Challenges of Professional Dress for Women Writing Center Workers

Logan Corey, University of Michigan
Lauren Fitzgerald, University of Michigan
Zeinab Khalil, Columbia Law School
Zoe Kumagai, Chula Vista Elementary School District in Chula Vista, CA
Liliana M. Naydan, Penn State Abington

Five people, each dressed differently, and each holding a newspaper in front of their faces.

Conversations about writing center dress codes may seem straightforward because blazers, slacks, and ties have existed as staples of western business-class wardrobes for over a century and have functioned as a prototype for measuring professionalism in contemporary dress. As Emily Chertoff explains, although “[w]e do not know exactly who had the idea for the first lounge suit (as our modern suit is properly called),” it first appeared “in the mid-19th century” and “quickly became both a casual garment for the elite and a dress-up item for the working class” —especially cis men. It has since become synonymous with appropriate workplace attire. But not all workers rely on or feel comfortable wearing suits, and not all workers in general or writing center workers in particular face equal appearance-related scrutiny. Notions of appropriate attire inherently codify certain dress as normal while paternalistically delineating what forms of dress ought to correspond to a woman’s degree of safety, desirability, and respectability. Hence we suggest that conversations about writing center dress are de facto conversations about feminine presenting bodies and how, when, and why to scrutinize what they wear at work. [1] Whether, as Chandra Talpade Mohanty notes, women are surveilled overtly “in the name of morality” by state-mandated dress codes (133), or whether they are surveilled covertly via everyday conversations that deem some women’s dress more or less appropriate, women must answer for their attire in ways that cis men never have to, particularly in professional environments including writing centers that in subtle and overt ways may work to exclude them.

Emerging out of conversations involving gender in writing centers as Harry C. Denny frames them and also out of research on writing center labor, this essay interrogates the notion of writing centers as feminist workplaces by way of an exploration of possibilities for women workers’ dress and all writing center workers’ conversations about dress. We describe a workshop on dress in writing centers that we gave in 2013 at our university writing center and at the 2014 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW). We likewise discuss our reflections on this workshop: the ways in which having facilitated it influences how we conceptualize and position ourselves now as workers beyond the writing center. Ultimately, we argue that despite the thorny shapes they may take, conversations about dress remain necessary because writing center workers are often undergraduates who are negotiating their professional identities. We posit that seasoned writing center professionals must use conversations about dress as opportunities to showcase gender inequity and the intersectionalities that attire reveals as central to the labor movement—intersectionalities that involve race, age, gender expression, and other visible and non-visible identity categories. These conversations can enable all writing center workers to question broader policies and institutions that shape our professional environments into unwelcoming spaces for feminine-presenting bodies. And these conversations have the potential to invite writing center workers from diverse social identities to shape writing centers as inclusive and accountable workplaces, most notably for women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and trans people of color who constantly navigate the “dangerous intersections” of sexism, racism, and other institutionalized oppressions in their everyday routines (“Dangerous Intersections”).

Theory and Practice in Talking about [Women’s] Dress in Writing Centers

Perhaps because so many women tend to work in writing centers, [2] discussions of writing center dress often emerge as discussions of the ways in which women workers in writing centers dress and ultimately function to inhibit women as they strive to achieve labor equity in higher education. As Denny suggests, “gender and sexuality make possible and intersect with other elements of our individual and collective identities” (89). In the case of writing centers, gender identity intersects with worker identity and academic class status as a type of social status within the world of the university in noteworthy ways. As Emily Isaacs and Melinda Knight report, “writing centers are directed by people in non-tenure track faculty positions predominantly (71%)” (48), and undergraduate and graduate student workers function as “major forces in writing center work in the four-year university” (49). Fels et al. are researching the effects of contingency in writing centers, and their early findings suggest that there is reason for concern about “[d]irectors’ job security and academic freedom”; “[e]xploitation of directors, tutors, and other writing center staff”; “[w]riting center program development, philosophical direction, and longevity”; and “[a]dvocacy and supportive action within the field” (A12). Hence oppressive university labor practices in many ways keep predominantly feminine-presenting writing center workers low on the academic labor ladder in what Marc Bousquet has theorized as the corporate university—an institution that “embrace[s] the values and practices of corporate management” to produce “the return of the sort of dizzying inequalities formerly associated with the Gilded Age” (1). Indeed, women writing center workers may act and dress professionally according to arbitrarily prescribed standards that the patriarchy upholds, but they may still lack treatment as professionals.

