For many years now, basically since I was in charge of my own hair, I have had long hair. Before that (circa 1984) my mom always told her friend Sandy who cut my hair to leave it no longer than shoulder length; I have three sisters and my mom did not want to mess with that much hair. I longed for long flowing locks, preferably straight and blond. Thus, ever since I have been in charge of my own hair, I have had long, wavy/straight hair, though I have not gotten around to the blond. I never thought much about my long hair, at least in terms of my career, until I went on the job market.
In 2004-2005, I went on the market for the first time. I was also pregnant that year, and I am not one of those women who can hide a pregnancy. I had my son in May, so at the time of my interviews in January and February, I was pretty pregnant. I ended up going on four on-campus interviews, but did not receive any of the tenure-track offers. What happened I wondered? One university in particular stood out to me. The department chair had told me several times – “you are clearly our first choice”. The chair could not have been more complimentary to me, as were others in the department. But when the chair called to tell me I didn’t get the job, the chair said the faculty vote split between me and another candidate, so they hired no one.
The next year at my annual conference, I saw the chair, whom I had really liked. I asked “what happened?” The chair proceeded to tell me about the faculty meeting where the decision was made. The chair said, in all seriousness, that one of the faculty had said “she flipped her hair too much during her job talk”, and basically implied that I was “flighty”. I do not remember if the chair used the exact word “flighty”, but basically the chair implied that several faculty members thought that I was ditzy. Reeling, I expressed shock, and the chair followed-up with “Well, I just said ‘she’s pregnant’, you need to cut her a break.”
Hence I really resonated with Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s column in the Guardian Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. She suggests that in academia, feminine means frivolous, and what is more feminine than a pregnant woman with flowing locks and – gasp – makeup. She says “a senior female professor suggested I should wear long skirts or looser trousers and tie my hair back (or better, put it up altogether) because attendees would be able to concentrate more carefully on what I was saying.” Perhaps this was true for me. The following year, I applied to two jobs, got an on-campus interview for one of them, and armed with this advice, a pony tail holder, and a pant suit, I got the job. I also brought my breast pump, but you can hide a breast pump easier than you can hide a pregnancy.
Professor Stavrakopoulou refuses to accept the idea that “unless women dress modestly and conservatively, they look out of place in academia, because fundamentally, they don’t have the right bodies to be academic authorities.” I refuse to accept it too – now that I have a job and tenure. What would I tell my graduate students? I would tell them – go conservative if you really want the job. Or, and maybe this is smarter, go for it, and if you get judged for “flipping your hair” and this causes you to lose out on the job, thank your lucky stars that you didn’t get that job – like I have.