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.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Minimal Travel Core

Traveling is an important part of being an academic. It's an incredible privilege to be able to go all over the world to places like Fredrick, Maryland*, where I am right now. Travel is also a difficult part of the job. Having to fly around and be immediately brilliant everywhere you land can be exhausting. In graduate school, I liked to think about conference and related travel as "practice" for the "real" job, when I would have to do the same thing at much higher frequency. In the eight-ish hours I spent after leaving my home before arriving at my hotel, I had some time to think about what I've learned.

During travel practice, I've come to see work-travel as a constraint optimization problem. Having a good work-travel experience is all about finding the minimal set of things I need to be happy away from home and satisfying those constraints given the other constraints imposed by having to fly and be away from home.  Finding a good minimal core may involve training yourself to have fewer constraints in general. (For instance, travel has become easier ever since I stopped using shampoo or face wash. But these are stories for another time.)

What I've learned is that for me, having a good time while traveling is all about ensuring that my body has as similar conditions as possible to when I'm home in terms of food, hydration, and activity. For sleeping, I also try to replicate my home sleep environment as much as possible. After much iteration, I have developed the following minimal core for traveling:
  1. Food. Ever since I realized how much eating at the right times improves my life, I  avoid going anywhere without carrying backup food. I usually have more than three meals a day, so I try to bring along 1-2 bars (my current favorite is Kind bars) and fruit. Trail Mix is also nice.
  2. Moisturizer. I used to take it as a given that flying is bad for your skin. Ever since I found the right moisturizers I realized this is not the case. My current system is to moisturize my face before short flights (I like Skoah's face kream) and to apply a light mask for longer flights (I like Skoah's hydradrew mask). What do you know, moisturizer combats plane-induced dryness the same way it combats any other kind of dryness. Moisturizing the body is also helpful.
  3. Exercise clothes. I've realized that I have a lot more trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep when I haven't been sufficiently active physically. I switched to minimal running shoes (I run with New Balance Minimuses) partly because they are easier to pack.
  4. Yoga mat. I purchased the super light, foldable Manduka travel mat when I was living in San Francisco one summer, needed a yoga mat, and was too cheap to buy the non-travel version. I've found this to be one of the best purchases I've ever made. I pretty much take it on every trip, including those that are only 1-2 nights. Even if I don't do a full yoga session, I usually spend some time stretching every day and this is nice for that. Stretching is especially useful if I've spent the day sitting on planes or in meetings.
  5. Lacrosse ball. My former massage therapist introduced me to the usefulness of lacrosse balls in working out knots. Especially if you wreck your body daily using computers, I highly recommend you try it--it's great. (For non-travel I've started using the Soma system, which I also recommend.)
  6. Eye cover and ear plugs. I always find these helpful, but if you are sensitive to noise but live in a quiet place you might find these useful for travel too. The eye cover is less important if you are staying in a hotel. (Light matters! My former roommate acquired blackout curtains after he observed the improvement in my sleeping-in abilities after my acquisition of good curtains.)
  7. Backup alarm clock. I've stopped traveling with this little guy as much, but I tend to get nervous that my phone will die and/or my poor knowledge of electronics will cause me to set my hotel clock wrong, so I feel better if I have a small battery-powered backup clock. This is the one I have.

Here are some other things I've learned over the years:
  • It helps to trick myself into drinking enough water. If I take long flights I'll buy a huge bottle of expensive airport water (and sometimes multiple bottles) to guilt myself into drinking it all. 
  • Temperature matters a lot while sleeping. I observed that temperature is the biggest external factor to negatively affect my sleep. It's not that hard to get the temperature right in a hotel room and can make a huge difference.
  • Hunger and fatigue are only feelings. Sure, hunger and fatigue are supposed to be useful signals, but they are less useful when we are yanking ourselves from one place on earth and zooming ourselves to places very far away. I've found it really helps to force myself to eat and/or exercise a sufficient amount before sleeping.
After reading this post, you may come to the same conclusion that my frequent travel companion Kate did after we had already taken several trips together: "Jean, you are secretly high maintenance, but you take care of yourself." I firmly believe that with the right amount of thought and iteration, even the pickiest of people can be as happy and functional while traveling as they are at home. Would love to hear about your minimal cores to explore this hypothesis!

* I told some of you I was going to Fredricksburg, Virginia. Was off by a few dozen miles, sorry.