Does Good Looking =/= Not Serious?


Dr. Charlotte Uhlenbroek, a PhD in zoology, says that for women to be taken seriously they must look frumpy. She says this, at least in part, of a result of newspapers calling her “Tarzan Babe” and “Lara Croft.” Please note that one of the pictures is of her laying back in the grass, not exactly an academic pose.

So, what do you think? Is it true that women academics must look like frumps to be taken seriously?

My thoughts on the topic:

Yes, women have often had the problem of being sexually objectified. That’s old news, though it still happens today, even in (especially in?) academia.

Especially in academia?
Especially in academia? Is it a problem there more because that is what I know, being an academic, or because traditionally we are traditional and cling to the old ways more than the new?

Men’s problem
Women’s objectification is a problem for women, because it keeps them from being taken seriously. But it is not a problem that women can solve. Men have to decide that women are more important as people than they are as objects. We can’t do that for them.

My students are working on a proposing a solution essay and they will not be writing about that one because it is neither a small, local problem nor one which can be fixed by a small number of people.

Perhaps if most men and all women worked together to make objectification objectionable it would go away. But that won’t happen any time soon.

Good looking is a plus.
When you are looking for a job, being good looking is a plus. Given two equally qualified people of the same sex, the better looking one will get the job offer. There is plenty of research on the topic, though my research into the topic is so old it isn’t even saved on this computer but is a print-out from graduate school.

Except when it’s not.
But even if good looking is a plus in general, there will be situations in which being good looking is a detriment.

If you are looking for a nanny position, you probably won’t get hired if you look too hot.

If you are looking for a subservient (maid or secretary) position, you may get hired and wish you had not.

I would assume, though I have not done research on this, that it would also be a detriment to be a good-looking woman who is being hired as or is the manager of a large group of men. While I know the stereotype is that blue-collar workers are more likely to be aggressive in that situation, I know plenty of white-color men who would also be idiots.

Looks versus dress
Obviously if a person is good looking then the only way they could look frumpy is to dress in a frumpy manner.

This might mean wearing long skirts, shirts that are untucked, glasses, hair up in a bun, or baggy clothes (though all of these can also be sexy, depending on how it is done and who is looking).

Many women choose to wear this style of clothing. Sometimes this is because that sort of clothing is comfortable.

Sometimes it is worn due to safety issues. That is, many women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed do all they can to not look sexually appealing, not realizing that it is not their sexiness but their vulnerability that was the issue before. Dressing in a frumpy manner may actually exacerbate their air of vulnerability. (I have not studied this, but as an academic who works with sexual assault survivors I know that looks are mostly irrelevant.)

Discounting women
Sometimes people, men in general but even other women, will discount a woman holding a position of authority because they are sure that the position was gained in a sexually-related manner. This is more likely if the woman is beautiful or if the position is fairly high up within the organization.

Often in academia students, young men particularly, will concentrate on the looks of a professor rather than her qualifications. In my experience, and that of my friends, this is only true for women academics. And, also in my experience and that of my colleagues, there is no level of attractiveness that accounts for it.

Many of you have experienced this as your students refer to you as Mrs. or Ms. and to your male colleagues, with or without PhDs, as Dr. or Professor.

This leads right back to the question I started with: is it true that an academic must dress in a frumpy manner in order to be taken seriously?

Must clothing be frumpy in academia?
Based on my experience at five colleges and universities, I would say no. It is not true. Not within the academic community.

Academics value research. In some venues (SLACs and CCs) they value teaching. They appreciate (or don’t) a colleague’s conference presentations, work, and interest in their work. For academics looks may be an item of sexual attractiveness, but it is not–or at least, I have never seen it be–a detriment to a career.

So why does Uhlenbroek say this?
First, Uhlenbroek has been called those things, not by academics, but by the media. That makes a significant difference.

Second, Uhlenbroek says this because she has been successful in pursuing her interests and sharing them with the public. Often academics (the older they are the more true this seems to be) believe that only other academicians will be interested in work that is solid and reliable and so any popularity garnered in the press, print or digital, is discounted.

Looks are an easy target.
Third, even when academics believe that work is solid, they can still be jealous of a colleague’s success. It is easier to disparage a person for her looks (which are obvious) than on the quality of her work, particularly when that quality is high.

I believe that Uhlenbroek has experienced prejudice in academia. I don’t actually think that her looks are the cause of that. Instead, I think her looks are the easy target for disparagement and discounting.

It does say that academia still has a problem in that looks, even though they don’t impact work quality or job searching (except in a positive way), can still be a weak link in a reputation.

I don’t think dressing frumpily would stop this problem, though. Beauty is visible even in baggy clothing.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that a person who is being disparaged for their looks should NOT dress in a frumpy manner. Doing so allows the disparagers, the nay-sayers to win. Instead, she should dress as she prefers, within the dress code of her university or conference or employer, and continue to be as forthright and upfront as she has ever been.

That is the only way that women’s looks will eventually cease to be an issue at all in academia.

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