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.