I feel pretty

After writing a post on why some academic fields are still male-dominated, it occurs to me that there are a few other things I want to say about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. So maybe this week, I’ll have a bit of a theme. There is one area that I think has made significant progress even since I entered the field, which is not so long ago. And one area that needs a lot of work. Today’s post is on the area in which I’ve seen progress. It now seems to be okay for women to be frivolous! Huzzah!

I grew up on Long Island. In my hometown, the sight of a woman in her 60s wearing skintight skinny jeans and 5 inch Louboutins is not at all unusual. No one goes out of the house in sweats just to pick up a few things at the store. If an alien scientist’s only contact with humans was with this town’s inhabitants, she would surmise that permanently surprised eyebrows, a unevenly pulled face, and duck lips are part of the aging process. Wearing open-toed shoes without a pedicure is almost as shocking as nudity. Seriously, I am still taken aback by the sight of women’s polish-free toes out on the street.

And, well. You can take the girl out of Long Island, but I still have plenty of Long Island left in me. No plans for botox or restylane, and I do sometimes go out in sweats. By my hometown’s standards, I’m practically an unwashed hippie. But I am awfully fond of make-up. That is not to say I like a clown face, but I care about how my make-up looks and wear it most days. I like wearing flattering clothes. I flat-iron my hair. And I cannot bring myself to go without a pedicure in summertime.  I like reading David Hume, but also Allure. 

In most professions, caring about one’s appearance tends to redound to women’s benefit. In philosophy, however, it used to be viewed with some suspicion. It signified a lack of seriousness. Older female professors tend to be less attentive to their appearance than other similarly successful women of the same age. One confessed to me that she liked dressing colorfully, but was always too ashamed to do it since no other women did. I was sometimes the only woman with nail polish at a conference.

(I’d be curious to know if this happened in other male-dominated professions. In my limited work experience in the business world, it was not the case there. But the sciences? Engineering? IT?)

This has changed rather drastically. It is not at all unusual for women to wear make-up and nice clothes and nail polish while presenting a paper or teaching a class. I have had frequent conversations on how to de-frizz with female colleagues. A fellow conference attendee will think nothing of saying, “I love your shoes! Where did you get them?” All of a sudden, it just seems to be the case that everyone knows you can try to look nice in a more traditionally feminine way and still be a philosopher. I have no idea what changed.

It’s certainly not the case that I think everyone should pay as much attention as I do to dressing. The field still has a huge amount of tolerance for people who do not care to adhere to fashion’s standards, and that seems reasonable. It has zero impact on one’s teaching and production of good philosophy. One guy in my department had to be reminded that one really ought to wear a shirt and shoes in the hallways and lounge. A good number of people still take a kind of pride in their inattention to looks. Ideally, of course, the degree of attention to grooming wouldn’t count much either way in any profession. Well, I suppose if you’re a Hooter’s waitress, it sort of has to, but for most professions how one looks is not all that relevant to job performance. And I wish people were better able to override their initial gut reactions to a woman’s looks – even if ridding oneself entirely of them is impossible.

There is definitely still some prejudice in the field based on a woman’s hotness (as opposed to grooming habits). A very hot woman tends to be subject to suspicions that she only got where she is because someone found her attractive. I am not entirely sure that that doesn’t get balanced out by the greater attention an extremely attractive woman can indeed receive. So the overall impact on a career might not be negative, but it would be better if we could all strive to make it less of a factor. Dressing in an overtly sexual way would almost certainly negatively impact one’s career in philosophy, but that is not an unreasonable standard. Overtly sexual clothes are more of an invitation to be considered sexually, which is distracting at work. I realize my inner spinster librarian is being let out as I say this.

Anyhow, hooray for progress! And tomorrow, where the field needs some work.


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I just said (yes, out loud), “I wish Rose would post something.” And about 5 minutes later, this popped up. Maybe I am more powerful than I thought! Now to harness this power for evil.

    I have never worked in a male-dominated profession. It helps to be in touch with your emotions/feelings, crap like that, when you are in human services. This attracts more women than men apparently. Anyway, your posts are making me want to participate in a study or something where I get to go work with a bunch of guys. I would never get any work done, but it would be fun.