Theory and research involving gender and contingency frame and show the significance of our experience of planning and running a workshop on dress at a writing center at which we previously worked and at the NCPTW. Logan Corey initially had the idea for this workshop after a conference presentation she attended failed to reveal the complexity involved with dress. As Logan saw it, this presentation focused on dress in the writing center solely as an internal conflict for tutors to determine personal standards of professionalism. Logan understood the struggle outlined in the presentation but resisted the simple binary of professional / inappropriate. Moreover, Logan came to feel critical of a guideline for appropriate dress in her own writing center that none of the authors of this article took part in institutionalizing. The guideline read, “Wear appropriate attire. Please be respectful of the diverse group of writers we serve by wearing appropriate attire to work. Avoid overly revealing attire (meaning see-through, too tight, or too short clothing) and attire that promotes potentially offensive logos or materials. Jeans and T-shirts are just fine.” What did this guideline mean and at whom was it directed? How did it transcend a request to dress “professionally?” Who or what would be affected by these restrictions: tutors, writers, the writing center community? And how does the approval of “jeans and t-shirts” not so much reflect tutors’ empowerment but constrain their choices?

The workshop Logan initiated is one that other centers might run if they seek to reveal complexity in the subject of dress with attention to gender inequity—the ways in which gender always already intersects with other social identity features, for instance race (because white supremacy has hypersexualized Black women throughout history as a dehumanizing tactic). As a first step in organizing this workshop, Logan identified interested collaborators with the help of Liliana (or Lila for short) Naydan, the center’s director. As a next step, the collaborators developed a workshop to present to colleagues in their center. The collaborators aimed to facilitate a conversation about dress that spoke to tutors’ everyday experiences. Dialogue began with an icebreaker that invited reflection on tutors’ feelings about having a dress code. Attendees also considered other centers’ dress codes and discussed their reactions to these policies. Next, we introduced an activity, which we called the “bucket activity,” that presented attendees with five photographs of tutors at work in the writing center: the first of a tutor in a legalize gay political t-shirt, several political buttons, and jeans of the sort mentioned in the center’s dress code; the second of a tutor in a dress, blazer, and bowtie; the third of a tutor in athletic attire; the fourth of a tutor in a short skirt and tight top; and the fifth of a tutor in a dress shirt with the top buttons unbuttoned and jeans. None of the tutors’ heads are visible in the photographs to mask the models’ identities and the photographs do not assign gender to the models. Attendees then wrote their initial reactions to these photographs anonymously on slips of paper and dropped these slips into buckets arranged under the corresponding photographs. After all slips were submitted, we passed each bucket around the room, picked out slips, read responses aloud, and discussed reactions to comments. Finally, we asked tutors to show their level of agreement with our own center’s dress code via an exploding atom activity: those who wholly agreed with the policy walked to the center of the room, those who wholly disagreed with it walked to the room’s periphery, and those who felt something between total agreement and disagreement positioned themselves accordingly in the space between the center and the periphery. At the NCPTW, instead of asking about our own center’s dress code policy, we asked attendees to express their degree of agreement with having a dress code policy in general through the exploding atom activity, allowing for final reflection before eventual dispersal to individual centers.

We expected that running the workshop both in our writing center and at the NCPTW would lead to engaging conversations, but we were surprised by the range of participants and also the range of comments that these participants made. Under the supposedly apolitical guise of discussing clothing in the writing center, our discussion highlighted divides within our community. Many consultants who typically shied away from discussing issues involving identity, social justice, and politics engaged in the conversation perhaps because dress provided what on the surface appeared as an apolitical entry point—even though dress is inherently politicized. In both our writing center and at the NCPTW, we heard diverse opinions: we heard attendees misgender the bodies represented in the photos, we heard arguments for more modest women’s-wear, we heard support for as well as opposition to uniforms, we heard comments that suggested sexual attraction to one of the models, and we heard comments that indicated frustration with sexualization and slut-shaming. We wondered whether attendees were scrutinizing our own dress as we were conducting the workshop and we wondered whether they were all already scrutinizing our dress even before the workshop occurred. By the end of both workshops, heated conversations continued because attendees discovered the political implications of dress and the fact that their colleagues had very different ideas about the subject. At the NCPTW, we heard debates continue as attendees left the room and we wondered whether our workshop led to conversations about policy changes. In our own center, talk of the workshop dominated our center’s Facebook page and one-to-one conversations Lila had with consultants for weeks. Based on popular demand and her own frustration with the dress code, Lila eliminated the dress code from our guidebook before the semester’s end.

