Where’s the use of looking nice?

October 19, 2012, 3:09 pm

“Where’s the use of looking nice, when no one sees me but those cross midgets, and no one cares whether I’m pretty or not?” – Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Like many others, I was appalled when I saw Dario Maestripieri’s comments on the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of women at the Society for Neuroscience conference. Janet Stemwedel wrote a really nice post about what is wrong with this behavior and why we need to address it. This casual sexism is far from unusual in academia – in fact, we see it pretty regularly. There’s just no winning for women in academia – if you’re unattractive, then you’re a bad female. But if you’re attractive, you’re a bad academic.

Cat wearing a dress

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Beauty is, arguably, as much about presentation as it is about genes. Most people have the capacity to look very attractive. Maybe not super model hot, but still attractive. Of course, only women are expected to take advantage of this capacity, and are disparaged when they do not.

When women in academia DO make the effort to look attractive, it can have very negative consequences. I think most women pick up on this pretty quickly in graduate school. If you wear heels and makeup, you must not be very smart, or at least not very serious about academia. (Because girly girls can’t do science!) Some women who put an effort into their appearance when they start graduate school later change when they realize how differently they are treated from the male graduate students. (It may not even be a conscious decision. Besides, who has the time?) And if the disdain from peers and professors is not enough to encourage an attractive women to change the way she dresses, well, the appallingly sexist teaching evaluations from horny undergraduates will usually do the trick.

When I go to a conference or other academic event – especially if it’s an event where I am likely to be one of the younger attendees – I take care to dress in a way that will not distract from my science. No bright colors, no prints, nothing feminine in any way, nothing cute. Certainly no cleavage – black turtlenecks whenever possible! I want to be taken seriously for my work, not ogled and assessed for my potential reproductive possibilities.

Being considered “hot” by a sexist male academic is not high on my priority list – not when I’m at a conference, and not any other time, either. If I were super model hot, however, I doubt it would help my career.

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