This article on CBC, referring to a New Brunswick school district that has imposed a dress code which includes a ban on blue jeans, has provoked a predictable split in response: some decrying the shackles of impersonal, objectifying business dress and others linking professional dress with an aura of respect and civility. I’m going to put my perspective on this out there because, well, because that’s pretty much the point of having a blog.
I’ve had this fight with my wife before; she’s a teacher, and she believes firmly in presenting herself well in every aspect of her life, including her classroom. I don’t know what her response to this dress code announcement will be, and I’m not sure whether it should be legislated or not. But I do accept her argument that whether we like it or not, whether we believe it should be that way or not, we are judged by our appearance. And as a group, teachers would probably be well served to present themselves professionally as a way of enhancing their esteem among members of the public.
I came to accept this argument, which I originally did not, as I took a hard look around at academia. I love academia, and I love science. But academics in many fields (obviously not those in areas like law, business / economics, or the like) have traditionally been hostile to the idea of anything above a clean pair of jeans. Frankly, some of my fellow grad students and the faculty around me even seem vaguely hostile to “clean”. The argument is seductive: science is about merit, about Truth. It doesn’t matter what you like look, it matters what you say. If your ideas are good, then all is well.
I reject this, and suggest instead that if your ideas are good, they’re accepted in spite of your presentation and demeanour, not because of it or even in ignorance of it. At the last conference I attended, a big name in biology stood up and gave one of the key note addresses. Unfortunately, he chose to preface his talk with a rambling discourse on a hot political topic which had exactly zero relationship to the content of his remarks. It was clear that the audience humoured him simply because of his eminent status; if I had tried the same thing in my fifteen minute talk, I would have been speaking to a suddenly empty room. (I use that only as an extreme example of how an unprofessional manner can be tolerated, not because I disapprove of his actions; honestly, I was kind of amused by the whole thing, or perhaps even a little embarrassed for him).
As I said, it’s an extreme example, but those who think that it doesn’t matter what you wear or say if you’re really smart are simply fooling themselves. Social psychological / sociological / economic research has consistently shown that attractive people have an edge in many areas, including job success. I would never suggest legislating a dress code at any level of academia, but presenting yourself well can never hurt your standing and can only enhance it.
All the above aside, I do my best not to judge on appearance. I do believe that the ideas should be judged on their own merits, I just don’t know if I’m always successful. And I don’t believe that everyone else is, either.