Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Female Academics Should Emulate Old Farts?

In the latest edition of Inside Higher Education, law professor Erik M. Jensen opines on the need for faculty to dress up to his (or actually his mother's) standards. His advice for women, under the heading "The Sex Question":

1. Avoid poufy sleeves.
2. Dress frumpily.
3. Act like an old fart.
Dress frumpily? I would think simply "professional" would be good enough, as long as your goal isn't to play down the fact you are female and/or young. Of course Jensen is also coming from the law school perspective, where perhaps it is reasonable to expect the faculty to follow the dress code of law firms. In the sciences, wearing a suit or dress is a sure sign that the wearer is doing administrative tasks, since it's simply not practical to do field or bench work in non-casual garb. But even women in law firms aren't expected to "dress frumpily."

Amusingly, Jensen asks and answers: "Are pants acceptable? Of course, in the right climate at the right time." It's hard for me to take seriously fashion recommendations from someone who thinks that pants on women are only occasionally appropriate.

At the Inverse Square Blog, Thomas Levenson points out that this isn't just about professionalism:

It’s not just the usual conservative faux nostalgia for a better, more golden age. This is an attempt to defend a particular vision of academic privilege from hoi polloi — and not just any polloi at that. If you read the dreary passages of his essay one thing becomes clear pretty quickly. The professoriat that needs to dress well shares a certain property — their Y chromosome.

To be sure, Jensen has noticed the presence of the odd strangely Y-less person who has somehow gained access to the Faculty Club. But those few misgendered anomalies are not, in his peculiar vision, required to dress well.

Rather, they must dress to emphasize their desexed condition, the better to preserve the fantasy of the way things ought to be.
It's not just dressing in a sexless fashion that's problematic; it's the advice to "act like an old fart". Not only are the "old farts" unlikely to have young children, they are likely to have a wife that takes care of all their household duties. It's the attitudes perpetuated by the old farts that makes academic life so difficult for women, particularly those with children.

Jensen actually didn't come up with this list himself. He approvingly cribbed this advice from Emily Toth's 1997 book, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. It appears, though, that his reading comprehension was apparently lacking, because Toth replies in the comments:
As the author-channeler of Ms. Mentor, I do bristle at the characterization of her fashion advice as merely “frumpy, old farty, not poufy.”

In fact, her advice in _Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia_, in her monthly _Chronicle of Higher Education column_ ( and her forthcoming _Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia_ (U. of Penn, late 2008) is far more nuanced, clever and chic in its own fusty way.

As she says in a recent column:
In recent generations, real-life scholars have moved closer to mainstream fashion norms. For job interviews, almost everyone wears black, beige, brown, or blue. Women usually wear pantsuits, or dresses with jackets; men usually wear jackets and ties (and pants). But away from the job market, fashion eccentricities tumble out: piercings, tattoos, depraved haircuts, voluminous or tiny clothes, and squirrel ears.
She recommends against standing out too far by having too many tattoos, piercings or too much visible cleavage, which sounds more reasonable than Jensen's characterization of her advice. That being said I do believe it is more difficult for women than men to figure out the boundaries of appropriate dress - not too young, not too old, not too sexy, not too formal, and apparently, not too feminine.

Tags: ,


Karen James said...

Thank you for writing this. I punched the air in agreement several times (agreement with you, not that sexist, classist ivory tower snob Erik Jensen). As a woman in academia (more specifically science), I am a big fan of dressing for the occasion. If the occasion is pouring an ethidium bromide gel, then a "pants-suit" (blech) is not practical. On the other hand, if the occasion is a job interview, then perhaps the dreaded pants-suit should be stomached. On the very best of days, dressing for the occasion might even look something like this (cross-posted from a Beagle Project Blog comment from Miriam Goldstein):

Miriam Goldstein said...

Hee, nunatak, I'm flattered! Of course, Pisaster sea stars is fine for daytime, but for evening I'd go with a nice Pycnopodia.

Peggy K said...

Nunatak: I totally agree that the key is to dress appropriately for the occasion. Jensen seems way out of touch as to what appropriate means in an academic environment. (and from that photo, starfish make the perfect accessory!)