Too smart to be an academic?

This is a bit of a different post for me. At the IAG/NZGS conference in Melbourne, I was encouraged by colleagues to speak up a little bit more…

Guardian pages have been doing the rounds in the Twittersphere in recent weeks. The topics: what not to wear as an academic; and advice on being confident in a world of imposters. I’ve thought about writing about both myself. I mean – how many times have I searched the Internet for conference attire inspiration.

This week – the clothes. For a long time, I didn’t really think too much about what I wore or the impression my clothing made in a work setting – I wanted to feel comfortable and reasonably well turned out. Although I must admit at this point my rather bizarre passion for wearing clothes that in some way signal to my research interests – here is the pine cone dress for example.

Prior to our enthusiasm for trees event in Melbourne

Prior to our enthusiasm for trees event in Melbourne

Over the last year or so what I wear has been something I’ve paid increasing attention to. Why? Because I have a job that pays a little bit better so I can begin to enjoy the sort of clothes I like, but clothing is our visible frontline. Clothes draw attention towards us and push it away. We all use clothing to differing extents to blend in, make a statement, feel comfortable, feel bold. For me, the same goes for shoes, makeup, hair, glasses, bags, laptops…

Chilli top for conference presentation

Chilli top for conference presentation

Painted nails

Painted nails

Miss Marple hat

Miss Marple hat

Why do academics dress so badly? (Answer: they are too happy) by Jonathan Wolff caused a stir last week. His article suggested that “Academics dress badly because we are so fulfilled in our work”. Now it’s a fair comment that compared to other sectors, academics dress differently – our uniform isn’t business casual – we operate on a continuum ranging from what some non-academics would wear to do the gardening [think The Good Life] or a day in court [think The Apprentice]. I suppose we don’t have a uniform. Fulfilment and happiness come into it but many academics that I’ve spoken to feel that people shouldn’t care about what we wear. We are to be judged by the quality of our work, not by the neatness of our hair. Our intellect over our academic fashion. I think the idea that we are “not an industry” plays a big part too (although universities feel increasingly like businesses). My other half works in the corporate sector, the idea that he’d show up to a meeting in anything other than a dark suit, tie and polished shoes is for his business – ludicrous. As long as we retain our individual offices, we will to a certain extent continue to retain our individual styles in a way that other sectors lost long ago. If someone wants to wear a fleece, Velcro sandals or trousers that are too short who is anyone to stop them. Jonathan Wolff continues:

Should academics really worry about how they look? Some, it seems, plainly don’t, but a colleague told me it probably takes her as long to decide what to wear to project her “I don’t care” look, as it does others who dress to impress. This, possibly, does mark a gender split. Men can just put on the same clothes every day until the trousers run away on their own in protest when you try to pick them up off the floor.

Academics have responded to Jonathan Wolff – highlighting the gendered nature of his article, for example: Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed by Francesca Stavrakopoulou:

Jonathan Wolff’s blog about the way academics dress caused uproar on my Twitter and Facebook feeds this week. And rightly so. Despite occasionally acknowledging that some academics might be women, his comments betrayed his assumption that academics are male, for apparently their default uniform comprises trousers, a jacket, a shirt and a tie. But the most galling thing about his assumption is that in one way, he’s right: masculine dress is the standard academic uniform, for academia remains an overtly male domain. As a result, female academics find their appearance scrutinised in ways a male colleague would rarely encounter.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou is clearly onto something here. I heard a collective “speak for yourself” coming from my female colleagues on Twitter and Facebook in response to Jonathan Wolff’s article. Female style is more closely scrutinised than male style. Indeed, women are often the first to judge the style of other women too.IMG_3070

So what can we do about it? Well, rather than regarding a blogpost about academic fashion as taking us away from our real work, we should get involved in a discussion so intimately linked to how academics are perceived by the world outwith Higher Education. University open days are a classic example – should the head of department wear a suit? Should the young lecturer dress casually and then be mistaken for one of the students? Should the VC be in chinos and a blazer? I wanted to write this blogpost because I am becoming increasingly concerned by the amount of time I sometimes spend on deciding what to wear. The following example is just one such situation that has prompted this over-analysis. I decided to wear this blue jumper dress at a research council panel meeting:


Blue jumper dress

It appeared to my colleague on the panel that I was one of the support staff who had arranged the meeting. Okay – it might not just be the outfit I’d chosen, it could be that the person in question missed the moment when we all introduced ourselves. But following a discussion on social media, I am going to settle on the suggestion that on this occasion I was dressed “too smart to be an academic”. This opens up another set of issues around distinctions that make me so angry made between staff working across universities and Higher Education, particularly differences in interactions between academics and those leading on the internal/external workings that support academic life.

My peers, namely the female academics I’ve worked alongside, are rarely seen in a masculinist uniform. They wear bold colours. They have impressive haircuts, paint their nails and keep up with the latest trends. Of course there are exceptions and people for whom this sort of thing holds no interest whatsoever. Let’s: live and let live. From my perspective, we should wear whatever we want in the pursuit and communication of knowledge – who cares whether we are too smart.

One thought on “Too smart to be an academic?

  1. Thanks for posting this. I really hate packing for conferences – it throws up so many questions that ought to be trivial, just when your mind is full of intense academic preparation, thoughts of skirt vs trousers invade. Also, jumper dress envy!

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