In this post, Dr Ben Marder, a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business school, along with PhD student Sebastian Oliver, share their findings of a study that explores the effects of academic dress and relationships with students in lectures….
If you Google ‘why do academics…’ then the autofill function will suggest ‘dress so badly’. Compared to the world of corporate fashion, Google has a fair point. Many answers to ‘why’ this is the case have been suggested, but how this perceived ‘poor’ dress sense affects our relationship with students is unknown. This blog presents initial findings which support that, in universities such as Edinburgh, dressing to impress (students) does not mean wearing a suit.
Scruffy jumpers, worn tweed, a somewhat charity shop chic. These are common stereotypes of academics’ fashion choices, a dress sense that would be frowned upon in most corporate environments, and considered ‘bad dress sense’ by others outside academia. As always, haters will always hate, but what is important is finding out what our students think. In other words, does the way academics dress impact the relationships with their students? We provide initial insights into answering this question.
Common sense and a wealth of research into workplace fashion suggests that if you dress more formally then you will be perceived as more competent but at the same time less warm. But Higher Education is very different to other industries. University academics arguably have inherent perceived competence shown through multiple degrees, and they work in a space that encourages free and, to an extent, non-conformist thinking, which leads us to question the general dress rules of other industries.
As the first part of a multi-study series, we (Sebastian and myself) ran a large pilot study where we compared over 1000 ratings by students of photos of academics who dressed to different levels of formality. In general, our findings support the status quo: that yes, more formal attire gives a higher perception of competence and a lower perception of warmth. But this is not the case if the student went to a high ranked university. For those students, no matter how their teacher dressed, competence perception remained the same, though warmth increased when they dressed more informally.
We propose the reason for this is that the prestige of the university automatically signals competence that can’t be undone due to bad knitwear. In other words, academics at highly prestigious universities need not use formal dressing to make students think they are competent; they do already (whether or not the academics feels this themselves). Though not as clear cut, our findings also support dressing down for academics at lower ranked institutions is favourable because, in doing so, perceptions of warmth appears to increase more than competence decreases. Furthermore, no gender effects were found either from the presented academic or the student rater. Throughout the analysis, we controlled for seniority and age of the faculty.
In essence, our findings show that, at high-ranked, prestigious universities, such as Edinburgh, if we want to be seen as more approachable – a characteristic that is key to fostering positive relationships with our students (included in student-staff evaluation surveys) – we should keep our formal attire in the wardrobe for weddings.