    I like girly stuff too. Shoes, makeup, cute clothes, accessories, etc. Even if people around me weren’t/aren’t interested, I would still do it. It feels like people notice you care and so they start to care.

    Also, Long Island sounds scary.

    • LI is terrifying. None but the brave, and superficial, survive.

      • One day I will find a way to bring you on a visit to my hometown, and then we’ll compare which is the more terrifying.

        • I would LOVE to go there, and it’s only fair because you’ve been to mine. And, correct me if I’m wrong, I suspect it’s terrifying in a slightly different way?

          • Oh, it’s terrifying in a very different way. To really get a good taste, ideally we’d arrange the visit to coincide with the annual carnival. (It informed my reading of Ray Bradbury, that’s for sure.) It was a major point in my transition to adulthood when the carnival went from “super fun” to “vaguely menacing.”

  2. I’ve never really been in a male-dominated field. By the time I entered residency, pediatrics had been one of the more female-dominated specialties for years. (There were many more women in my residency program than men.) And many of both my instructors and colleagues in residency paid close attention to their appearance, and were always immaculate. (I’ll never forget the attending who, no matter when she was called in, would show up at the hospital perfectly coiffed.)

    And medicine is a field where there’s a baseline level of attention to personal grooming that’s demanded, anyway. You have to develop some trust with your patients, so looking like you got dressed in a subway station will not redound to your professional benefit.

  3. How does all of this work in the other direction (i.e., how do the students tend to react)? I remember having a professor at Michigan who was super-hot, and this was such a novelty in the math department that (a) all the guys wanted to be in her class, and (b) then we had to work hard because impressing her was extremely important.

    • I realize this is not quite the same as grooming, which I have no thoughts about, but I’d like for you to address that too.

      • I don’t really know about the super-hot factor. I’m in my late thirties, and assume I’m off the students’ crushing radar. If one of them has kind of a Mrs. Robinson thing going on, I don’t suppose there’s any way I’d know. (I did get a weird drawing once in the campus mail — mystery never solved.) I’ve read that, counterintuitively, evaluations of hot women teachers do not vary from the average as much as hot male teachers. That is, being a hot female teacher does not give you a boost in evaluations, but being a hot male teacher does.

        I had one prof as an undergrad who was gorgeous, like Jon Hamm-level. I think I actually giggled and twirled my hair during an office hours visit. It’s just too embarrassing. I do think I remember more of the content in his class than others, but maybe he was actually a good teacher on top of it!

        As for grooming, I’ve had dozens of students tell me, “You don’t look like a philosopher!” Which I take, perhaps unwarrantedly, as a good thing – maybe they don’t see philosophy restricted to old white guys in togas.

        • People tend to tell me I don’t look like a pre-school teacher. I think it’s the penis that throws them off.

          • This is tangential, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the response I’ve gotten when I show up at a grade school to report for duty. I thought that they might look at me funny. By and large, though, I’ve gotten nothing more than a few positive comments (at the lower-performing schools) about it being good for some of these kids to have a male authority figure that they lack at home.

          • Mike-

            It’s present.


            I agree wholeheartedly that it is good for kids of all genders, but particularly boys, to have more male role models and authority figures in their lives. I applaud the schools that genuinely seek this out, as well as those that seek out opportunities to put women, racial/ethnic minorities, and other largely underrepresented or pigeonholed groups in front of kids in meaningful, substantive ways. Some of the best relationships I’ve formed professionally revolved around a mutual respect for the unique skills that individuals bring to the table.

            Of course, there are still those who think it is just so darn cute that I teach Pre-K. And those who think it means there is something a bit off about me. And there are many, many folks who espouse their belief in putting men in front of children, but then get all uppity when I actually express a male perspective. Whoops.

            I would also say that there is a bit of a divide in people’s responses between elementary and early childhood.

          • I wonder what this looks like for Special Ed. I have only worked with professionals in transition programs through high schools, but I have worked with both male and female teachers. Overall though, I assume there would be more females than males. I know the provider agency I work for, and many like mine, struggle to recruit men to work with the population I serve. I suspect the same would go for schools.

