It’s 2019 and January is (just) behind us. Which means it’s probably time for another survey of people’s responses to women’s appearances. We had so many last year, largely about women in make-up and what this means for their careers. So, what could the new year possibly bring? Well, we haven’t heard that much about people’s opinions of women on their actual graduation day, before they’ve even hit the job market (where they’ll likely find themselves endlessly fighting for equal pay – hurrah!), so let’s go with that? Oh, don’t worry – that very study has just been published in Frontiers in Psychology. What a gift.
Scientists from the Universities of Surrey, Perugia, Padua and Lisbon examined the response of 573 participants to photographs of 37 female graduates wearing a range of different outfits, which were organised into two categories: “professional” and “sexy”. The former category consisted of trousers or a long skirt, a neckline-covering shirt, jacket and flat shoes, while the latter was made up of shorter hemlines, “exposed” neckline and heels. Apparently, the stylist for this entire endeavour was a headmaster from the 1950s, but I digress. Participants were, upon seeing each photograph, then asked to rate each of the students based on their academic performance, their future career prospects and whether they would have chosen the outfits worn in said photos.
No offence, Frontiers in Psychology, but am I the only one who considers this to be a waste of time? I think we all know what’s coming, but I’ll tell you anyway. Scientists found that people were more likely to consider that the women would achieve successful careers when they were dressed in “professional” attire, not “sexy” clothes. Ah, the academic study. That old chestnut.
The more we all see women in positions of power and influence – and a diverse group of women at that – the more our inherent perceptions may start to change
There were two further studies, each very similar to the first but using different groups of participants. But I’ll save you some time – the results were always the same: women wearing “professional” clothes are taken more seriously. Would somebody mind passing me some sort of clubbing device, so that I may bang my own head against it? For beyond studies such as this, the subject of women’s dress is having a serious impact on their lives more generally. What a woman wears is still often brought up during rape trials, for example, perpetuating the incredibly offensive (and archaic) narrative that women are “asking for it”, making them responsible for an act of violence carried out against them.
Only last year, during a rape trial in Ireland, the style of underwear worn by the young female claimant was brought up in court. As Amy Corcoran wrote for The Pool, “In this week’s case, counsel was just short of saying the complainant was ‘asking for it’ because of the underwear she was wearing. ‘You have to look at the way she was dressed,’ Senior Counsel Elizabeth O’Connell, defending the accused, is quoted saying to the jury. ‘She was wearing a thong with a lace front.’” The jury delivered a not-guilty verdict.
Despite the progress and privilege that exists in the UK compared with many countries around the world, the notion that women’s value is inextricably linked to their appearance is still embedded in the core of our society. Do we really need any more of these studies, when they all seem to tell us a similar thing? Women are still judged in a way that men are not – at least, certainly not to the same degree, or to the point that their careers may be directly affected by it. The more we all see women in positions of power and influence – and a diverse group of women at that – the more our inherent perceptions may start to change. Let’s hope 2019 brings about some of that change.