Saturday, April 17, 2010

Projecting Versus Performing Professionalism


blue "embossed" cotton dress (J. Crew)
necklace (gift from husband)
cream cardigan (Ann Taylor)
brown woven stretch belt (Forever 21)
snake print platform heels (Nine West)
taupe polish (OPI You Don't Know Jacques!)

I can't believe Anne-Marie posted her snakeprint heels yesterday, before I got the chance! : )  We found them on super clearance last summer and bought them in different colors, but I have only worn them a handful of times.  I wore them earlier this week, though, for my Master's Project Defense.

At first, I thought I would wear a very "professional" outfit for the defense.  Then I decided against it because the professors on my committee know me better than anyone else on staff, and they've worked closely with me on the project for the past year.  So instead of trying to dress in a way that would project the professionalism I've demonstrated to them all along, I put together an unabashedly girly outfit that I loved.  I wore my favorite dress, my favorite nail polish, and one of my favorite pairs of shoes.  I thought the comfort and confidence I felt about this look would help me to absorb any criticisms they might offer and respond professionally and thoughtfully.

Unfortunately, I crashed and burned in this outfit.  During the defense, my (male) reader said he had some criticisms about my paper, but wanted to assure me first that he recognized and admired all the hard work I had put into it.  I was emotionally overwhelmed by the praise that preceded his questions.  I tried to stifle my tears, but by the time he got to the criticism, I was wiping them off my cheeks.  I know this made it seem like I couldn't handle criticism, when really, I think I would have responded to straightforward criticism much more easily.  This complete breakdown of professionalism is still so troubling to me (even though I passed the defense) that it's hard for me to admit it here, but I think it raises some interesting questions.  Afterwards, when I tried to explain myself to my (female) director, she said that many women in academia have to learn to get used to their own work being taken seriously.  She thinks women are more likely to expect criticism than praise, which was certainly the case for me.

I've never thought very much about dressing in a way that would help me take myself seriously; I have always been more conscious of projecting professionalism to others.   I can't help wondering, though, if I might have felt more prepared to accept criticism and praise had I been suited up in a tailored, pressed, professional outfit.  If I'd been wearing a jacket over something structured, I would have been performing professionalism in a way that I simply was not in this look.

  • Does your own experience indicate that women have a difficult time accepting praise for their work?  If so, why might this be?
  • How conscious are you of performing professionalism as opposed to simply projecting professionalism?
  • Any stories you'd like to share about looks you've worn that have crashed and burned?


pince-monseigneur said...

I know exactly how you feel...I think a big challenge we face is not taking the criticism too personally. We spend so much time working on these projects, they really are like our babies...and when we hear critique we struggle to separate ourselves from our work. As cheesy as it's a learning opportunity, and when you're in a similar situation again, you'll know what you need to prepare yourself for.

On another note...I love the outfit, and I don't know that what you were wearing would have made much of a difference.

Scholar Style Guide said...

I think the distinction between performing and projecting is really interesting. Could we look at that distinction as one between how we internalize the clothing and image that we present (performing professionalism) and how an outfit presents some sort of armor that shields our vulnerabilities (projecting)? I've never really thought about that divide, and I think the terminology you assign is spot on.


Sarah said...

First off, congrats on passing your Master's defense! My defense is on Tuesday so keep your fingers crossed that all goes well. Interestingly, I am also not going to wear a traditional "professional" outfit for my defense. I have a suit but feel like it's a little too stuffy for my personality. But there are always ways to personalize an outfit with accessories and small pops of color. Scientists typically aren't creative with their outfits, especially during their defense, which often times results in some dowdy, ill-fitting assemble. I didn't want to fall into that category!
I think I will feel more like me in my selected outfit but at the same time since it's not a suit or sheath dress I will be self conscious, wondering what others' think. Maybe I'll do a small post about my outfit as an addendum to yours. That is, as long as I'm not too hung over from celebrating!

Sarah said...

Please excuse the apostrophe on others.

Scholar Style Guide said...

Thanks for the feedback!

P-M, I think you are definitely right about being more prepared next time, and it's nice to know I'm not alone here.

Sarah, good luck with your defense! I'm sure you don't need luck, though. I would love to have you do a post about your look, even if it means waiting for you to recover from your celebrations to write one up! : )

Katie, I think of 'projecting' as a way of demonstrating my capabilities to others. I think of 'performing' in the post-Judith Butler sense-- that by doing something repeatedly it becomes a part of a naturalized understanding. So in this case, my choice to dress professionally almost all the time means I have begun to take myself seriously while simultaneously demanding that others take me seriously.

This leads me to question why I thought I'd be more comfortable in an outfit that felt less professional. While I agree, P-M, that the outfit itself didn't make a difference, I think my attitude toward the way I was dressed might have. I wish I'd worn an outfit more like my conference presentation look, which was definitely me but still felt like a performance of professionalism.

I hope I get to the point where I feel confident about myself as a scholar no matter what I'm wearing, but this experience has helped me to realize I'm not quite there yet. In a field where one needs to learn to overcome a perpetual feeling of inadequacy (none of us can *ever* read enough), it seems to me that clothing is one way I have found to help manage that feeling.


D said...

I've had to present at large conferences, and my advisor made me practice beforehand. She severely critiqued me in front of all my superiors, and *almost* made me cry. (I think, the only reason I didn't cry was because I wanted to kill her). Weeks later, I realized that the critique was not a personal attack on me, or my capabilities, but rather the attitude scientist/researchers have. To these people, the most important thing is to advance the field. To add something new, etc, so when they critique, it isn't about your personal research, but about how your research can move the field forward. They care very little for individual feelings, and are always looking at the big picture in the research.

Congrats on the defense!

A side note, when I present I always wear tailored pieces. Not a suit, but a tailored pencil skirt and a tailored short sleeve button down. No jacket. And I add a dose of personality by mixing subtle patterns like glen plaid, herringbone, tweed, or swiss dot, and an interesting watch.