An opinionated guide on what to wear to a scientific conference!

The scientific conference: a place to present your research findings and connect with peers. More recently, the scientific conference has also become a place to showcase your conference-themed outfit. A low-key nerdy fashion show featuring everything from animal-themed dresses, to molecular jewellery. I’m personally very much for wearing your research interests as part of your apparel (or literally wearing your research! See header photo from ), but the question “What to wear?” to a scientific conference is not always an easy one to answer.

I attend Zoology conferences with topics ranging from behaviour to conservation. The audience there is often mixed with researchers coming from academic and NGO backgrounds, grad students fresh back from fieldwork and professors presenting their lab’s most recently funded projects (just to name a few). My personal experience with this mixed bag of people is that you can find all sorts of attire: from suits to fieldwork gear to casual t-shirt and jeans, people will be wearing what they feel most comfortable in. But what actually are the standards, the dress codes, for scientific conferences? Shouldn’t you look “professional”? And if so, what is more professional for a wildlife ecologist than cargo pants and a sunhat?

Out of curiosity I perused the internet and found all sorts of advice ranging from “Avoid linen at all costs because they wrinkle!” to “Don’t be overdressed – you will stand out!”. What stood out to me was that the consensus for women seems to be “Make sure you look nice but appropriate!”, which I’m not sure I know what it means. Don’t wear anything too tight, that may be revealing? Don’t wear anything too baggy that may look like you’ve slouched on a couch all day? Wear something well-fitting – but seriously, clothes that fit well are often not the most comfortable to spend the day in. Be attractive without being distractive.

Are we told not to be ‘too feminine’ and not to stand out with a smart attire because somehow femininity is still is viewed as incompatible with good quality research?

Together with this confusion on tips on how to dress, the general attitude across social media is that women are judged harsher than men by their appearance when presenting scientific output. I have certainly experienced my share of this, but interestingly the comments came from other women. I once wondered aloud what to wear when presenting my PhD research at a rather large conference and discussing the benefits of a certain dress (nice colour, comfortable) when a colleague chimed in saying she would never dress up for a conference because “your outfit shouldn’t distract from your research!” (for reminders we were talking about a knee-length dress here). When we got deeper into her reasoning, it became clear that what she meant was “don’t dress so you are considered feminine.”

I mulled over her statements quite a bit until it hit me: could it be that we are told not to be ‘too feminine’ and not to stand out with a smart attire because somehow femininity is still is viewed as incompatible with good quality research?  Do women need to wear trousers and a blazer to be taken seriously?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of blazers. But I am not a fan of the idea that women should be wearing one to be taken seriously as scientists. Especially grad students and researchers without secure positions can be very insecure as to how they come across to more senior colleagues and fret about what to wear. The idea that you want people to “remember you for your science and not for your outfit” strikes me as incredibly misleading because people are there for the science – in my opinion, if they end up not remembering your project, they aren’t worth collaborating/working with.

If I had to give advice to women students unsure about how to dress appropriately (and there is no clear dress code in your line of science), I’d say dress, so you feel confident. First impressions are important, and confidence leaves a good impression, whether you’re dressed in slacks, high-heels or a chimpanzee t-shirt. And don’t shy away from your favourite dresses – it’s time for us to defy the idea that a “feminine” appearance excludes high-quality science and automatically means you don’t take your research seriously or are less passionate about it than “the next guy”.