About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wearing clothes, doing work.

This week some parts of the internet have been getting hot and sweaty about what academics wear to work, particularly the difference between what men and women academics wear. Given everything else going on in the world, in universities and in gender relations this seems absurd, and it is a great personal disappointent that I have failed in my attempts to simply ignore it. By way of recap - in his regular column in the Guardian Jonathan Wolff wrote about why male academics are so scruffy, and then Francesca Stavrakopolou responded in a blog post that he had reinsated a 'masculine' dress code as normal for academics, which undermines women in universities.

My inability to simply ignore this ridiculousness stems from two personal issues. Firstly, I spend more time that I would like to worrying about what to wear to work and I think this has something to do with my gender. Secondly, I think that my worries about what I wear to work are also partly attributable to the constant reinscribing of 'masculinity' and 'feminity' in discussion about clothing and fashion. Some days I worry that my shirt is too tight or my skirt is too short and I might transgress the norms of feminine modesty. Other days I worry that my suit is too square and my shoes are too flat and I might transgress the boundaries into masculinity, abandoning the sisterhood and reinforcing the patriarchy. This is nuts.

I was happiest in my work clothes in the first job I had after leaving university. I worked at an aluminium smelter. We were supplied with a uniform. Thanks to carcinogenic raw materials that contributed to the dirt on our clothes, my uniform was even laundered for me. Oh how I long for those lost days when I could cycle in to work in my shorts, stop in at the changing room, pull on a uniform and get to work! The uniform was a light blue, long sleeved shirt and a dark blue pair of trousers, 100% cotton, minimal buttons. Was this masculine dress? No. It was safety clothing, appropriate for the working environment. In fact the reason why I was so happy when I was first allocated my uniform was that I was given women's trousers, rather than the standard cut men's work trousers that I had been forced to wear as a student. This was truly androgynous clothing, which someone else washed and ironed, in blue, which matches my eyes. Heavenly.

Ever since I abandoned that Nirvana of androgyny I have struggled to figure out what to wear to work. I don't want to dress like a man but I also don't want to be judged by my skirt length or breast size. From time to time I think I have found a personal dress code that I can consistently settle in to. Then the seasons change, fashion changes, and my body changes, and I have flipped again into a different zone of my wardrobe. In summer and when I am feeling fat, I tend to wear dresses, usually with leggings to cover up my saggy knees and bulging veins. In the winter and when I am feeling slimmer, I revert to trousers, shirt and jackets. My dress at work is often determined by what events I have planned in the evening - if I am giving a funny talk about sewers in a pub I wear jeans and a t-shirt, if it's a serious dinner with potential funders I opt for a smart dress and matching jacket, for meetings with community groups my dress is somewhere in between. I envy those men and women who have a consistent pattern of dress, and I enjoy having the choice, but mostly I wish I could just get dressed every day without having to worry about how I am constructing or transgressing socially determined gender norms.

Here's the thing. I have had enough of people scrutinising my body, including my clothing, for signs of my sexuality and gender when I am just trying to do my job. I am equally annoyed by claims that women who wear trousers or cut their hair are too 'masculine' as I am by ideas that women should completely hide their bodies at work. I have written before about trying to see the funny side of people who mistake me for a man because I have short hair and wear sneakers. Every time someone ascribes particular items of clothing or styles of hair as 'masculine' or 'feminine' I feel myself further torn between social norms, none of which have ever been kind to me.

Last week I went to buy hair product. The kind of product used to style short hair. In the eighties we used gel. In the nineties it was wax. Now its goop. I went to the 'hair products' aisle of the pharmacy, where I had last bought my 'goop' and couldn't find any. Hair shampoo, hair conditioner, hair mousse, hair spray, hair defrizzing lotion, hair colouring... no hair goop. Nothing for short hair. Then I realised I was in the 'ladies' hair products section. Off I went to the aisle with the blue razors and aftershave lotion and bought hair product in a grey container labelled 'for men'. The good news is that it works perfectly well in my womanly hair. The bad news is anyone who snoops around in my bathroom will now think I have a secret boyfriend. The product is actually for 'hair', but since every single bodily function apparently must be ascribed a gender, I am forced to buy 'men's' toiletries.

I wear size 41 shoes. That's a ladies nine and a half in Australia and a seven or eight in the UK. I am just on the right side of the limit to ladies shoes sizing, except when it comes to sneakers. Like 'hair product', sneakers were originally conceived as androgynous. Sneakers were for doing sports or casual dress. Now, we have men's and women's sneakers. Women's sneakers only go up to about a size 40, just too small for me. Sneaker manufacturers rightly judge that the number of sales they will lose from size 41 women who refuse to buy a 'man's' sneaker is small enough for them to risk compared to the cost of producing a whole extra size for a relatively small group of consumers. This is sensible. Sneakers are after all androgynous. Except to sneaker sales people. These people are trained to sell one line of sneakers to women, and one to men. When I walk into the sneaker shop and start browsing on the 'men's' wall, I am politely directed to the 'women's' area. When I protest that my feet are too big for women's sneakers, the sale assistant usually ignores me, and I submit, entertaining the possibility sneaker manufacturers have changed their strategy and started making bigger 'women's' sneakers since the last time I went through this gender-bending ritual. The sales person then brings me several of their biggest pairs of women's sneakers. I try them on, and we all agree that they are about half a size too small and I am allowed to start trying on the 'men's' sneakers. I have been wearing 'men's' sneakers for all of my adult life (when I was a kid, I think they were just 'sneakers'). Does this make me 'masculine'? No. It does not. It makes me a person who wears sneakers.

In case you had any doubt, my worries about what to wear to work are bordering on pathological. A few months ago I got dressed for work, looked in the mirror and thought 'oh God, I look like Mark Miodownik', a colleague at UCL Engineering (also on the tellie). I look like a man, but does that necessarily mean that I look 'masculine', and does it matter? Mark does not strike me as someone who is uncomfortable with his gender, and maybe his style is just a little bit 'feminine'? The Miodownik dress code is something like this - sneakers (neutral), jeans (neutral), flowery shirt (girly), jacket (blokey). Jeans and sneakers first entered mass fashion in the sixties and seventies, as androgynous items of clothing worn by women's libbers and sexual revolutionaries. Mark, like many men these days, wears shirts that my Dad would think too girly. Men's fashion might not have caught up to Grayson Perry yet, but it has become more feminine. And the suit jacket gives an air of respectability, which might have been masculine once, but that doesn't mean it is only accessible to those who are male. On balance, I think it a fairly gender neutral style of dress, one that works in the university workplace.

Most days I wear my 'men's' hair product to work. Some days I wear dresses and shoes with heels, other days I wear my 'men's' sneakers. When I put my sneakers together with a pair of jeans, a shirt and suit jacket according to some I am falling unwittingly into the 'masculine' uniform of academic work. I am not. I am a person wearing clothes, to do work.