Sunday, December 9, 2012

Women's attire at the AGU Fall Meeting

by Kim Cobb

Every year before the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, there is a flurry of conversation in my mostly female lab about what to wear. I understand that this was also discussed on the Earth Science Women’s Network listserv. For someone who has never been, it is impossible to know what to expect. This is science after all, and geology at that, so much of the online guidance about corporate conference attire is off-base. As women in earth science, it is especially difficult to balance several competing aims when packing for AGU. First and foremost, AGU presents a unique opportunity for professional development– one that is particularly important for younger scientists. Getting a job after graduation requires making a name for yourself outside of your lab. Presenting a polished, put-together appearance reflects a seriousness of purpose, self-confidence, and shows respect for the collective scientific efforts on display at AGU. Add to this the intuitive understanding that attractive people are at a distinct advantage in our society (see supporting research here and especially here), and these drivers would in isolation push women towards the coordinated, tailored suits that are so common in corporate settings. It is important to remember that science is an arena where individual intellectual accomplishment is highly valued, so there is more latitude for personal style than in corporate America.
However, several important factors push AGU women’s attire in the other direction, closer to the average AGU men’s outfit of jeans paired with a pullover sweater. Most obviously, attractive young female students are likely wary of distinguishing themselves from the sea of male colleagues by calling attention to their femininity. And then there’s the whole “geology” subculture:  rock hammer-toting, North Face-wearing, “I’m-so-busy-solving-earth’s-mysteries-that-I-hardly-have-time-to-shave”. In this world, a Mac laptop is a fashion statement. Finally, some recent research (summarized here) has uncovered a distinct bias against the hiring of attractive women in male-dominated fields. If young women are subconsciously aware of such a bias, it will also push them towards a more androgenous look.  

What follows is my attempt to provide some guidance for young women beginning their careers in geoscience, especially as they consider conference attire. It was also really fun to collect these images from well-dressed women scientists, as a fashion aficionado myself. I didn’t know most of them, so you can imagine the reaction I got when I asked to take their picture for an AGU fashion blog! They turned three shades of red and giggled nervously. Some preferred to remain anonymous, while some, like my esteemed colleague Adina Paytan, reveled in the spotlight. I owe a big thank-you to these ladies, who were great sports.
Below I present several looks and discuss why I believe they make successful AGU outfits. [Update:  Many readers have bemoaned the lack of pants featured here. I love wearing pants to AGU myself, and I in no way meant to suggest that one must wear a skirt and/or boots to AGU to look "acceptable" or fashionable.]
Lynn Soreghan, Prof. Univ. of Oklahoma. I love the
effortless-ness of the outfit, impeccably accessorized,
with matching coat and boots. It's "earthy" but modern,
 and the vest adds a touch of academic elegance.
Jen (awake) and Annie (asleep) Pierce, Boise State
University. What can I say, there is nothing that says "I'm a fearless female scientist" like a baby in a sling paired with some incredible red boots! Great wool skirt too.

Yours truly, sporting my new, ridiculous(ly cute)
Italian shoes. Matching bag is a coincidence. I do like
to wear skirts at AGU, most often with a plain,
unmemorable, but well-conceived (and warm!) top.
Here, it's all about the accessories.
Anonymous. I think this outfit hits all the right notes. She
looks nerdy and interesting, but attractive, in a Euro-styled aesthetic that is made particularly memorable by, once more, great red boots. I like her hair worn down here, which softens the look. 

Anonymous. I saw meters and meters of scarves at AGU,
whose gifts are on display here. The long skirt is flattering
yet nondescript, while the scarf and coordinated sweater
add interest and draw the eye to her face - a good thing.
Betsy Madden, an all-but-PhD'd grad student at Stanford. I love the ease that this outfit conveys, and the pairing of neutrals with the colorful textured skirt. She certainly seems ready to be at the front of a class.

Sylvia Dee, grad student USC. She is making
a bold statement with the all-black look, which
is very effective against her striking red hair and
blue eyes. The metal-studded flats are a good
choice, adding some playfulness to the ensemble. 
Adina Paytan, UCSC. Sporting a killer blue dress at the
AGU Honor's Banquet. She wears her sunglasses at night.
A brilliant scientist, close friend and colleague, and one
of my role models.


  1. I have to say I have never worn anything near these outfits, and seeing these images made me feel left out. Not to say I don't appreciate this blog entry. I've gone for the jeans or slacks (depending if I'm presenting that day) with a nice blouse and/or sweater. I've never been comfortable in heels/boots or skirts. I can't believe you couldn't find any women who were wearing pants to take a picture of? Many of my female mentors wore outfits similar to what I've described above.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Many thanks for the comment, which is echoed in much of the feedback I'm receiving today. I realized the distinct lack of pants myself in constructing the blog entry. It was unintentional, and the result of the small-sample bias that is such a sticky issue throughout the geosciences! That said, I love pants. I myself wore pants 2 of the 5 days, and of course pants can form the basis for a very stylish (and warm!, as many readers pointed out) AGU outfit. I by no means meant to imply that one has to wear a skirt/heels/boots to be dressed stylishly! At this point, the only way to remedy this is to go back to AGU next year armed with a more scientific approach, as well as to solicit contributions from readers/friends, to collect a large-N sample. Clearly there is an untapped market for a proper series of blog posts on AGU women's attire - who would have thought?

