Female students in ‘sexy’ clothes seen as less competent

Dressing ‘sexy’ can negatively influence perceptions of competence, effort and performance, finds new study

January 31, 2019
Source: istock
Dressing up for a graduation ceremony may send out the wrong message to academic assessors

Young women can be “penalised” in academic assessments for clothing that “creates an unconscious bias in people who are judging” them, according to a study.

In Italy, graduation ceremonies sometimes require students to present and defend a thesis to a committee of five to seven professors. This takes place at a formal event, in front of family and friends, where it is usual to dress up for the occasion. The mark obtained is then added to the grade point average from previous academic work.

Fabio Fasoli, lecturer in social psychology at the University of Surrey, is “interested in how clothing can communicate information”. Such graduation ceremonies therefore provided “a perfect context to see what students decide to wear and how people who observe them presenting in that context judge them”.

The results of his research have now been published in an article in Frontiers in Psychology, on which Dr Fasoli is the lead author.

The first stage of the team’s work “illustrate[d] the risks associated with sexy clothing during thesis defense and graduation”.

Thirty-seven female student volunteers were asked to dress up in two different outfits, one “professional” (trousers or semi-long skirt, shirt covering neckline and breasts, jacket and flat shoes) and one “sexy” (short skirt or mini dress, low neckline and high heels). They were all photographed twice, thesis in hand, in exactly the same position.

These images were then submitted to 573 participants, including fellow female students, an adult population and professors. All these groups, according to the study, revealed a form of “outfit bias” and “attributed more thesis points and a higher final mark to the students when wearing a professional rather than a sexy outfit. The same students were rated as having put more effort into their thesis work when dressed professionally.” Analysis suggested that “participants ‘penalised’ students dressed sexy because they perceived them as less competent”.

The researchers then wanted to know “whether the perception of the students’ outfit could explain their actual thesis points”. For the next stage of their work, therefore, they obtained genuine graduation photos from 114 female students. What emerged was that “fewer thesis points were assigned to students whose attire was judged as more sexy” (or more masculine), although clothing choice predictably did not correlate with GPA and therefore genuine academic achievement.

Their findings, argue the authors, indicate that “the outfit students decide to wear for their graduation can have tangible consequences”. Dealing with “the pressure of choosing an outfit that is considered appropriate to the event, matches observers’ expectations, and also fits their personal goals (eg, appearing beautiful and expressing the self)” required “remarkable acrobatic skills” of young women. It was important that they be made aware of “the potential negative consequences of self-sexualisation for academic performance”.

“You might be penalised because of what you are wearing because that creates an unconscious bias in people who are judging,” added Dr Fasoli. “It would be good if employers and professors got some training about the fact that they may be influenced by clothing even if they are not thinking explicitly about it.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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