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In defense of that professor who questioned her student’s jean shorts

Many years ago I applied for a job. I was among two finalists, it was me and another woman. The process was intense. Several rounds of panel interviews, a test, and more.

In the end, they went with the other gal. I was bummed. The job I’d sought paid much more than what I was making at the time.

I had been friendly acquaintances with the boss of the company I’d applied for. In a phone call letting me know I had not been chosen, she said it was a very close and tough call.

She told me she wanted to share why I had been passed up so that, in the future when I applied for other jobs, I might edge out my competition.

One thing she told me was that my clothing choices during the interview process had been a factor in the group’s decision. They pondered that, after I got the job, perhaps my new salary might have afforded me a chance to upgrade my wardrobe. But in the end, they decided it was also a question of whether I fit within the company’s culture.

I thanked her and we hung up.

I’m not going to lie. The advice stung. It was bad enough that I had come so close and just missed it. But then to be told that it was partly because of my clothing choices, well that was salt in the wound.

Of course my mind scrambled back to what I had worn. I’d chosen a fitted blouse without a blazer. I’d chosen open-toed shoes instead of closed-toed ones. Things like that. I’d been professional, but I suppose, in retrospect, I hadn’t fully considered or appreciated the highly professional atmosphere I was attempting to become a part of.

I was hurt by the advice, but I knew it was necessary. I was young, inexperienced. It was an important lesson.

I thought of that experience recently as national headlines were made over the professor who questioned a student about her short jean shorts during a practice run for a highly important thesis presentation — prompting the young girl to overreact and end up stripping down to her bra and underwear in front of America.

But Rebekah Maggor, assistant professor of performing arts at Cornell University, did the right thing.

The story goes that the student, Letitia Chai, instead of taking the professor’s question in a thoughtful and mature way (after all, this was a practice run designed to iron out the wrinkles for her official presentation), she literally took off most of her clothes during the actual presentation and even broadcast it live on Facebook for good measure.

I wonder if, 10 years from now, Chai might have second thoughts on her course of action. Far from a warrior against oppression, she appears an oversensitive, narcissistic young woman who may not be able to handle the real world so well. I would not want to hire someone who cannot handle some constructive criticism. (Even though in fact all the professor reportedly asked was whether she would wear “those shorts” to her actual presentation, something the scholar asked many students as proper attire choices are part of the syllabus for this class!)

The bottom line is whether we as women like it or not, our clothes are judged and play a role in how we are perceived. No amount of complaining and protesting will ever change that, it’s a reality. Now, on an everyday level, as strong women we can wear whatever we like and so be it! But when we go to a job interview, or give a high-level collegiate presentation, clothes matter.

Far better for the professor to give Chai that lesson than a prospective employer.

MORE: Student presents thesis in her underwear

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor of The College Fix. She previously worked as a daily newspaper reporter and columnist for a decade in Southern California, and prior to that held editorial positions at The Weekly Standard, Washington Times and FrontPageMagazine. She is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship recipient and has contributed to National Review.

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