Jonathan Wolff’s column 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.
It’s well known that the suit conveys authority and power in the workplace in overtly masculine ways. You only need to look at the tie, pointing insistently to the male crotch, to recognise this.
So when a man wears a suit, he is simply adopting the standard uniform of a conventional authoritative masculinity, as Grayson Perry recently noted in his description of the great white male. But if this form of dress is also the default academic uniform, what should a female academic wear?
In my experience, many choose to adopt feminine adaptations of the standard uniform: a shirt and jacket, with a smart skirt or trousers. This can be a help at conferences, when the obligatory name badges still tend to sit in holders designed to be clipped to a man’s jacket pocket or lapel, rather than hung from a lanyard around the neck. But I’ve been told by some women – particularly junior colleagues – that they dress like this in order to be “taken seriously”.
The implication is that dressing in a more conventionally feminine way is somehow more frivolous, and can undermine perceptions of a woman’s intellectual and professional skills. Dressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us: a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious academic, because a woman can’t be both attractive and intelligent – if indeed she can be intelligent at all.
But even when a woman wears a suit in the academic area, she’s not immune from similarly loaded and critical assumptions. I’ve overheard conversations at academic gatherings in which female colleagues have been described as “power-dressing” – coded language used to accuse a woman of asserting herself in overly-ambitious ways.
How different it is for a male academic! When he wears a suit, he’s simply perceived to be professionally and smartly dressed. He doesn’t need to “power-dress”: by virtue of his being a man, he is already powerful.
This is why a male academic can afford to look scruffy if he chooses: no one will question his intellectual or professional authority. Male academics who wear jeans, hoodies and t-shirts are “lads” to their students, and “good blokes” to their colleagues. Older men who wear scuffed shoes and a fraying tweed jacket, accidentally accessorized with a splodge of egg yolk down their tie, are “eccentric” or “distractedly intellectual”.
But a female academic who looks similarly casual, or scruffy, or unkempt, risks becoming the target of a range of sexist assumptions: she must be a student, or a mother distracted from the job by childcare, or a woman too old to need to bother about her appearance.
These assumptions are obviously not isolated. The unspoken dress-codes of academia are simply a reflection of the wider policing of women’s bodies in other professional contexts in western society. No matter what their occupation, women are still frequently held to account for their appearance, rather than only their expertise and experience.
Like an increasing number of female academics, I refuse to wear the male uniform. And as a result, I’ve sometimes been criticised or advised by both men and women (academic and non-academic) when it comes to my appearance.
I dress smartly but not formally for work. I wear what I’m comfortable in – both physically and socially. But for some, my heels are too high. My hair is too long. My smart jeans are too modern. Apparently, for some people I look too “glamorous”, or too “feminine”, to be an academic.
Even when I’ve stepped into the media in my role as an academic, my appearance has caused confusion, leading one TV critic to remark: “Clearly whoever commissioned a three-part series on Biblical scholarship for BBC2 was entirely indifferent to the fact that it would be presented by someone who looks as if she’s shimmied out of one of the hotter passages of the Song of Solomon”.
Essentially, the message is the same: unless women dress modestly and conservatively, they look out of place in academia, because fundamentally, they don’t have the right bodies to be academic authorities.
This infuriates me, and I refuse to accept it. My intellectual abilities as an academic should be judged on my work: my research, my publications, and my lectures. This is how I have earned and now own my place in academia, regardless – or in spite of – my “feminine” appearance.
Francesca Stavrakopoulou is professor of Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the University of Exeter – follow her on Twitter @ProfFrancesca