GAP’s answer to women’s stalled academic careers: Get cute

A couple of weeks ago a promotional email advertising GAP professional wear for women crossed my path. The ad brought to mind fake reviews for an infamous PhD Costume on Amazon. In my favorite ‘review’ for the sexxxy PhD costume the author writes: “Like all lady Ph.Ds, I frequently ask myself: ‘How could I be sexier?’ …  I can now lecture in my 5 inch gold spiked heels and ‘barely there’ regalia while giving nary a thought to the male gaze and its implications on the prevalence of rape culture in our society.”  In closing, the ‘reviewer’ asserts: “I’m sexy! Forget about the 7 years I spent sweating out a dissertation and engaging in innovative research!”

As a way of selling one of their latest blazers, the emailed GAP ad presented a biracial woman identified as a tenure-track professor. The ad copy said: “Get respect for your ideas and blazer choices.” Visual analysis of the ad illustrates how the typography and graphic design of the ad reinforce the sexist content of the ad’s slogan.

GAP ad The copy’s typography strongly  underlines that what really matters to female professional success is the outfit, not the ideas. The word “blazers” follows “ideas” in the copy, but the bolded text gives it dominance. Italicizing the “and” makes clear that women are expected to garner respect by their clothing choices.

A pair of glasses rests above the ad copy. The glasses are presumably meant to signify intelligence. But given that the glasses aren’t actually worn by the woman in the ad, their presence doesn’t suggest cleverness. It suggests in order to be considered appealing, women shouldn’t wear glasses. After all, isn’t being pretty better than being smart?

The model’s posture conforms to standard portrayals of women. Women are rarely shown in strong or authoritative stances (for example, face on), but typically in angled off-balance positions. In the top right image, the model is shown in full profile. Balanced on her back leg, the model’s hip is cocked out behind her as she runs her hand through her hair. The model smiles at the floor in shy pleasure. This is not a woman standing at the front of a classroom, communicating ideas with authority. Neither is this a woman who just finished presenting cutting-edge science at a conference, nor a woman who just presented a plan for curricular revision to her Dean. This is a woman having an “aw-shucks” moment because she’s so pleased you like her blazer.

As a tenured professor, it’s not surprising this ad campaign hit me close to home. GAP is hardly alone in their portrayal, however. Sexist advertising has a long and storied history.

But for me, what’s especially depressing about GAP’s ad, is that it’s rather true. Ideas and intelligence are less valued in female professors. For example, women are expected to do more campus service. This service is typically devalued, which means women’s academic careers advance less rapidly and less successfully. In a state of affairs I’m sure surprises no-one, female professors are significantly underrepresented in the upper ranks (full professor), and make less than male colleagues.

Discrimination isn’t restricted to pay and promotion. It also shows up in the classroom. Student teaching evaluations consistently reflect sexist stereotypes.  As a feisty professor with bold glasses and strong expectations, early in my career I faced pushback from students. Pushback not experienced by male colleagues with similar policies. The problem? I was too intimidating. When I switched to wearing pink dresses (thank god for H&M’s pink and orange streak a few years ago), students found me more relatable, because my image more successfully sold “girl.” As we all know, “girl” and “intimidating” are mutually incompatible. Signalling gender-specific approachability translated to stronger evaluations and a more positive classroom experience.

I often relate this example in class discussions of culture and representation and power. It serves as a good teaching moment, and we can laugh at the silliness of pink dresses at the same time as we consider the effects of cultural expectations. The anecdote typically opens the door for a moving and thoughtful discussion on students’ experiences with stereotypes and how they impact students’ academic, personal, and professional lives.

Professors weren’t the only professionals highlighted in this GAP campaign, however. Among a start-up partner and a small business owner, GAP presented a financial adviser. Who just happened to be Asian – you know, because Asians are so good with math. The financial adviser is charmingly attired in a sleeveless orange blouse with bohemian-inspired stitching, and wide-legged khaki trousers. The bottom left image is a discordant cut-out. It’s intended to highlight the stitching in closer detail, but it is awkwardly done. More problematic than a graphic design faux pas, the cropping is a trope of sexist imagery in which women are displayed for their parts and not person-hood.

Not to be outdone by academe, the financial adviser also depends on snappy dressing for professional worth. The ad copy for this role reads: “A bright pop for when looking professional is your business.” The phrase “bright pop” is emphasized in bold; “is” is emphasized in italics. The typography in this ad similarly underlines that physical appearance matters more than skill or competence. Having a deep understanding of financial markets and investing isn’t her business. Neither is it important she have a savvy understanding of long-term economic trends and how best to maximize retirement savings. The italicized “is” makes clear this financial adviser’s looks are her professional mandate. What matters is that she can look pretty behind a desk. Or on top of one, as the case may be.

I’m not opposed to fashion (I have a few favorite blazers in my closet). Nor am I ignorant of the role clothing plays in communicating professional and personal identities. It wouldn’t have been hard, however, for GAP to highlight their clothing and affirm women as smart and competent. For instance, the ad copy on the tenure-track professor could have read: “Wear a blazer as commanding as your ideas.” In a similar vein, the copy for the financial adviser might have stated: “Wear a pop of color as bright as your ideas.”

Although 30% of full professors in 2013 were women, it’s better than the 20-something percent who were full professors in 2003. It’s progress, and I’ll take it. But I long for a time when cultural illustrations for professionalism in the academic workplace go beyond suggesting I become a TPILF (Tenure-Track Professor I’d Like to F@*%).

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