Saturday, June 15, 2024

In Conversation With Dr Carolyn Mair

A Renowned Fashion Psychologist, Author Of The Psychology of Fashion & A Fellow Of The British Psychological Society

Professor, Fashionista, Writer, and Pioneer are just some of the words you can use to describe Dr Carolyn Mair. An accomplished and well-renowned psychologist specialising in the psychology of fashion, Dr Mair has had a long and rewarding career in the field since 1995 when she earned her BSc. in Applied Psychology and Computing at Bournemouth University. However, her career took a unique turn, thanks to her combined interests in fashion and psychology.

During her teen years, young Carolyn found that none of the clothes in the market fit her style and decided to take things into her hands. She started designing and making her clothes and has kept this passion for design alive throughout her entire life.

Carolyn’s interests in fashion and academic background in psychology came together spectacularly in the form of her current career. Dr Mair became increasingly interested in the inter-relationships among psychology and fashion. In the process, she came to understand how closely fashion is tied to identity and how we can use fashion to change who we would like to be, or who we would like to be seen as by others. Dr Mair also became increasingly aware of some of the problems that existed in the fashion industry and wanted to bring her understanding of psychology to help the industry become more ethical and more sustainable, socially, and environmentally.

Dr Mair’s advances in the field have granted her global recognition and the attention of both consumers and fashion brands themselves. In 2017 Carolyn left academia to work more closely with the industry. She established her consulting firm, Carolyn Mair Consultancy Limited, and through her firm, Carolyn has worked with countless brands to understand what is it that their consumers want, offering the world more conscious fashion, one brand at a time.

Her discoveries, theories, and knowledge are available in her 2018 book The Psychology of Fashion.’ and also in her comments for press which she posts on her website. AlignThoughts reached out to Carolyn to share her candid thoughts on how she came to these ideas, what made her start her unique career, and her exciting journey that led to where she is today.

prof Mair - alignthoughts
Dr Mair is also a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, where she contributes to enhancing the development and application of psychology for the greater public good.

It is so inspiring to see all the work Carolyn has done so far. Not to mention all the accomplishments in her career, from earning the Ph. D in cognitive neuroscience, creating the Psychology of Fashion department at the London College of Fashion, developing the world’s first Master’s programs in Psychology for Fashion, to publishing her book – The Psychology of Fashion; all the things that Dr Mair does to make this world a better place are just incredible. In addition, Carolyn was honoured by the British Psychological Society with their Distinguished Contributions to Psychology Education Award in recognition of her extensive engagement with audiences beyond Psychology.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a pilot. I think it would be a fantastic career, but when I left school, I wanted to be a technical illustrator or a draughtman (the name is so sexist!), but was told that I would be better training as a tracer (draughtman’s assistant) as I would soon leave and have babies. I was 16 at the time!

Were you always sorted about your career goals? When/how did you figure out that you want to pursue psychology as a career?

Ah not really, apart from wanting to be a pilot. I didn’t like school. I left school as soon as I could and didn’t go to university until I was in my 30s, having had a family and doing all sorts of part-time jobs and full-time jobs, but not what you might call ‘career jobs’. I didn’t really think about having a career beyond having my family. But I’m a different person now.

What was the turning point in your whole career then? What led to where you are?

The turning point came when I realised that I needed to get a formal qualification to get a reliable job. I’d been teaching English to foreign students for ten years, which I absolutely loved, but there was no career progression, and the contracts were short-term. I had a family at this point, and I needed to have a more secure job. After 20 years of not studying, I found out that I loved studying, and I was good at it so I wanted to continue. That was definitely the turning point.

You play several roles: a working woman, mom, educator, and entrepreneur! How has being a woman shaped your priorities and focus in terms of your career? Do you think motherhood has played a part in making you a better person in the business world?

Well, motherhood can change a woman in many ways, but it’s not possible to say whether it makes the person better or not. There are many reasons why women might have or not have children. We shouldn’t have expectations about women and parenthood any more than we do about men. Would we ever ask a man “Do you think fatherhood has played a part in making you a better person in the business world?” So, I couldn’t say that having my children made me a better person; as I have no way of knowing what I would have been like, where I would be, or what I would be doing had I not had children.

But being a woman, I met lots of challenges early in my attempts to have career. For example, when I left school early, as soon as I could leave school at 16. My best subjects at school were art and math, and I wanted to be a technical illustrator or a draughtman (draughtsperson as its now known) as mentioned previously. And when I went for job interviews, I was asked, well, you’re going to get married soon and have babies. I mean, this is horrendous when we think about it now.

But it’s always been a thought in my mind that a woman has to be strong and confident. And women tend to hide these characteristics. We see this in data that women don’t apply for jobs if they don’t meet one single criterion, whereas men will apply when they don’t meet several criteria because they’re more confident and encouraged to ‘have a go’. I know it’s not easy, especially when you meet resistance to ideas. Strong women are often described as pushy or aggressive: whereas a man would be described as assertive. Women may also be socialised into believing that using their femininity will get them the result they want. Unfortunately, this does a disservice to women in the workplace who are striving for equality. If we want to move forward, then women have to develop greater confidence in their abilities and their potential. We all need to move away from the stereotypes which portray women as purely emotional and potential mothers, and men as the achievers and main breadwinners.

