wearing what I want

It is one of those times when the blogosphere is talking about how leadership and professional identity dovetail with clothing choices. I love those times.

Me, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the leadership angle of fashion choices (though I expect now that I’ve been elected to the LITA Board I will be). But one of my singular little joys is when people say “you’re dressed up today!” and I say “yeah, work” and they are just about to nod in understanding and then do the double take of “…wait! You work from home!”

It’s true. I do. My dress requirements get as far as “should put on a shirt before the video call (but not necessarily pants)”. And yet most days I’m wearing this cozy sort of business casual with a twist of nerd, outright feminine though not too girly. With actual accessories. Often even a jacket.

Here’s the thing: somewhere in my twenties I had this blinding realization that I’m not in high school any more and therefore I do not have to pay attention to stupid social boundaries like “there are people who like math and people who like clothes and never the twain shall meet”.[ref]So I mean I really like math. Ask me about the Cantor diagonalization proof sometime if you want to see me totally nerd out. It’s so elegant![/ref] And it’s taken me a long time to operationalize this because I have no innate taste, so I had to spend years studying style in a data-gathering nerdly way, and then I was spending all my money on grad school (and didn’t have the skill or kid-free time to pull off the stylish-via-Goodwill route), but now, here I am, necklace and portrait collar and wedge sandals and all. And it turns out, the more I’ve gotten into code, the more clearly feminine my style has gotten.

Because I like crossing boundaries and challenging stereotypes. Being a woman in tech at all challenges stereotypes. But then you get here and the men wear jeans and nerdy t-shirts and the women wear jeans and nerdy t-shirts and…huh. I am super glad that geekdom provides a home for women who are fed up with gender-normative performance, who are happier being androgynous or genderqueer or just not giving a damn (and maybe not even, while we’re at it, wearing the term “women”). A lot of my friends, no matter their anatomy or chromosomes, are happiest being somewhere outside mainstream conventions of gender performance, and that is awesome.

But it is not awesome if the unstated rule in slinging code is that, if you’re going to be female, you’d better not be obviously or conventionally female. That, you know, girls who code are cool and all, as long as it’s not too hard to pretend they’re guys. That we’re still in a space owned by guys, which girls get to enter if they play by guy terms.

I feel like I can challenge more stereotypes, from more directions, as a woman with a development environment and a skirt than I can as a woman with a development environment, full stop. And I thrive on that.

It turns out that the stereotype I challenge most is my own, of me. I thrive on that too.

Now I don’t think I get to play with these boundaries for free. Clothing choices still carry social signals, even if I’d rather they didn’t, and I can choose to dress in ways whose signals aren’t wholly accurate, but I can’t choose not to be misread for it. I do feel lucky to be in a position where I can dress more or less how I want, but I find the parts of this conversation I’m most interested in are the instances where people feel they can’t — where the social and professional consequences for misaligning signaling and role or identity or body politics are too big to take on. I’d like to hear a lot more from those voices.

And maybe over time, by dressing to be, yes, socially aware, but ourselves as much as we can, we can push this envelope outward, create more space for people to signal and be more variegated things, yet still unquestionably be seen as belonging inside the boundaries of “coder” or “leader”…

12 thoughts on “wearing what I want

  1. While I know little of fashion, I’ve become very fond of using it to explain critical thinking. Inspired by Gerald Graff’s essay “Hidden Intellectualism” (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/pedagogy/v001/1.1graff.html) and a talk by The Fantasy Football Librarian I heard at LOEX-West a few years back, (http://www.fflibrarian.com/) I’ve used supposedly non-intellectual pursuits like fantasy football and fashion to help students see that they already DO critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis in the things they are passionate about, but they may just use a different vocabulary to describe them. When I can get a class to explain why they would choose between a pencil, a-line, or tiered skirt to go with a particular outfit, then they’ll have used critical thinking to solve a problem using evidence. After that, writing an essay is simply repeating the process with other data.


      1. There’s not much to it, it’s more of a guided conversation than a lecture. I just pay attention to what the students are wearing and ask questions about what makes a good outfit in ways that don’t single them out. I try to help them identify key aspects (color/season, year, cut, texture, pattern, accessories) and guide them to explaining what aspects go into choosing a good outfit. (Colors match each other and your skin tone, cut matches body type, choices match current fashion trends, etc.) Then I explain that in their writing, I want them to analyze and draw conclusions about course content in precisely the same way. My point is to show them that they already know this and already do complex reasoning tasks. I just want them to be intentional about recording their choices and justifications.


  2. I’m someone that still struggles with overdressing. Before libraries, I came from a very corporate profession (legal, which I often call Lawyer Land) with very strict dress codes – we had certain times of the year when we could be business casual five days a week, other times it was just Fridays, and JEANS WERE A BIG NO-NO. I’m now in a more casual environment, and I still struggle with the idea that it is OKAY to wear jeans to work.


  3. At some point in my first few years as a Junior Engineer, I realized that I have a lot more fun being a crack engineer in skirts and knee socks than in slacks and poorly-fitted button down shirts. In my office, nobody seemed to care, but some of our business partners tended to underestimate a young woman in a skirt who happened to be taking meeting minutes (remember, kids, winners right the history books, and it’s causal in more ways than one).

    I shamelessly took advantage of this on one particular site visit. None of the supplier’s people saw any reason to deny me access to the hardware, or to keep me from taking pictures and asking questions of the people on the floor (which our formal inspectors almost never get to do, because the floor people are prepped to direct questions to their manager when inspectors come). When I came back the next day with 200 ways the hardware was in violation of the specification, their jaws were on the floor…


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