Members of our group who have distinct visible and non-visible identities experienced different feelings during the workshop and also reflected in different ways on how the workshop has informed and continues to inform their identities as women workers beyond the writing center. I, Logan, who modeled the tight top and short skirt for one photograph, am a white, cis woman who identifies as bi/queer. I remember the overwhelming feelings of discomfort and invalidation I had from the response of slut-shaming and dismissive humor as comments were made in response to spaces I should or should not inhabit based on my dress. In truth, this feeling was all too familiar to me because of my experiences as a queer woman, the idea that there is something shameful and distinct that prevents me from entering another space. This feeling still resonates when coworkers use humor in my current professional environment to dismiss the implicit sexualization of a woman’s attire or when I scrutinize the potential implications and sexualization of my dress as I prepare to enter the workforce for the day. I often consider the complex intersection of perceived age and gender in the workplace because I am frequently labeled as young and inexperienced. I’ve had my age called out in professional meetings and I’ve been asked questions by colleagues who attempt to skirt around asking my age directly. Instead, they ask me what year I graduated from college. Mentors who are women have advised me to wear more makeup to address the purported problem of my age and help make navigation of the workforce easier for me. Much like dress, makeup can cover apparent age and foster professional treatment, even desired professional treatment, even when the wearer is perfectly professional without it. However, I have found that the sense of belonging and validation that is so easily diminished by outside judgment based on one’s dress is much harder to throw on again, without the support of those who understand the complexities and intersections unique to one’s identity.

I, Lauren, am, like Logan, a white, cis woman, and my biggest take away from our workshop was the apolitical guise of clothing, which invited people who were usually uncomfortable with blatant political conversations to reveal their judgments. Their thoughts on outfits were actually thinly veiled political views: assumptions about identity and values and judgments of a person’s worth. My realization that clothing is political was a profound one that has stayed with me as I reflect on how clothing affects my work experience as a software developer in the male-dominated tech industry. In the past few years, the gender imbalance in tech has led to politicized conversations surrounding women in tech and broader diversity issues. Publicly, the conversation has exposed structural inequalities and bolstered the creation of support networks for underrepresented identities—even though the movement may inadvertently invite more scrutiny of women in the field. On the personal level, it has made me realize that presenting and dressing myself as feminine is a political statement in my offices, which vary from corporate to laid-back in spirit. I see that tacit, business-casual dress codes that exist in male-dominated workplaces privilege men because when men wear casual clothing to work in tech companies, they are seen as fashion-challenged yet competent. But more often than not, if women—especially young ones like me—dress down or don revealing clothing, their choices and their already contested professional competence are further questioned. As a result, I often worry about what others think of my dress. I worry that an overly stylish look suggests superficiality; I worry that T-shirts and jeans suggest youth and unprofessionalism; and I worry that not wearing a bra suggests that I want to be sexualized. Like Logan, criticism I have received about my dress (especially about not wearing a bra to work) has come exclusively from other women both in and beyond the writing center—women who, I realize, police one another for different reasons: for instance because they consciously or unconsciously articulate patriarchal standards or perhaps because they seek to protect others from harsh judgment of the sort they have received. Regardless, I have found that clothing provides an approachable lens through which an outsider can see how marginalized groups battle with running internal monologues and against the judgments of others as they strive for the professional respect and status that their white, cisgender male counterparts much more readily attain.

I, Zeinab, have had experiences that differ from those that Logan and Lauren have had as white women in that I am constantly denied agency because of my identities regardless of what I wear, though dress may shape the way this happens. Throughout the workshop, I noted how many of the participants who advocated for a dress code conjured a particular respectability politic that uncritically reinforced narrow ideas of a good or desirable tutor–a prototype presumed universal and neutral, when in fact, it is a measure of how the tutor can reach specific gendered and racialized standards of professionalism. These observations confirmed sentiments that I long experienced in the writing center as a full-bodied femme cis-woman of color who wears a hijab. Many students coming in for services would walk right passed me, refusing to think I could be the one offering English writing support. And beyond the writing center, I am routinely subjected to loaded questions and unsolicited opinions steeped in assumptions about my ethnicity, religion, sexuality, education, and politics from people I do and don’t know in public, educational, and professional settings—as though my appearance is at any time readily available for public debate and discussion. Today, I am more attuned to the ways in which constrictive prescriptions of professional and feminine attire in white liberal spaces are normalized and unscrutinized. As a young professional, I must navigate my own identity and appearance in the workplace with caution if I want to be taken seriously in a femmephobic, racist, capitalist society. Because of the constraints of Orientalism, Islamophobia, and misogyny, on any given day I am desexualized or hypersexualized, tokenized or invisibilized—depending on the context. Whether it’s the man who sexually harasses me on public transit in the morning or the woman in the office who is lauded for her cultural appropriation where I would be dismissed as backwards, I am constantly reminded that workplace appearance is not a personal issue but is deeply imbued in power relations.

