Is androgyny in academia a deal-breaker?

By | August 20, 2010

file under: let me in, coach–I’m ready to play


Earlier this summer,  I got my hair cut very short in what can accurately be described as a boy style. I know this because after the haircut, I was immediately and consistently mistaken for a boy.


photo of my short haircut

closeup of my haircut

I was surprised and thrilled to be mistaken for a boy, for reasons that are sort of hard to explain. I enjoy performing gender in ways that confuse people. I love seeing a boy with my face when I look in the mirror. I’m not trying to ‘pass’ as a boy, and most people figure out quickly enough that I’m actually female. But I love that moment of fumbling. I love that double-take. I love it even when I cause myself to do a double-take when I’m brushing my teeth or checking my hair.

Even though I love my boy cut, I’m considering growing it out. It has been suggested to me, more than once, that a masculine haircut will make it hard for me to do my job.

If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m an educational researcher–a doctoral student in a Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. This means I work with teachers and administrators, and it means I present research at conferences directed at educators and at researchers. Ultimately, it means that I will be facing a hiring committee whose job it is to decide whether I can or will be allowed to do my job. I take my work extremely seriously, and I’m extremely ambitious.

But I’m also deeply political. I believe that my work, my words, my actions, and my body are sites of local and global battle toward a more just and equitable culture. The political life is a life of struggle, large and small. It can be no other way.

The question, then, becomes: On which combinations of struggle should I focus my energy and time? If it’s true that, as others have suggested, teachers are less likely to respect me, less likely to take me seriously, if I present with an androgynous hairstyle, am I doing more harm to myself and to the educational issues that matter to me than if I fought the gender battle in different ways? If my physical appearance makes me less likely to attain a tenure-track job, am I simply fighting the wrong battle?

Of course, these questions assume that something as trivial as a haircut can make me lose the respect of academics and the attention of educators. I suppose the jury’s out on that one, although at least on the academia front there’s some evidence that appearances and gender performances do matter, and more than we would like. (There’s this article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about why the writer didn’t trust that a [male] academic who wore an earring could possibly serve as a university president, and of course there’s continued evidence that academics who exhibit visible symptoms of femaleness such as breasts, ovaries, or a woman’s name are less likely to get tenure, get published, and get promoted in academia.)

Which is sort of fine by me. I’m basically not happy unless I’m fighting something, and the institutionalized gender biases of academia are pretty much right where I plan to land a sustained smackdown.

What makes me worried, though, is the possibility that I will struggle to gain teachers’ respect and attention. So far, none of the people who have warned me about teachers not taking me seriously have actually been teachers, so I’m not sure if there’s just a general assumption that educators are conservative without evidence to support this assumption. Or maybe some teachers and some administrators really would be taken aback by an androgynous researcher.

What do you guys think? Should I be worried?

2 thoughts on “Is androgyny in academia a deal-breaker?

  1. Charlie Thomas

    I suspect that there are some professions where normative gender expression is more-or-less a must. I have to wear a suit to court, even on those days when the femme half of my genderqueer nature is kicking up. I mean, I can’t bloody well wear a suit one day and then a dress the next (in part because I have cankles and look *horrid* in a dress). But in academia? I cannot fathom why a haircut would be problematic in higher education.

    PS- I *like* you as a boy. :-)

  2. Ironicus

    Can’t speak for others, but it probably would matter much around here. Wouldn’t wear that wife beater you’ve got on in the first photo though.
    Ironicus
    PS: “Here” is Michigan State U in case you forgot.

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