Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Dressing to be a physicist

Scientists, even more than most people, like to believe that appearance is irrelevant; it's the substance of a person's work that counts. Of course this is rubbish. Substance does count, but so does presentation. This maxim holds for everything from how you write papers (where a clear and honest presentation can make your paper much more influential than it would be if it were confusing) to how you dress from day to day. Whatever we might want to pretend, people will judge you by how you look. Of course, this truism is complicated by the fact that different people will judge you completely differently, but they'll be judging you nonetheless.

As with many things about being a scientist, it's significantly more problematic for women. Here is one woman's take on the issue; this is an extract from an essay by Heidi Newberg, a physicist at RPI (and one of the few scientists you'll find who've appeared in Glamour).
Women know that the way we dress has a big effect on others’ first impression of us, and there are many pitfalls involved with dressing to give a lecture. The most serious wardrobe mistake that can be made by a young woman giving a professional talk is to wear clothing that is designed to make men think about sex. While you might get away with plunging necklines, bare midriffs, low-cut pants, shirts without sleeves, mini-skirts, spiked heels, and overly dangly jewelry in other contexts, even in the workplace, this clothing is far too distracting for a presentation in which you are already the focus of attention. Wearing suggestive clothing is guaranteed to focus your audience on various parts of your anatomy, rather than listening to the message you are trying to communicate. This is confusing to young women, since women are routinely expected to wear such things when they dress up for a “formal occasion.” When men dress up for work, they wear a suit. When men dress up for romance, they wear a suit. Women must make a distinction here between appropriate professional clothing, which can look feminine and pretty but not sexy, and appropriate dating-wear, which is supposed to look sexy if you want it to work. I have been at talks in which a young woman has worn clothing that is so distracting that even I have had some difficulty paying attention to what she was saying – and of course when she was finished there was not a single question from the audience.
I think there is a lot of truth there, although I wouldn't be as directly prescriptive as Heidi. The clear point, applicable to persons of any gender, is that, if you are wondering whether people judge you on the basis of how you look, the answer is an unambiguous "yes." But it's up to you to decide what to do with that fact. Maybe you want to be sexy, or maybe you just want to blend into the woodwork; but there is no simple neutral place to stand at which no judgments are being made of you. What do you want those judgments to be? Do you care?

There is a range of complex possibilities on both sides (you and whoever is looking at you). If you put some effort into your clothes, some people may judge you to be frivolous, while others will treat you with greater respect. Academics in general, scientists in particular, often implicitly attach a kind of moral superiority to nondescript clothing. If you look like you actually put some kind of an effort into how you look, you are automatically suspect. Especially if you are female, some of your colleagues will not take you as seriously if you are perceived as stylish, not to mention sexy. (For many people, one of the attractive features about science is that it can serve as an escape from all the terribly messy and ambiguous features of human interactions, and if you remind them of these things they can become insecure and defensive. Or jealous. Or intimidated.) At the same time, others might tend to take you more seriously, for better or for worse -- they might perceive you as just a little bit more with-it and competent than your slovenly colleagues. The only certain mistake is to think that it doesn't matter at all.

In a similar discussion, profgrrrrl concludes that "the most important thing is to be yourself." After all, just because someone is judging you on the basis of how you dress, doesn't mean you have to care. Only by flouting the various unwritten rules that surround us can we ever hope to change them. Whether that's important to you is for only you to decide.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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