The week before my first academic conference presentation, I stared into my closet and felt as if everything in it was entirely wrong.
All of my clothes are colorful and flamboyant, chosen so that I can show off and stand out. I wear makeup, red lipstick, and big earrings. I style my hair that in no way could be interpreted as practical or “wash and wear.” I have been known to dye it unconventional colors. When I walk into a room, people notice. My clothes are not neutral, nor do I own many “professional” outfits. I’m loud and bright and very memorable. So when I was faced with dressing myself to present my first academic paper at a professional conference, I was stumped. That one black dress? Too much cleavage. Grey dress? Too body conscious. I don’t own any pants. What the heck am I going to wear?
Academia is traditionally a man’s world and, especially in conservative fields of study, women tend to be overlooked or treated as a token to represent the illusion of diversity. Young female-identified graduate students are schooled by well-meaning experienced female faculty members in how to dress appropriately for professional settings: Don’t wear too much makeup, and keep it subtle. No big earrings. Practical shoes and hair. If you look like you spent too much time on your appearance, you will not be taken seriously as a scholar. You could have spent that hour that you spent at the hair salon doing research, after all. I mean, you weren’t going to wear that, were you?
Now, this isn’t all fields in academia, nor is it all female scholars. There are many progressive and artistic fields in which attention to appearance is not seen as an automatic demerit. My experience, however, was in a old boy’s club. There were no other female graduate students in my subfield while I was there, and the last female faculty member in my department who specialized in my field retired after my first year in the program. The professional conferences I attended are overwhelmingly made up of straight, white, men, many of whom are over 50. There are women in my discipline, but in terms of the specialty I fell in love with, other female scholars were few and far between.
Because of this, questions about my presentation, aesthetic, and style were front and center in my mind. I generally dress as I like, in vintage dresses, bright colors, makeup, high heels, and large sparkly earrings. Before attending my first professional conference presentation, I went out and bought a high-necked black sleeveless shift dress and a plain black sweater, thinking that I needed a professional uniform so I would be taken seriously while giving my paper. I spent time fretting over whether or not I could wear patterned tights, and kept picking up and putting down three different pairs of earrings, wondering if they were “moderate” enough. I put on my conservative outfit and wondered if I should have bought pants instead. But the only thing in my wardrobe resembling pants are two pairs of jeans and some leggings I wear when I exercise.
I felt like I was wearing a costume.
This uniform wasn’t me. I went back to do this graduate degree in my thirties, and I wasn’t going to change who I was for academia. So the next year, at the same conference, I styled myself differently. I didn’t go out and buy a conservative dress, and I paired my beloved black and white houndstooth heels with the outfit I wore when I gave my presentation. I felt more comfortable, and I tried to imagine that people looking at me when I walked down the hall were admiring my style and not silently judging my lack of professionalism. Since I live in the midwestern United States, I was less concerned about someone actually remarking on my clothes - people here are known for their lack of assertiveness and their indirect communication styles. And indeed, I didn’t get any verbal comments, one way or another.
But academia is a microcosm of our larger culture, and when women wear feminine styles and go out in public sometimes people think they are entitled to remark on women’s bodies. I got comments on my legs from middle-aged men as I walked between sessions. I was followed into networking cocktail hours by people trying to make conversation not because they wanted to ask me about the paper I presented earlier in the day but because they were looking at my body .
This conference is known for great intellectual work during the day and active socializing during the evening hours. People sit on patios and talk late into the night. They bring out guitars and have sing-alongs until the wee hours of the morning. In some ways, it is a magical wonderland in which a person can be among brilliant, talented people for a few days, wandering from session to session during the day, and continuing those conversations over drinks until it’s suddenly one in the morning and the time has flown by.
One evening, I found myself on one of those patios with several faculty and graduate students in my subfield from various schools, sharing drinks and songs and conversation. As I moved from one group to another, I was cornered by a middle-aged faculty member. He had already made some comments about my body earlier in the evening, and was quite intoxicated by this point. He backed me into a pillar, in view of other people, placed his hands on either side of me to trap me there, and tried to kiss me on the lips. I managed to turn my head, and he missed my mouth, though he did not stop trying. I wiggled out of his grasp and decided to call it a night and head up to my room, since I certainly didn’t want to encounter him again.
Maybe this was what the well-meaning female faculty members were trying to say - if you dress like this, people will see you as an object and not as a person who has good ideas. You might be assaulted, receive unwanted advances, or just not be taken seriously. My story, sadly, isn’t uncommon. I have spoken with other women in academia who have had remarkably similar experiences.
I don’t regret being myself, and I honestly don’t believe that wearing something different would have changed anything for me. Although I have left that career path behind, neither my fashion sense nor that encounter with that middle-aged man were a significant factor in my decision to move on to something else. I’m happy in my current career, and I didn’t make any choices based on academia’s feelings about my body and my attire - there were many reasons that I hopped off the road to tenure. My hope for the future is that that my female-presenting colleagues in academia will be appreciated for their ideas, regardless of what they choose to wear, and will not be assessed based on the color of their lipstick or the length of their skirts.