Women in academia… it’s really all about how you dress

This week has seen a particularly depressing image circulating on my Facebook news feed. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, here it is.

As well as finding it offensive because of its blatant objectification, I find it personally incredibly disheartening. There’s so much written about women in the media that makes me sad, but because of my own doctoral study and the subject of my PhD (for details see the ‘about me’ section of this blog), this story struck a particular chord.

The fact that this ‘costume’ even exists tells us that there are people who think that what’s in a woman’s brain doesn’t matter. The academic endeavours and achievements of women can all be reduced down to this:

womanphdcostume

For me that is what is at the heart of costumes such as this, along with the majority of portrayals of women in the media; the reduction of women to their sexual body parts. This is nothing new- academics have discussed the dehumanising effects of the ‘cropping’ or ‘fragmenting’ of images of womens’ bodies, particularly in advertising, over the last few decades (Miller 1975, Dyer 1982).

I imagine that some will think that it’s just a costume, and not even a particularly ‘bad’ one as they go. However, for me this is just a very pertinent example of how women in society, no matter how much they may have achieved, can be viewed purely as sexual objects.

This media item comes after articles such as Jonathan Wolff’s recent one in the Guardian. It was presumably written as an off-the-cuff ‘aren’t academics eccentric’ piece, but in his proposition that the standard dress for academics is a jacket, trousers and tie he reinforced the notion that women are not seen as the ‘norm’ in academia.

I have taken heart from the excellent range of responses from women to these stories. There was Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter who wrote an excellent response to Jonathan Wolff, speaking of her own experiences in academia and highlighting the main implication made by his article- that “fundamentally, they [women] don’t have the right bodies to be academic authorities”.

Then there were the women with PhDs who commented on the PhD costume being sold over Amazon. Evaluating the product, one woman provided some much-needed humour to the situation as well as hitting the nail on the head: “Like all lady PhD’s, I frequently ask myself: “How could I be sexier?”.

Reading these stories in the last week has reminded me of the statement made by Professor Cheris Kramarae: “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”

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