One of the panelists, Susan Athey, a Stanford economist, said she had bought “khakis and loafers” to fit in with the men in the lunchroom of her first economics department, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She did so even though the department was the “most supportive environment” she has encountered in her career.

“I spent all my time hoping that no one would remember I was female,” said Ms. Athey, a past winner of a prestigious award for young economists. “I didn’t want to remind people that I’m a sexual being.”

This is from Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley, “Female Economists Push Their Field Toward a #MeToo Reckoning,” New York Times, January 10, 2019. By the way, she’s not just some economist. She’s a heavy hitter in the profession, having won the John Bates Clark Medal, which is arguably on a par with the Nobel Prize, in 2007.

I don’t know how to interpret these comments. Of course, I’m assuming that the two reporters are quoting Professor Athey correctly, and I’m assuming that their words “even though” reflect what Professor Athey said. Those assumptions could be wrong.

But on the assumption that they are right, why the “even though” after the first quote about khakis and loafers? Professor Athey seems to be saying that she both wanted to fit in and wanted not to dress in khakis and loafers. My guess is that she’s saying that she both wants to fit in and wants to wear more-feminine dress.

Now go to the second quote. Professor Athey is saying that she didn’t want to remind people that she’s a sexual being. One way to do that would be to wear “khakis and loafers.” So here she seems to be saying that she wants to wear khakis and loafers.

And it’s difficult to tell from any of this whether Professor Athey would want people to notice that she’s female or would want people not to notice.

Consider, then, the questions that a male colleague of Professor Athey might ask himself about how best to deal with her. Let’s say she’s wearing a dress or even a nice pant suit. Let’s say the male colleague notices and thinks it looks nice. Should he say it looks nice? Does that show he recognizes she’s a sexual being? Does she like that? And remember that given her status in the profession, if this male colleague doesn’t have tenure yet, he needs to think about the implications for his tenure of any direction he chooses.

If I were her colleague, I would be genuinely confused about how to deal with Professor Athey around issues of clothing. By the way, I know what I would do because this is what I tend to do. I would go directly to her, show the quotes, and say, “How do you want me to treat you? What do you want me to say I notice?”  I don’t know her and so I don’t know how she would receive that.

Now take some guys who aren’t like me in this respect, which is probably most guys. They probably won’t dare ask what I asked because they could fear that direct questions are risky. Maybe they would fear too much, but the stakes are big.

These are serious workplace challenges nowadays.