “tone down” their clothing in order to be taken seriously. And these veiled – and sometimes overt – critiques by no means come only from men. In the experience of my Scottish interviewee, “women will criticise other women for looking too smart and ‘professional’, particularly if they opt to wear heavy make-up and/or high-heeled shoes. This is seen to be pandering to ‘the male gaze’.”

Charlotte Dann, lecturer in psychology at the University of Northampton, dresses according to context. “At work, I dress ‘professionally’ – shirt and trousers mostly. In my leisure time, I’m very casual in jeans and T-shirt.” This discontinuity between self-as-lecturer and self-outside-academia is perhaps particularly striking in Dann’s case because she wrote her PhD on constructions of tattooed women’s bodies and is heavily tattooed herself.

Her “professional” dress is a deliberate strategy. “Now that I do have more visible tattoos, I like to make a point of dressing stereotypically ‘professionally’ as a show that my modifications do not have an impact on my capacity to work,” she says.

Cultural assumptions about body modifications are not specifically gendered, of course: a tattooed or pierced man can receive similar opprobrium. Equally, it is clear that we have come a long way since academics accessorised only with leather elbow patches or dandruff (this isn’t a cliché so much as a snapshot of my alma mater in the 1990s). Dann recalls a particular outreach session on non-verbal communication that she ran for A‑level students at which the pupils’ (male) teacher “rolled up his sleeves to show his tattoos. He said he couldn’t do that at the college as it wasn’t allowed, but felt comfortable doing so in our university space.”

Birkbeck’s Davis describes having outfits specifically for student-facing activities because, as she puts it: “Clothes, for me, are about having no chinks in my armour. I want to look like the students expect. And then, hopefully, with my authority reinforced, we can all get on to something else.” She also tells me that she would “never wear jeans. I notice that my male colleagues can do so without a thought [but] jeans, for me, read more as ‘student’ than ‘lecturer’ ”.

I thought I could resist such self-surveillance, but I now don’t wear my ripped jeans or rock band T-shirts on teaching or meeting days, and I’m rather disappointed in myself for this. I can’t identify exactly when my position on this shifted, or how much men called David are to blame for it. Being nearer to 50 than 40, however, I’m irritated that spurious “rules” about appearance have come into play almost without my noticing.

My piercings and tattoos are mementos of former selves, but they are also, importantly, part of who I am now. Like Dann, I too “see my own modifications as a form of resistance against traditional/stereotypical expectations”. And if the Davids don’t like or understand that “form of resistance”, perhaps they’ve simply misunderstood what a university is for. l

Author Bio: Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.