By Ruby Gower, Staff Writer
As your grandpa loves to say, “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” The problem with assumptions is that they are frequently harmful and not based in fact. Assumptions limit people’s careers, cause interpersonal conflict, and can be damaging to the psyches of many different marginalized groups. So how do assumptions play out on the University of Toronto campus, and what does that say about our school culture?
For this groundbreaking piece of research, I decided to dress up in four drastically different outfits, and then walk the hallowed grounds of the University campus, asking people what they thought my major was. It’s dress-up and annoying people and science! I couldn’t ask for a better research method.
As a cute and dainty first year, I don’t have an official major yet, but I’m an aspiring film and international relations double major. For my experiment, I decided to award points to those who guessed correctly, resulting in a final score that would represent the total number of accurate guesses.
In order to protect anonymity, I’ve changed the names of the people I interviewed to the names of my favourite cartoon characters as a child. Or I just found the students with the best names and exclusively interviewed them. Up to you.
To start, a good experiment needs a control. This is the outfit I wear for lectures, watching seven hours of Sarah Paulson interviews, and going to the deli near my house that charges $8 for a bottle of water. I will admit it is evident that I did not know what to do with my hands, a theme that you might notice persists throughout this adventure.
Stepping onto campus as a certified Normal Girl, I was expecting this outfit to get the widest variety of responses, and I was right.
Rainbow Dash, 1st year, film major: “Definitely social sciences.”
I asked her to be more specific and she said psychology. She wasn’t alone; six other people guessed psychology throughout the course of the day. When I asked her to explain why she thought that, she said: “You kind of have a sciencey vibe, but not full STEM, like, you have a little artsiness in you.” This is interesting, as 80% of psychology undergrads are women, a number that has been steadily climbing over the past few years. Could Rainbow Dash’s description of it being “not full STEM” be tied to its societal perception of being a degree “for women”?
Final score: 3 points: 3 film, 0 IR.
On this beautiful Friday evening, it was time for me to go home and put on a 6XL Hawaiian shirt and draw stars on my face. I was not questioning what I’m doing with my life.
It was time to intentionally move the needle a bit with the responses, hence the above outfit. Starting my college career, I was reluctant to be a film major, keenly aware of the accompanying stereotypes. But my mom says my films are “wow!” and I don’t even like money that much anyway, so I’m doing it. Key points to note about this outfit are the slept-in eyeliner that took twenty minutes, and the garish shirt that thinks it’s ironic but is actually just ugly. Apologies to any readers who may be wearing one similar.
Strawberry Shortcake, 3rd year, computer science specialist: “Women and gender studies. Yeah.”
I was a little proud of myself for being able to manipulate the responses so easily, but I swallowed my glee and asked him to provide some more justification:
“I don’t know… you just have that certain look, I don’t know how to explain.”
But I did!
Walking around campus, I got a lot more “gender studies”, but I also received two fine arts guesses and one wild card of a guess: economics, which I’m going to ignore as an outlier but also continue to think about for the next thirty years.
Final score: 2 points: 2 film, 0 IR.
As a woman of many dazzling and interesting layers, I am also an aspiring International Relations major, so for my next venture onto campus, I decided to go in the completely opposite direction with my outfit. I decided to wear my “interview outfit”, which is exactly what it sounds like. It makes me feel like a professional, like a hustler, like Tea Leoni on all six seasons of Netflix’s criminally underrated Madam Secretary, where Tea plays a woman juggling the pressures of work and family as the Secretary of State. How will she do it all? Drama! Intrigue! Fashion!
Anyway, here’s the outfit.
I liked this outfit a lot because the jacket and the pant pockets finally gave me something normal to do with my hands.
The responses I got now trended towards fields in the STEM and social sciences areas. I received a political science guess, which I’m going to give half a point even though international relations and political science are DIFFERENT THINGS. I got three “math” guesses, which was exciting as I haven’t done math since the ninth grade.
I asked Kai Lan (of Ni Hao Kai Lan fame), a first-year Rotman commerce student, what he thought my major was. He guessed biology, and I asked him to provide some justification.
“It’s put-together. You know what you’re doing.”
Other quotes included”
“Economics. You just seem like an economics person.”
“You probably want to go to Rotman.”
“Give me back my glasses. I can’t see.” – My roommate (hater).
Final score: 4.5 points, 3.5 IR, 1 film.
I then returned to my dorm for the final look, which I was most excited about . It’s no secret that people judge others, especially women and people of colour, for how they dress (the Stanford Social Innovation Review points out the ways that dress codes in the workplace “institutionalised” oppression and othering), so I assumed that choosing to dress in a way which does not conform to stereotypical academic standards would provoke interesting reactions.
However, my predictions were primarily disproven for this outfit (boo!), and the range of answers were as vast as for my control outfit. Guesses ranged from political science to English, although, notably, very few people wagered I was a STEM student.
Final score: 1 point, 1 film, 0 IR.
With the data collected, it was time to start analyzing.
There are a lot of routes one can take with thinking about data like this, but I was particularly interested in how normalcy and “professionalism” were judged. Becoming more masculine, like my international relations outfit, was correlated with more STEM or professional field guesses. I would go so far as to say these are more “normal”, or at least more popular, majors, while guesses for less common majors like women and gender studies were reserved for my less conventional outfits.
The conversation around what is considered professional in the workplace, or even on a university campus, frequently deems styles mostly worn by women and people of colour as unprofessional, or, in some circumstances, “weird”. This has a connection to STEM majors as being less correlated with women,
In the end, what did this prove? People are mostly okay with being questioned by a girl wearing a skirt in 10 degree weather and trying not to look cold, societal standards are very prevalent even in “liberal” areas like college campuses, research like this tells us more about societal views than a lot of us think, and that my roommate can’t see and would like photographer credit for the images.
Until next time,