Friday, December 25, 2015

What to Wear for Academic Interviews, or How to Dress Like a Man Without Looking Like a Man

Wearing the Computer Science "uniform."
I first became aware of the problem when I took a female faculty interview candidate out to lunch a few years ago.

"Deciding what to wear to interviews is a real challenge," she had told me. "My advisor knows what the male faculty candidates should wear, but for me he had no clue."

Indeed, professional dress is a difficult problem for women, especially those in male-dominated fields. As psychologist Virginia Valian writes in Why So Slow?, men have a professional "uniform," but women are always "marked." While men's clothing is intended to help men blend in, women's clothing is intended to help women stand out.

Stands out in CS.
Unfortunately, standing out does not often help women in science careers. I have heard otherwise well-meaning male faculty members at MIT say the following about female candidates:

"She just doesn't... look like one of us."

"How can you take someone seriously when they are wearing heels?"

And so I came to understand that in order not to have my clothes jeopardize my chances of being taken seriously during my own interviews, I needed to forget how I was taught to "look professional" and instead solve a difficult constraint satisfaction problem. I needed to somehow achieve man-level blending in without looking like I was blatantly cross-dressing (which, I've been told, would also make me stand out). This was a particularly difficult problem for me because I am fairly particular about what is "my style" and my style is not particularly mainstream.

What an MIT professor typically looks like.
Towards solving this problem, I solicited some advice from my professors, who all happened to be male. The advice consisted of confusing heuristics for blending in with men:

"People should remember you, not your clothes."

"Never, under any circumstances, wear a skirt."

"Wear exactly what a man would, but the female version."

What I found more helpful was asking women who had been on the job market (thanks, Claire Le Goues, Raluca Ada Popa, and Franzi Roesner) what they wore. (To my relief, none of them told me to dress like a man--and in fact described outfits that sounded relatively feminine.) Claire taught me about the general idea of coordinated separates. Claire taught me that it's okay to repeat pants. Claire gave tips about modesty (nothing too form-fitting; avoid displaying skin). Claire alleviated many of my concerns by telling me it was all right to wear the "exact same outfit" for every interview. (Thanks, Claire, for being a more senior female academic in Computer Science and also my friend.)

At an event with AtlanticLIVE.
Keynoting a conference in Vegas.
Synthesizing advice from my female colleagues, the advice to dress "the way a man would," and my own fashion inclinations, I put together the following main interviewing outfit: gray blazer (Theory, acquired for under $50 at a thrift store and tailored for under $100), patterned button-down (Brooks Brothers, on sale for under $100--the pattern was also my "flair" item), black theory dress pants ($100ish from the Theory outlet, then tailored for $30ish), and black oxfords. (I had two pairs of oxfords, a beautiful pair by Donna Piu that I never broke in and a pair from Camper that I ended up wearing.) I particularly like oxfords because of how masculine they are. When I sent my groupmate Nadia a photo, she told me I looked like Doctor Who. I liked this outfit so much I continued wearing it for all speaking engagements, to the point when my mother offered to buy me a second shirt. (No shame in wearing the same outfit every day, Mom!)

Outfit is versatile; good also for cutting cake.
Following Claire's advice, for the second day of two-day interviews I wore a different button-down shirt with a sweater. Starting around this time, I have begun acquiring a collection of button-down shirts and pullover sweaters. I particularly like the men's section of Uniqlo; the men's section of J. Crew is pretty good too. I like buying men's clothes because it allows me to have clothes that fit me like the clothes of my male colleagues fit them. (In fact, I am pretty sure a male professor was wearing the exact same shirt as me at a retreat I went on.) I also have a couple of shirts and a cardigan from Everlane. (It's definitely not necessary to go as far as to buy exclusively men's clothing, but I found this to better suit my preferences.)

My other professional outfit.
In figuring out what to wear for interviews, I also acquired a more out-there outfit that I also wear for professional situations, but was never brave enough to wear for an interview. The outfit centers around a pair of black Rebecca Taylor pants that are what I consider to be a sartorial parody of men's suit pants (photo here). (I acquired them from Nordstrom Rack online for ~$100 and had them tailored for something under $100). I wear them with a loose-fitting silk button-down (I have one from Everlane and one from a thrift store from the 80s) and pointy John Fluevog flats. (The pants need to be paired with something more feminine than oxfords. John Fluevog is, by the way, a great shoe designer if you want interesting, functional shoes with an edge. Unfortunately, the shoes are usually a bit too aggressively stylish for a job interview.)

Looking professorly with my former professor.

Here's a summary of the main advice points:
  • What you wear matters.
  • Male mentors don't always give the most helpful fashion advice.
  • It's possible to wear clothes you like that are also professional, even if you are a woman.
Of course, there are more ideal worlds in which things are less gendered and/or people accept people who have different fashion orientations. (And one would hope that the dismissals of these women's appearance doesn't completely invalidate their professional achievements.) Until then, it remains a fun game for women in male-dominated fields to navigate the narrow space of fashion choices available to us. Would love to hear what other women do.