I, Zoe, am, like Zeinab, a woman of color and my non-conforming gender expression in particular informed my experience during the workshop and informs my experience since it. Because I modeled athletic attire for one workshop photograph, I remember well that several workshop attendees assigned me as male in the photograph, so I continue to reflect on how gendered attire affects my work as an elementary school teacher. Throughout my life, I have dressed myself in different ways, sometimes within gender binary norms and sometimes somewhere in between the norms. As a school teacher, I often wear dress pants, form-fitting blouses, and sweaters similar to many of my female presenting colleagues. I also wear more stereotypically masculine athletic wear or men’s dress shirts because these too, make me feel beautiful and confident. However, I’ve seen others experience bullying because of similar clothing choices, and I’ve been challenged professionally and personally because of gender non-conforming attire as well. For instance, I know a young male student who arrived at school wearing clothing with a Disney princess on it and was found crying later in the day. His teacher explained to me that he was asking to be picked on for wearing that outfit. Somehow his stereotypically feminine clothes made him delinquent to his gender-conforming peers. Similarly, on one occasion when I was wearing a more butch outfit, a colleague commented on my clothes while bringing up a lesbian friend of mine, thus suggesting that clothing choices always already reflect sexual orientation in clear-cut ways when in reality, the relationship between clothing and sexuality is far more complex. And the degree to which clothing choices are a personal issue is complicated, too—because public audiences see and respond to the personal choices we make and thereby influence our identities or our conceptions of our identities. As I see it, it’s important for individuals in professional settings to find a way to balance stereotypically masculine and feminine attire if that’s what they want to do. Indeed, doing so has helped me to express my gender identity in a counter-binaristic, non-reductive way and to connect with my students.

I, Lila, am a white, cis woman who is further along in my career than Zoe and the other authors of this article are, and my age and worker status in particular framed my thinking about the workshops as they occurred and my reflections on these workshops since they occurred. During the workshop as we held it on our campus, I felt some semblance of attention to my dress because as a woman in my early thirties on a contingent faculty line, I was perhaps seen as less professional than my male, tenure-line counterparts. As this writing center’s director, I initially wore jeans and blazers to work regularly, as did some tenure-line men with whom I worked at this particular institution, and I eventually adopted a more professional and stereotypically feminine dress in the form of knee-length skirts and dress shirts in an effort to transcend the diminished professional status that contingency ascribed to me. But regardless of my dress, I never felt as though I had the same street-cred as my male, tenure-line counterparts. As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that I’m coming to encounter further scrutiny about my dress in the workplace—even though I’m now in a tenure-line position. For instance, I recently wore a sleeveless shirt to work when I overheard a female-presenting colleague discuss that sleeveless shirts seem unprofessional for women. Notably, too, during my pregnancy, I was unable to tap my typical professional wardrobe and faced daily comments about my body and dress at work—comments that men never have to hear. When clothing clung to my body near my pregnancy’s end, I was labeled as cute and hence not taken seriously on multiple occasions even though I felt incredibly uncomfortable. As a result of our workshop and comments such as the ones I’ve heard, I consider the dressed body as a text that gets read according to patriarchal standards when any feminine-presenting person enters any workplace. I see that colleagues may see me as less competent regardless of whether I dress in stereotypically professional ways because academia is no enclave away from oppression. And I also see that only activism in the form of articles such as this one and conversations in departments, programs, and centers among colleagues who come from diverse backgrounds as we do will create awareness about the politics of dress and change the way workers think about gender, dress, and competence.

