Fired and proud? I most certainly am! Female Academics and the Dress Stereotyping

This article is an extension to the discussion on female academics and their dressing initiated by Francesca Stavrakopoulou through her article ‘Female academics: don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed’.

Francesca has very well put the policing and discrimination of women’s bodies by the society and in particular academia. There is no doubt about the sexist assumptions about a woman’s intellectual capacities based on her appearances. However my story went a little too extreme.

I was offered a position at a university in Dubai (name of institution remains anonymous). I was in the UK when I got the job offer and fascinated by the charm of the golden land, I decided to pursue it.

The first shock hit me during the induction by our HR where my male colleague signed the employment contract for a salary of 17000 Dirham per month while I was offered only 12000, despite negotiation.

Fast forward 25 days, I got fired! Reason: I objected to the management’s notice that was circulated to female staff ordering them to wear skirts and trousers to look ‘professional’ (read: sexy). It was the first year of the university and in order to attract students, the management wanted to sexualize and objectify female staff (bodies) which would give the students the impression that we were a modern and progressive culture institution.

As a female academic, it offended me deeply because there are times of the month when I want to be really comfortable and most importantly, my contract did not specify that I was supposed to be wearing a uniform as such. In a multi cultural institution, how can all female academics be forced to wear in a certain way?

I wrote back to the HR explaining my concerns but as I doubted, it was not the HR lady behind the circular, it was the VP and the male management. Despite the email confidentiality clause in every academic email, he got involved in the matter and called me in to harass me for voicing my opinion. He wanted me to apologize and beg to keep the job. I only said that it wouldn’t happen again and left.

When they harassed me again, this time in group, I took the matter to Dubai Courts. They instantly fired me. I did win the initial arguments and got flight tickets back to the UK which they gave just so I wouldn’t go ahead with my allegations in the court. I didn’t because I had run out of my savings staying in hotels and needed to get a grip of my life as soon as possible.

I returned back to the UK without a spoon of my own in the country. Began life from scratch. Yet, I learned few substantial lessons:

  1. No matter what’s in my brain, people judge me by my body and what I wear.
  2. No matter what, I must always stand for what I feel is right no matter what the price.
  3. Getting fired from a job can be an adventurous story.

I know some people would say that I went too far to be politically correct. I should have gone with the flow like the other twenty female academics. Why did it matter so much to me?

As the HR lady once told me in secret, “just play along and give fake smiles until you find a better position elsewhere and the moment you do, dump this job and laugh on their face.”

I know that most people there were just faking hard work because all they wanted was to move ahead, as they told me themselves. But I found it unethical to just play along when I wasn’t comfortable with the harassment and constant critiquing by the male management staff. Within a few days of my work, I had arranged five field trips for our students at Dubai’s most exciting businesses and factories. I was a competent employee and couldn’t fake hard work like others advised me to.

Being a woman in this world is difficult enough and academia is no exception. I am a person of color and twice I have been questioned what I was doing in the staff area at my university in the UK since students are not allowed to be there. When I would flash my staff card, they would get embarrassed and say “you look so young; I mistook you for a student”.

Francesca raised a wonderful point that when men dress in a jeans and hoodie, look shabby, they are too occupied in their work as presumed by the society. God forbid a woman dresses that way!

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