Shenda Collins, who has worked as an image consultant for clients ranging from corporations to groups of the unemployed, was startled by some of the things she heard while running self-development courses for employees of the University of Oxford.
"I have met Ph.D. scientists who are scared about looking in any way feminine or attractive," she said.
One told her: "If I don’t wear Tesco T-shirts and jeans, then I just won’t be taken seriously."
Another "wanted advice as to whether I thought she could wear to work the attractive flat boots she was wearing that day – or were they 'too much?' "
A third admitted she was "not comfortable with the idea of wearing a jacket," since that would make her "look like an office worker."
All these highly intelligent women, said Collins, “do not feel free to choose how they dress: they are restricted by the dress-down code they have intuited. It may be unspoken, but they hear it loudly.”
She added: "I have been told by academic women that if you look as if you pay attention to your appearance, you will be perceived as frivolous and less worthy of respect. The fear is that you will not be taken seriously – or, even worse, be mistaken for an administrative assistant."
Baffled by what she called "the current 'jumble sale' approach to dress," Collins warned that the stance could have deleterious professional consequences.
She cited a survey that showed that "if patients did not like doctors’ appearance or manner they were less likely to trust them or even take their medication. Jeans were associated with a lack of competence."
It was natural, therefore, that doctors who also have academic positions "seem to follow the more traditional business dress code."
While most of those who seek her advice are women, Collins also has had the opportunity to offer her insights closer to home.
Her partner, a scientist who works as a professor at the University of Edinburgh, "has welcomed my input over the years – requested, not imposed."
She added: "The bright Hawaiian shirts were the first to go, replaced by shirts in colors and patterns that suited him. This means people pay attention to him and not his shirt."
But despite this improvement and even the advent of a suit and a briefcase, Collins noted that "the sandals remain."
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