The Robes That Bind
By Dr. Hannah Scott
I am a woman and professor at a university. This looks like a success story, given the majority of my cohort were men and that my first workplaces had few female professors. I now work in a faculty where almost half of the instructors are women, but there are fewer women in the top ranks as with most workplaces. But there are still challenges which emerge out of the very scaffolding of universities which largely goes unnoticed, where women and other minorities persevere.
My thoughts on gender equity began to crystalize after I was polled on issues of equity and inclusion in my workplace by one of those big polling companies. I decided to take the survey because, as a researcher, I was curious as to how they operationalized equity in their survey. I received the standard questions around age, income, profession, and various attitudinal arrays attempting to capture how I feel about my workplace and its role in supporting gender equity. I remember thinking like so many others that these measures were not really capturing what it is to live and work with microagressions and discrimination year over year.
Towards the end of the survey, there was a comment box asking me if there was anything I would like to add to my answer set. Although there were reams I could have written, what I did offer was the following analogy:
As a professor, we celebrate the accomplishments of our students each year as they graduate and move on to bigger and brighter opportunities. It is one of the best days of the year for me. Each year we all adorn our robes as part of this ritual. Each year I help other women in the procession try to make these robes work. The robe has been worn traditionally by men based on a centuries old clerical garb, designed by men. The robes are often wide, closing in the front, often with a slit on the side to put your hands in your trouser pocket(s).
The robe is worn with a “hood” that is worn hanging off the shoulders but never on the head, despite the name. The hood often has a little pocket at the base. Not many people even know why it is there. Someone once told me that this is a design element carried over from when those centuries-old men used to carry a loaf of bread and some form of beverage (such as wine, mead or grog) around with them many centuries ago. I am not sure if this is true, but the story has always struck me as interesting.
The hood has a little loop where it meets in the front of the body and is meant to be tied to a shirt button. Many women do not like to wear button up shirts or suits like men, preferring other forms of fashion, often without pockets (another old-fashioned design element common in women’s clothing which, for various reasons, I shall not get into here). So as we get ready to walk down to the convocation platform women usually help each other with safety pins and other tips and tricks to hold the hood down so we are not strangled as we celebrate our student accomplishments.
When I have used ornamental pins, there may be light commentary about whether or not the pin meets the dress code. No one appears to notice that it is women who make all these adjustments more often, then have to defend them. When I answer “I am not wearing something with a shirt button,” I sometimes get quizzical looks from men. The men simply tie the hood to their button up shirt which almost all of them wear on convocation day. Only if they stray from the traditional button-up shirt do they understand the dilemma.
The final irony is that, on convocation day, we have our students adorn similar robes with those same hoods, so that they too may have to figure out how to wear this outdated male outfit without strangulation and other forms of discomfort. If universities, as supposedly model employers, cannot figure out something as basic as the multi-level trappings of these ceremonial robes (especially for women), how can we hope they can truly understand all of the extra work women, Indigenous Peoples, and minorities do every day to fit into the university work world?