Roopsha said...

Great post, hilarious title!
I haven't yet started thinking about what to wear to my interviews. But it appears I should put some thought into it. My personal style is minimal, classic and comfortable, and carries me quite seamlessly through most professional and social engagements in my life. I do put a bit of thought into a "talk outfit" and make sure I have a large enough pocket for the microphone's wireless transmitter. Most women's pants have frustratingly tiny pockets and I often end up wearing skirts or dresses with larger pockets to talks - oh, the sacrilege! I also avoid wearing a blazer as I am never really comfortable in one. So I am afraid my typical talk outfits are not very academic interview-appropriate.
Does your talk uniform solve the where-to-stuff-the-wireless-transmitter and how-to-be-comfortable-in-a-blazer problems?

P.S. The European CS community seems to be much more relaxed about women scientists dressing and looking like women.

Jean said...

Good for you for wearing skirts and dresses!

I've been told wearing a belt with a dress makes it much easier to clip on a wireless transmitter. Blazers also often have pockets and are thus often a good candidate.

As for feeling comfortable with blazers, getting one that fits can go a long way. The big distinctions between blazers seem to be number of buttons and single breasted vs double breasted. (There are also smaller distinctions, like the number of panels they used to put the blazer together.) It may be helpful to read online about what kind of blazer is best suited to your body type. It may also help to try on a lot of blazers at different places until you find one that fits. If you have a three-button blazer, the buttoning rules are sometimes-always-never (top->bottom), and it's more casual not to button at all. Two pieces of advice I've been given about blazers are: 1) you don't always have to button it, but you should always be able to button it if you need to and 2) tailoring helps a lot. In recent years I've found a good tailor and it's made a difference!

Tami said...

Nice post Jean.

I noticed your hair is tied back in all of these photos. Is that an additional effort to downplay your femininity? I've worried a lot about what to do with my hair, and I think I'll opt in the future to tie it back, if only for neatness. Not sure why it hadn't occurred to me before.

I'm not sure if shopping in the men's section is a great idea for every body type, but perhaps I'll give it a look before the next interview.

Can't tell if dressing for interviews in biology is more or less difficult. There isn't as much pressure to be masculine to fit in. Yet, unconscious bias against women remains and there is a lot of pressure to be likeable. That being said, I'm probably going to go with my nice black pant suit for a long time. And look into getting a pair of Oxford's, and into tailoring my blank pants so that they can be worn with flats.

Jean said...

Thanks Tami!

Yeah, tying my hair back definitely helps downplay my femininity. After hearing so many looks-specific negative comments about female job candidates, I try to avoid superfluous reminders that I am a woman. (After one job candidate interview, someone said, "Well, at least her hair looked nice.") Also, multiple people have mentioned that playing with one's hair is "distracting"--and it's pretty much impossible not to touch your hair at all if it's down.

I don't think I recommend shopping in the men's section for interview clothes, but it's definitely an easy way for me to achieve the "male academic uniform" of button-down and pullover sweater for an everyday professional look. Definitely not for every body type though!

Norman Ramsey said...

Regarding hair: as a man with long hair, I was advised "they should remember you, but your hair" (thanks Anita Jones). I "stealthed" it by braiding, coiling on three back of my head, and hairpins. This stuff is silly, but it matters. (Disclaimer: long hair for men is far more common today than when I last did a national search for a faculty position.)

A.L. said...

Really interesting! I'm in a neuroscience lab that's half computational, half electrophysiology, and for the first two years, I made it a point to always wear skirts and dresses and have my nails done (it's what I was used to wearing, but also I wanted to make it blatantly obvious that I'm ok with being feminine in an all-male lab). Got to the point where a male colleague once commented that he's never seen me wear pants. Now that I'm much farther into grad school and much more tired all the time, I've started wearing a pants-based daily uniform just for ease. I've always struggled with simultaneously wanting to blend in and be one of the guys, which seems very important when it comes to job interviews, and with wanting to just say fuck it, you all can just deal with the fact that I am a woman and different from you and this does not detract from my intellect or abilities.

Angela said...

My number one priority is to feel comfortable and confident in what I'm wearing. Along with my audience, I don't want to be distracted by what I am wearing. I don't normally wear skirts, so I probably wouldn't feel comfortable in one for an interview. I also want to feel like I look nice in what I'm wearing, which will help me feel more confident when I'm interviewing or giving a talk.

Ayrat Khalimov said...

wow, never thought, that is so complicated.
If you like skirts, imho, dark "business-style" skirt with dark tights should also work
(dark so that those parts do not steal attention. Of course, depends on surrounding)

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