A few weeks ago I took part in a panel discussion for which I had to use a headset microphone, with a heavy transmitter. I had not considered this when getting dressed that morning so was yet again faced with an object designed for a default male user, or at least someone wearing a jacket or trousers with sturdy pockets. A silk dress is not suitable – no belt, delicate fabric. On similar occasions, I’ve had complete strangers (technicians) slipping wires and hands down my back as we struggled to find a solution.
Women in academia (women everywhere) are still judged by what we wear. Do we try to blend in with the men, in tailored jackets and dark colours, or do we embrace the range of colours and styles available to us?
At the beginning of my academic career, I attended a workshop at the National Science Foundation in Washington. I was only about 23, and very nervous about taking part. Like many young women in academia, then and now, I wondered what I should wear in order to be taken seriously. I went for a skirt suit, in a very strange shade of green, complete with blouse and pussy bow (it was the 1980s - not the best decade for fashion). Over coffee, one of the American women told me how much she admired European academics, because we are 'so casual'. Clearly my effort to dress how I imagined a professional woman should dress was not a success. Maybe it was the lack of make-up or my shoes.
Decades later, young women colleagues still wonder about how to dress when teaching or presenting at conferences. Students sometimes comment on their women tutors' appearance and clothing when filling in evaluations.
There is pleasure to be had in clothing, but sometimes it takes up valuable head space worrying about things that men rarely seem to worry about (judging by the attire of many of my male colleagues - perhaps unfairly). Of course, women should be free to wear whatever we want but we will be judged in ways that men rarely experience.
Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences