The differential treatment of women and men in the public sphere

I am not a natty dresser. I almost never wear a tie or jacket. My hair is usually ruffled. My clothes are inexpensive and off-the-rack from department stores that aim at the mass market. I never iron my clothes so they frequently look rumpled and I often wear them until they are so worn and frayed that there is a real danger of holes appearing. I hardly ever polish my shoes, with the result that they look scuffed all the time. I would not go so far as to say that people cross the street when they see me approaching but clearly I am not going to be on the cover of GQ magazine. Disheveled is the word that probably best describes me and I have little interest in putting in the effort to become sheveled.

I know all this about myself but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. One of the reasons that I enjoy being in academia is that one’s appearance does not seem not matter that much to one’s employers unless one has ambitions of rising in the administration. I used to think that it did not matter much to students either, because I have taught many thousands of students and read many student evaluations of my teaching and I can’t recall a single one that criticized my appearance. But I was wrong. It turns out that it matters sometimes and that is if you are a woman. My female colleagues tell me that some students seem to feel free to use the evaluations to critique their hair, clothes, shoes, and general demeanor. As a result, I now notice things that I had been oblivious to before. For example, just yesterday I organized a panel discussion on teaching featuring four faculty members. The three men came dressed highly casually but the sole woman was smartly dressed. I was not surprised because women are always aware that they face much greater scrutiny and that their appearance matters as much as what they say.

That this is grossly unfair goes without saying. And it is not only in the US that this happens. Recently a spectacular case of the public over-reacting to the looks of an academic occurred in the UK. Mary Beard is highly regarded classicist at Cambridge University. On a British TV program that dealt with immigration, she made some remarks downplaying the burdens that loosening immigration laws would have on social services. The responses her comments were wildly inappropriate.

Her remarks, made on Jan. 17, unleashed a torrent of vicious, crude and personal online attacks, many targeting her unadorned style and her long, unkempt gray hair. Anonymous attackers also superimposed a picture of her face on a pornographic image. But rather than retire to her fainting couch (it is in her Newnham office, should she need it), or accept what happened as the cost of being a public figure in the Internet age, Ms. Beard decided to fight back.

Adopting what she said was a “high-risk strategy,” Ms. Beard reproduced on her blog some of the most unsavory remarks and the mocked-up image, which she has since removed.

At first glance, the professor is an unlikely candidate for such impassioned attention. Her gray hair, which she described as “mad,” hangs around her shoulders, which might be draped in a loose-fitting sweater or dress. She often uses tights to display a hint of her personality: on a recent Friday, they were black and adorned with shining plastic stars.

“I’ve chosen to be this way because that’s how I feel comfortable with myself,” Ms. Beard said. “That’s how I am. It’s about joining up the dots between how you look and how you feel inside, and I think that’s what I’ve done, and I think people do it differently.”

Beard is tough and fought back but she should not have to deal with things like this. In an op-ed she reflects on her experience dealing with this abuse.

Why do women in the public sphere face this kind of reaction? I am not talking about the fact that women’s looks and appearance are subjected to much closer scrutiny than men. While that is unfortunate, you cannot stop people from choosing what they want to notice and what to ignore about other people. What I am talking about is why some people fell free to throw those things into discussions when they have absolutely no relevance. And they are usually done in the most vitriolic form.

This has serious negative effects. Women will feel pressured to spend time paying more attention to how they look and speak in addition to what they say. And even with the last, they may hesitate much more than men in saying something that could be considered even mildly controversial because of the disproportionate reaction that it may generate. And even worse, they may not even be able to anticipate what might be controversial or not and thus hesitate to accept invitations to enter the public sphere. After all, Beard was commenting on an aspect of public policy that had no obviously gendered overtones and was making a point that many others have made. She could hardly have expected that it would generate such a backlash. Should we be surprised that women feel discouraged from taking an active role in public life?

I listen to a lot of NPR and they often have experts on various topics. If you listen to the men, they will speak confidently and make flat declarative statements. But if you listen to the female experts, many of them will be more tentative, often ending their statements with an upward lilt, making them seem more like questions, as if anticipating disagreement. I am of course generalizing but not much. Interestingly, I have noticed that the women who speak confidently and assertively are the ones who appear on Fox News, even though they are often not experts on the topics they are addressing. It is also obvious that they have also paid close attention to their appearance.

