Women have a right to wear what they like, says university professor ANNA WHITTAKER
Does it matter what people wear to work? Yes and no. Clearly, the appropriateness of our clothes depends to a degree on what the job is.
Someone who works with young children, playing with them on the floor, or whose job is to physically assist older people, is unlikely to wear a short dress and heels.
In our modern world, where some MPs don’t wear ties while in the Commons and where Gwyneth Paltrow appears in court in a cashmere jumper that a mum might wear on the school run, this feels like an issue that shouldn’t be bothering anyone .
But the question of what a woman should wear has suddenly involved me in a global social-media storm.
It all started a couple of weeks ago when I was in Puerto Rico for a meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society – an organization whose mission is to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.
The question of what a woman should wear has suddenly involved me in a global social-media storm, says Professor Anna Whittaker
Anna Whittaker: I chose a Reiss dress that’s sleeveless and relatively short. Also, it’s quite forgiving – given that I’m 45. I also put on my best Jimmy Choo high heels. For the reception, I put a little smart jacket on top (pictured in the outfit in question).
As a professor of behavioral medicine, I had delivered several talks and was getting ready to attend a reception, to be followed by a banquet and dance.
Proud of the work of my fellow delegates, I got ready to socialize.
As the temperature on the Caribbean island was very high and I didn’t want to get too hot dancing, I chose a Reiss dress which is sleeveless and relatively short. Also, it’s quite forgiving – given that I’m 45.
I also put on my best Jimmy Choo high heels. For the reception, I put a little smart jacket on top.
To me, my outfit wasn’t outrageous.
However, it was clearly outrageous to two men who walked behind me as I went to the reception. I overheard them saying things like ‘Oh, she always dresses like that’ in a very derogatory tone.
I turned round, looked at them in disbelief and they scuttled off in different directions.
Shockingly, both men knew me, so they knew fine well that I am good at my job regardless of what I wear.
I am a university professor working in physical activity, psychoneuroimmunology and psychophysiology, and have won several research awards.
I am a fellow of both the British Psychological Society and American Psychosomatic Society, and senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
That didn’t seem to matter to those two men with their sneering, sexist and ageist slur about my dress, or maybe that was the problem…
As someone with a Scottish heritage, I uttered under my breath a Scots phrase appropriate to those men: ‘Awa an bile yer heid, ya jealous eejits.’
As a user of Twitter for more than ten years, finding it a useful tool for work, friendships and keeping abreast of the world, I decided to share my experience and posted the selfie I’d taken of my outfit for my husband before heading out that evening.
I expected perhaps a couple of people in my research group might have liked it, or a woman who’d experienced something similar might have retweeted it.
I never expected the reaction it has had. The tweet has been viewed 1.1million times. I wish I got that reaction to my research!
Maybe the reaction is because half of the population is female and have experienced something like this and aren’t feeling great about it either.
Typical of the supportive comments was this: ‘Women like you are inspirational and show that we don’t have to sacrifice our style and personality for success. Thank you for being yourself!
Another said: ‘You are a lady of a certain age and an intelligent professor. Fly your own flag.
‘This is really unacceptable on every single level. I’m so sorry! said another.
Inevitably, there were the odd dissident voices among the sisterhood. As another female Twitter user said: ‘Some women love to hate other women.’
There were also comments about maybe the men had a point. I replied and thanked them for their opinion and for continuing the prejudice.
Sadly, there is still a common perception that professors are older men with a beard and glasses. But I had hoped things were changing and that people were more aware that perhaps a professor can be younger, female and not always wear a suit. Maybe, too, they can wear high heels and a nice dress and go dancing.
Why does what I, and other women of any age, wear matter to other people? Is it envy? Is it jealousy? As long as what anyone wears is fit for purpose, it shouldn’t matter.
I often think we in academia are fortunate that we can wear what we like to a degree. But after what I have just endured, it seems you can’t, especially if you are a woman.
Even if some people are still struggling to get rid of an innate, old-fashioned bias about what others should wear, I believe they must work on it or just keep their unpleasant views to themselves.
Most of the rest of us, with our evening dresses and Jimmy Choos are making the effort…