Organizing for Labor and Social Justice

The experience of facilitating this workshop had a profound influence on how we conceptualize our own and others’ dress, on how we position ourselves at work, and on how we conceive of activism, and we have no doubt that other writing center workers who engage in similar conversations will have experiences akin to our own, especially if they face the thorny realities of social identity as theory and everyday life expose them. These conversations have the potential to manifest as trite articulations of a binaristic opposition between what our society characterizes as professional and unprofessional, but progressive and praxis-informed thinking about the subject of dress by workshop facilitators who view the workshop as an activist act can help groups of writing center practitioners deconstruct faulty binaries and push on the limits of our understanding of professionalism. Such acts of deconstruction will help consultants and administrators who are already in the process of shaping their professional identities place an emancipatory politics of gender at the forefront of their thinking.

Indeed, gender inequity and intersectionalities that the politicization of attire reveals—those between gender presentation and, for instance, race, size, class, nationality, religion, age, and ability—are or at least should be central to the labor movement’s landscape if the labor movement hopes to come closer to realizing equity in the twenty-first century. Workers’ social identities inform power dynamics that manifest at their workplaces, and questioning existing policies and the institutions that shape policies and values will potentially make our workplaces more welcome spaces for Othered or Otherable workers, including femme and feminine-presenting persons. This questioning is especially necessary when considering the ways in which bodies of women of color might be exoticized, policed, or even criminalized in and beyond the writing center. For instance, Monique W. Morris has drawn attention to white models of femininity as constraining young Black women by putting them in the binary of “good” girls or “bad” girls that “behave in a ‘ghetto’ fashion.” These stereotypes about “Black femininity” are especially egregious when race, gender, and socioeconomic status intersect because Black women and girls are systematically marginalized and punished in educational environments for dress and promiscuity (Morris). Additionally, Sherronda Brown has complicated discourses on “appropriate” wardrobe by pointing to how patriarchal white standards of beauty and thinness complicate matters for Black women (Brown). As Brown explains, “it is not” Black women’s “clothing choices that are perceived as inappropriate and unprofessional—rather, the bodies that they exist in are seen as inappropriate and unprofessional because of the way that this specific body type has been so sexualized and fetishized” (Brown).

At bare minimum, questioning existing policies and institutions will show those who are most at risk of exploitation that they have allies who will work with them to counter threats they may encounter in their workplaces. And, ultimately, questioning existing policies and values will function as a step toward organizing for social justice beyond the bounds of the writing center and even the university. With real threats to women and workers in general that present themselves continually in contemporary American Trump-era history as it evolves around us, progressive and transformative social movement-building has never been more necessary. As classic organizers such as Saul Alinsky and Lee Staples attest, [3] these social movements develop one small-group or one-to-one conversation at a time. A conversation about the politics of dress and problems with codes such as the one we model for you in this article—a conversation that acknowledges the problem with talking about dress as an apolitical subject—may be a sort of first step that workers in a writing center need to begin to see the relevance of writing center work and writing-centered conversation to progress toward the realization of social justice.

Notes

  1. This idea speaks gender and leadership as Anna Sicari has explored them in presentations and a forthcoming article. We thank Dr. Sicari for informing our thinking.
  2. According to Isaacs and Knight, 73% of writing center administrators are women, suggesting that writing centers function as “a province of women” in the field of rhetoric of composition and, we would add, in higher education in general (49).
  3. See Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and Staples’ Roots to Power.

References

Alinsky, Saul. (1971). Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage.                          

Bousquet, Marc. (2008). How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York UP.

Brown, Sheronda. (2017, Nov. 10). It has nothing to do with clothing — black women’s bodies are hypesexualized no matter what we wearWear Your Voice. Accessed 25 Jul. 2018.

Chertoff, Emily. (2012, July 23). Where Did Business Suits Come From? The Atlantic. Accessed 3 Dec. 2016.

Dangerous Intersections. (2017). INCITE Women of Color Against Violence. Accessed 11 Jan. 2017.

Denny, Harry C. (2010). Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-To-One Mentoring. Utah State UP.

Fels, Dawn, Clint Gardner, Maggie M. Herb, and Liliana M. Naydan.  (2016). Toward ‘An Investigation Into the Working Conditions of Non-tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers.’ Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, 20(1), A10–A16.

Isaacs, Emily, and Melinda Knight. (2014). A Bird’s Eye View of Writing Centers: Institutional Infrastructure, Scope and Programmatic Issues, Reported Practices. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 37(2), 36–67.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. (2003). Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke UP.

Morris, Monique W. (2012, Sept. 17). Race, Gender, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls.  African American Policy Forum Reports. Accessed 24 Oct. 2013.

Staples, Lee. (1984). Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing. Praeger.

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