Meet Fiona Smith, a Professor of Law at the Warwick Law School, with research interests in International Economic Law; food security; International Agricultural Trade; WTO Law and Policy; Investment Arbitration; and more. Prof Smith is a highly accomplished scholar who has presented her research to public and private sector audiences in the USA, Europe and the Far East and is an invited expert for the European Commission, and other international organisations. On Stylish Academic she shares with us her journey into academia, experiences thus far, and how really style isn’t anti-intellectual. Her approach to dressing for the academic workplace is this ————— “I respect the codes…but I don’t let them define me.”
Being a woman in academic life is tough. There are still problems with pay differentials and it can be difficult for some colleagues to take you seriously if you refuse to conform to imagined stereotypes of how a female academic looks and behaves. I have always enjoyed the fact I am not what people expect. It’s strangely liberating when someone you meet for the first time has an idea in their head about you, and then the reality of what you are actually like can come as a shock. That puts you in control of the situation. This is less so now, as everyone’s profiles are available online, but certainly when I first started out, this was something that happened to me a lot.
I think you have to decide how you want to deal with compliments on how you look, what you are wearing, your new haircut etc. I know some female colleagues who find these comments intrusive and react to point out this is not a relevant comment, and of course they are right to do so. Unless someone is blatantly rude (which does happen), I’ve always just thanked them and moved the conversation to something else. I do not encounter blatant sexism now, but you have to be prepared that there will always be people who think you attain your position because of how you look. Sadly, such comments come from men and women and sometimes the women can be more challenging than the men. I’ve always been true to myself and never apologised for who I am. After all, it’s a fallacy to think intelligence and style are two different things. I think it’s important not to judge other people-you just never know what you can learn from everyone you meet, no matter who they are, or where you believe they are in the hierarchy. I’ve learnt the most from the most unexpected people. My best idea for how to progress with an article came from chatting to the Faculty security guard!
I’m an accidental academic. I worked in private legal practice for a while. I did not find it challenging and I missed reading and thinking about the law. I decided to do a masters degree. A job came up at the university while I was doing my masters degree-I applied and first was not shortlisted. The person shortlisted was unable to attend the interview, so they asked me if I still wanted to be interviewed, so I agreed and got the job. I was enrolled for a PhD programme at the time too, so I continued with the PhD and took the academic job. I loved it and have not looked back. I’m lucky because the field I’m in has a strong element of consultancy as well as writing. It is great to combine both worlds.
I have worked very hard throughout my career. There has been a lot of long hours-I think the tales of academics having long holidays and not doing anything may have been true in some long distant past, but I’ve certainly not met any of those people in my career. You have to be prepared to move round universities and travel abroad for conferences if appropriate to your discipline. I’ve been very lucky to work with inspirational senior colleagues who were very supportive. I also have a mentor outside UK academia and he’s a great support and good friend. It’s important to have someone who is not afraid to tell you when your latest ideas for an article/book may not work, but who is kind and not cruel in their criticism.
I’ve been lucky to meet amazing people in my academic career. I was asked by one professor I worked with to have lunch with Noam Chomsky. It was an incredible experience to meet someone so eminent and just listen to him talking about the ideas that interested him- to spend time listening to how his mind worked. I’ve also been lucky enough to travel a great deal to amazing countries, like Taiwan-a country I knew little about, but where people were so gracious with their time showing me and my husband round. I’ve been shown too great kindness by very eminent colleagues: one very senior professor who founded an entire legal discipline thanked me for presenting his work at a symposium he was unable to travel to. I had had no previous contact with him before that. It reminded me that truly great academics are generous with their time and knowledge: I try to live by his example and encourage new scholars to realise their own ambitions within the pressures of modern academic life.
I think you have to be very self aware of how you come across to others. First impressions count. I think it is important to always dress in a professional way. What this means is different for everyone and you have to find your own way. Personally, I would never wear a short skirt for work, or any top that was very low cut. I work with professional lawyers at times, so I often wear a suit. Their ‘look’ is very conservative, but I tend to wear my suit with distinctive scarf or shoes and jewelry-it’s my own take on ‘business wear.’ It sends a message to those I’m meeting that I understand the context of our meeting requires a particular dress code and that I respect that and also them, but that I also have my own unique take on that code, which is just a bit different. Trust your instincts. If you feel uncomfortable in what you are wearing, your gut is telling you something-I’d advise changing what you are wearing before that all-important meeting/conference/class/symposium paper.
When you first start out in academic life, you are very close in age to many of the students-this is less of an issues for me now! At first though, I always dressed in a way that made it obvious I was the one giving the class, not the one taking it. e.g. Suits, smart dresses in conservative colours (e.g. Dark blue/grey). You can also do the same thing in wilder colours and bright patterns, but all the time I think the key for me has been to think that academic life, teaching, conferences etc is work and so I dress for work and not how I would in my social life.
When I say I dress for work, I think anyone who has ever met me would say I am not conservative in my choice of fashion. I always celebrate my feminity. Would I wear something for work that I would wear in a nightclub? The answer to that is no. However, I never apologise for who I am, or that I keep up with fashion trends or that I have the world’s largest shoe collection- according to my husband at least. I would say instead that it is important not to dress in way that is disrespectful to your role or the context in which you operate. You have huge freedom within that though to develop your own style: I think of it in terms of appreciating what the dress code for a meeting/lecture/conference is and then pushing it just a bit. These days, people are used to me!
For women starting out in academia, I would say ask yourself what you want to be remembered for when people meet you: is it your clothes or is it your intelligent conversation? Your fashion should be an extension of your personality, it should augment it and not overwhelm people so they cannot see you behind what you are wearing. Never let your clothes wear you!
What i’m Wearing:
Orange Jumper – Zara £19.99
Pants – Vivienne Westwood (Red Label Collection)
Shoes – Zara Black Lace-up Boots £29.99
Coat – Textile Anarchist (independent designer in Leamington Spa, Coventry)
Frames – Ann et Valentin
Watch – Marea (mens watch)
Scarf – Local market in Vietnam
Bag -Vietnam (but available locally)
Style Tip: Take good care of the things you have. Hang your coats on sturdy hangers, keep your shoes in boxes – that’s how they last longer.
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