Why do women face this kind of unwanted and undeserved scrutiny? Perhaps it may be because as a society we haven’t as yet fully come to terms with the fact that women are the intellectual equals of men. There are still pockets of resentment that women are not in a subordinate role but those feelings are suppressed most of the time because nowadays it is considered bad form to express them. But given an opportunity to do so, especially anonymously, and that resentment can spew out like a volcano.

We really need to get over this.


  1. says

    I always found it interesting how Hollywood ritualizes the red carpet dress-up and tear-down routine. It’s contradictory: you should dress up but woe betide you if you miss and go too far or not far enough.

    In Napoleonic times, it was the males who dressed for display. Talleyrand was criticized for being a frump, and Murat’s peacock antics were lauded. And in Rome, Julius Caesar was considered a bit of a dandy for combing his hair.

    It has always seemed to me that those who are not actually busy accomplishing anything sometimes have free time to worry unduly about the appearance of those who are.

  2. Rachel says

    Why? Because then (generic) you would actually have to engage with them, and discuss their ideas on their own merits. And we can’t have that.

  3. bubba707 says

    Actually our society hasn’t changed much since the dark ages. It’s still barbaric and murderous while the excuses have only become more dishonest.

  4. Jared A says

    It’s good to bring up this problem, Mano. Do you (or other readers) have any suggestions on how to improve it? The obvious things are to not contribute to that culture, and to chide others for doing so. Is that actually enough?

  5. Mano Singham says

    I don’t know what more we can do, actually. These things are deeply ingrained in our culture and take time to change. Oddly enough, the very virulence of these reactions may be an indicator of progress. There was a time when such disparagement of women was done casually as a part of everyday life. You could assume and say that a woman’s place was the home and not seem like a Neanderthal. Because of that, such attitudes were not repressed. But now the culture is such that such things are no longer acceptable in polite society and so they are repressed in some people. And repressions can emerge in an ugly form when released.

  6. smrnda says

    I was thinking that the ability to hide anonymously these days might drive it, but there’s enough critiquing women’s appearances that is not anonymous and done very visibly in the press so that’s definitely not it. I think it’s just a refusal on the part of some people to actually deal with what women think and say – the critic isn’t complaining so much about a woman’s opinions, but, by focusing on her attire, is complaining that she’s even expressing them in the first place, with the underlying assumption being that women should look pretty and shut up.

    Speaking of academia, I have seen very confident women there, but it’s sort of a friendly audience situation in which you can count on more people listening to you care about what you say than how you look.

  7. Ann says

    As an academic the only times I’ve seen women who looked as casual as the men around them when working or giving a presentation…is if they’ve been around that particular group awhile. I find I put a lot more thought into what I wear when I’m talking to a group that doesn’t know me either. It’s a no-win situation too. You will get lambasted for being too dressed up and dismissed (either way) for being too casual.

    I’m sure it’s far better than it used to be and I think the only way to change it is to be aware and call others out on it.

  8. garnetstar says

    I once received a teaching evaluation that read, in its entirety, “Professor Garnetstar is a professor at X university. She should dress like one.”

    And yes, my colleagues are offended if I make flat statements. I have to consciously try to make myself use the “diffident declarative”.

    The only thing that seems to ameliorate this at all is women achieving parity in the field. Women are 50% of biological chemists, and that sort of thing occurs much less frequently to them.

  9. junglekat says

    I once received a teaching evaluation that read, in its entirety, “Professor Garnetstar is a professor at X university. She should dress like one.

    I realize the following obvious observation is obvious, but it seems to me that if you are a professor at X University then you are, by definition, dressing as much like a professor at X University as anyone possibly can. You can’t very well not dress like yourself, after all.

    But yeah, this kind of bullshit pops up everywhere. I went to law school with a woman who was criticized by a judge at a moot court competition because her hair (in a neat bun, so as not to get in her face or be distracting) was not “ladylike.” Unprofessional would strike me as a valid appearance-related concern, but not ladylike? At least now I know that rather than frittering away my time on things like going over my notes and making sure I’m prepared to advocate effectively, I should spend my time on more productive activities like making sure I’m sufficiently pretty. Unfortunately, while my education taught me a great deal about constructing an effective legal argument, it never did a damn thing to prepare me for the swimsuit competition.

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