          • I’ve just been touring special Ed schools. Looked to me to be about 5% male.

          • The reasons for men being underrepresented in teaching, and increasingly so amongst younger student, are multiple and varied. It probably deserves a post of its own.

          • Mary,

            Not sure if this is in reference to that, but about 50% of what I do is special ed or resource. I get the sense I get these assignments because the people ahead of me in the call list decline. I’m willing to bet which gender is most likely to decline.


            It’s hard to say for sure, but I think I actually get better behavior out of the boys than I would if I were a female substitute. I know some of the boys where I get notes about Beware This Kid from the teacher seem to go out of their way to try to be good and helpful, whereas most of the BTK girls come as advertised and are rarely unusually helpful.

          • Kazzy, I have been looking at the possibility of going back and doing the teaching thing for real. I have no objection to doing so at the grade school level. One of the concerns I have, though, is that the positive response I have gotten so far is mostly just being polite and I would get awkward looks if I were applying for an actual job. And I’d hate to go through all of that extra schooling only to find out grade schools don’t want male teachers. And there is a little discomfort at being the only male in the teacher’s lounge more generally. This is a self-reinforcing thing, though.

  4. “There are two things that are infinite. Femininity… and means to take advantage of it.”

  5. (I’d be curious to know if this happened in other male-dominated professions. In my limited work experience in the business world, it was not the case there. But the sciences? Engineering? IT?)

    There’s an old joke about any of the last three that in this case would go ‘if someone recognizes that you have a pedicure and toenail polish, you’ve found yourself the extrovert of the group’

  6. Appearances matter, more than most people are willing to admit. Let the frumpy old bats in your field who might harbour some prejudice about a woman’s hotness hie them to a decent salon and get some clothes that fit, yes, and shoes which do not resemble loaves of black bread. A slovenly academic is likely a slovenly thinker. Good clothes don’t cost that much more.

    Hot is not Ford Model beautiful. One of the hottest women in history, Madame de Pompadour, was not especially beautiful. She was wise and charming and witty, well educated, a friend and confidant of the most powerful men in the world, desired by all who knew her. Her salons brought out the best in everyone who attended. She was a friend of Voltaire, sang well and had a good eye for art. Though only the mistress of a king, she befriended his wife and children. Long after her looks had faded and her place in the king’s bed had been filled by other mistresses, (women she chose for him) she remained friends with the king. Voltaire wrote a touching elegy for her.

    Want to be a professional, folks? Start by looking like a professional. The recent trends in women’s professional attire are a welcome change. The hideous, shapeless pill-infested pullover is the academic equivalent of the burqa. Why shouldn’t women look like women? Men should take a hint here and start looking like men again, with a decent pressed white shirt and pants that fit and shined shoes. As men notice well-dressed women, women are no less impressed by well-dressed men. Our gay friends hereabouts have always known this to be true of both men and women. Though there might be some gay slobs in the world, I’ve never known one.

  7. Every year we get a “script” of things to read the kids by class. First hour is about the attendance policy, second is about safety drills. 4th is Dress Code which is one of my favs.

    At the end of the day there really is only one thing about our appearance we can change on a day to day basis: Our clothes. The idea that people shouldn’t judge us based on what we wear is ludicrious. It’s one of the things we have the most control of. I decide if I’m going to wear jeans or shorts. I decide if I’m going to wear a T-shirt or a button down. There are, yes, some cases where things aren’t that easy, and a student might not have access to a lot of variety in dress. However I think the kid who walks in with ripped fishnets, purple spiked hair, a dog collar and a shirt that says “Suck It Loser” is one of those kids dressing that way out of financial distress….

    Plus the real world does it. I can’t show up for a job interview without at least a tie, preferably a suit. My father had to, at least once, tell one of his secretaries to go home at lunch and change.

    That said, I think that teachers at my level are still too sensitive to dress codes for ourselves. They remember days when “Ladies will wear skirts, men will wear jackets matching their slacks and complimentary ties”. Sadly we’ve got some showing up with flipflops and mini skirts and guys in shorts and T’s. I don’t blame the district admins wanting to put ~some~thing on paper as the dress code…

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