    2. I think this comment and others on ESWN set up a false dichotomy between 'pants' and 'skirts.' You can look fabulous in either, as Kim replied. In fact, the first picture I see on this blog is of a woman looking great in jeans!

  2. This whole piece totally cracked me up! I love your description of the AGU 'fashion' world almost as much as I love your Italian shoes. It always cracks me up that while negotiating the sea of suits, heels and piercings in the SF financial district, the closer you get to the Moscone Center during AGU, the higher the concentration of beards, jeans, flannel and rumples.

    Thanks for adding some humor to my day--I will definitely pass this along!
    Jen Pierce

  3. I loved this post as well! As a woman in science I am also constantly torn with what to wear at conferences, and I have eagerly read all the different advice on the ESWN listserv. While I try to keep things professional and act like what I wear doesn't matter as much as my science, I can't help the fact that I am a woman that LOVES SHOES (yours are great, by the way!) and AGU is a great place to see wonderful professional and intelligent women showing off their different styles! Thanks for this post :)

  4. Also, Lynn Soreghan is one of my committee members and a total inspiration on how stylish a successful geologist can be!

  5. So I am Kim's mother; I am also a social scientist. I have been a dean, a faculty, and an executive director of large well-known programs. And I have suffered over what to wear, how to manage how others saw me, trying to fit within a norm (business suits, slacks) and likely it is no accident that my ENTIRE wardrobe is black! But I have always been a clothes horse, not in quantity so much, as super quality---great tailoring, interesting fabrics, (even though they are black!), and great design. And faculty, male and female, often comment on my clothes. I have a little voice in my head in the am when I dress---can I wear what I really want, or should I keep a lid on it? Can I actually enjoy myself and "dress for success?" But I digress---I really wanted to comment about the blog.

    I really liked Kim's posting because it opened up the conversation about what we wear, why we wear it, and the politics of clothes for women. I think one of Kim's points is that men get to wear clothes that defacto defines the coutours of what is political. They dress as though dress were not important. And for women to not be political in their dress, they have to either dress like the men, or dress conservatively, to fit stereotypes about what women should wear. But most of all as we call out the politics of who gets to wear what, this is the most serious transgression of all, which is why I love this blog---it does just that.

    In the field of conflict resolution, we know that social norms evolve through interaction. When we cannot speak about something, the rules that regulate what can and cannot be said, the rules which govern action/dress get more and more fascist. The only way to open the space for conversation is to do the kinds of transgression all of us are doing, by reading and participating in this blog.

    The transgressions are interesting. Scientists are supposed to be NOT about dress, yet so many of you are speaking about clothes, fashion, color, femininity, styles, feelings, etc. And the folks that typically are allowed or even expected to speak about these things are "real" women who are not scientists. So I love to see how these big stories about scientists and about women are getting destabilized. And in this process, not only can new stories be invented about who we, as scientists and what we can wear, how we can have fun how we present ourselves.

    And of course there is another transgression---normally we do not have mothers commenting on their daughter-the-scientist's blog.

    Keep on breaking the rules!

  6. I loved this post on so many levels. First, it challenges stereotypes of what women scientists "do" or "should" look like. Secondly, the outfits are just plain awesome. Thirdly, you show a nice range of what's possible in terms of conference attire, which many a first-timer agonizes about. I do echo the sentiment that a pair of pants might have been a nice touch, but you cover this nicely in your edits.

    I might do something like this next year at the Ecological Society of America meeting-- and attribute you for the inspiration, of course!

  7. Thanks for sharing! I am always interesting in learning more about popular womens fashion trends to implement with my own wardrobe.

  8. Women with brains and style—they all look gorgeous! Cheers!

  9. I'm sad that I wasn't on the list! I love showcasing my style at AGU. I like to pair vintage items with modern day fashion as well as rocking some great shoes.

  10. Hi! I wrote a blog on this some time ago, The Geology Look ( It's mostly a snarky look at male and female fashion mistakes at AGU and GSA. Thank you for a more constructive look at the whole issue.

    1. Dear Dr. Sledge,
      Many thanks for your comment. I loved your post on this subject. I've been contemplating a tattoo for a while now, so your praise for that fashion choice is appreciated! Keep up the great blogging, folks like you are an inspiration.

  11. This was so helpful! Thank you!

  12. This is great! Conference apparel is about feeling sharp but ready to endure the marathon of talks/chats; to each their own and yay for inspiring others to find their 'power' attire. I just had a Skype with an adviser go to over a draft of an upcoming presentation, and he suggested I check out your blog. Not sure exactly what he was saying about my apparel today... ;-)

  13. Are there any women of color who attend this conference? Interesting blog. I find that we will address gender before we even consider other diversity. Whomp.

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