Women also tend to not negotiate well, compared to men, despite having the skills they need for the job.

Yes, part of this is a result of education, where we hear that woman tend to have better “soft” skills than men possibly because they’re assumed to be more emotional than men, but the evidence for this is not confirmatory at all.

We all have emotions. Some people claim that ‘being emotional’ is not a good thing, but emotion affects everything we do so there is no such thing as not having emotion. Our emotional state affects how we make sense of the world and how we make sense of the world affects our emotional state. This reciprocal relationship runs through all our cognitive processes and plays out in our behaviour. Unfortunately, emotion is sometimes portrayed as a weakness instead of a strength. We know, for example, that a person scoring highly on emotional intelligence is likely to be successful in many fields. Emotional intelligence is a skill we should all strive for.

Did you always envision yourself as being an entrepreneur when you started?

I’ve always been a creative thinker and an entrepreneur. I’ve always sought out and created opportunities rather than waiting for opportunities to come to me. I join the dots in unusual ways. Bringing psychology to fashion is one example. But prior to that, I developed a course in applied cognitive psychology which enabled students to apply cognitive psychology, the scientific study of thinking, reasoning, decision making, and perception, to a range of creative fields, such as interior design, architecture, graphic design, and advertising and marketing. This is quite unusual in psychology.

What are the characteristics that would allow someone to thrive in this career field?

Creativity is hugely important in any career; other valuable characteristics are open-mindedness, the ability to see potential opportunities, and to make them happen. To be successful in this career field, the person would need to understand how psychology can be applied in a range of contexts and not be restricted by theory, but they need to be able to apply theory from one context to another and account for the limitations of so doing.

It’s important to have an open mind and not restrict oneself to what one believes one knows and thinks is possible. Thinking beyond the possibilities, while bearing in mind, not everything is possible. I’m not a fan of hearing ‘you can be whatever you want to be’, or ‘if you want something badly enough, you can get it.’ That is simply not true, but many things are possible beyond what we believe we can do. Many people, whether they identify as men or women, restrict themselves through a lack of confidence and lack of imagination.

Who has been your greatest inspiration in life?

I would say my mother, who was a very hard-working woman with a very strong work ethic. A very disciplined woman who worked her entire life to help us live the best we could. So, she has been my inspiration, and she always said to me, make sure you get a career, and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s and by which time she passed away, unfortunately, that I understood what she meant. It’s important for women to have a career, to be independent, or at least to be able to be independent if or when they need to.

What are your favourite books or quotes that leave you inspired? Are there any recommendations that you suggest?

I love the quote by Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist and Nobel laureate who won the Nobel prize for Behavioural Economics. In one of his books – Thinking, Fast and Slow, he says – “All you see is not all there is.”

This is in the context of the influence of cognitive biases on decision-making. He points out that we make sense of the world through our biases. We see the world that we want to see. So, what we see is not all there is. There is far more than we pay attention to, far more than we know. We like evidence that supports our biases, and we ignore evidence that refutes them. This is the basis of stereotyping and of poor decision-making in general. When we make sense of the world, we need to remember that we do so through our intuition, our biases, and of course, there is always more than this. We may have to look for it and suspend judgement until we have conflicting as well as supporting evidence. This is effortful, and Kahneman says we are ‘lazy thinkers’ so we need to remind ourselves that we have biases and that we need to counter them whenever we have to make a decision that affects other people, or that affects ourselves in an important way. This quote means there is more than our intuition is telling us. There’s more out there, and when we make snap judgments, there are often wrong.

Yeah, that’s so insightful, especially in the workforce, now that we have people across the world working in an organisation. So, it’s essential that we don’t bring our biases along with us to the table.

Exactly! We do bring our biases along with us, but we have to reflect and pay attention to the decisions we are making. If we don’t do this, we only hear, see and read what fits with our biases, and we ignore alternatives.

I think the step is, in fact, to acknowledge that we do have biases. Most of us are not even aware of the fact that we do have unconscious biases. So that’s great that you bring that up.

Thank you!

What are your future projects? Are you planning to write another book?

Potentially. I have thought about updating my book, The Psychology of Fashion. But at the moment, I’m really busy with my consultancy, and it takes a lot of time to write a book. But I’d like to write another book about psychology in fashion, but this one would be more from a business perspective.

I look forward to that.

Well, thank you.

Now, I want to move to another interesting subject. Statistics show that only 28% of women pursue careers in STEM fields. What, according to you, is the reason behind such a low number? What are we lacking? And what can be done to improve the situation?

This is awful. It’s a real shame, and I think one of the reasons women tend not to go for STEM careers is that the gender biases are so deeply rooted in socialisation and education that they become beliefs and barriers.

Boys are praised for their dexterity, and their technical abilities, and girls are praised for their appearance and their ‘soft skills’.

This is reflected in traditional gendered toys and continues throughout life. So, girls become very much aware that how they look brings rewards or not. And boys become aware that what they do brings rewards.

We learn to behave according to the rewards we get, reactions to our behaviours. Somehow girls are expected not to be good at Maths, Science or Engineering, and so when you tell people you’re good at something, it motivates them to be good at it. The reverse is also true. Telling girls that they’re not good at Maths makes it seem OK for a girl to say, “I’m no good at math.” Like it’s a rite of passage, and it doesn’t matter. But Maths is important for managing life even if it’s not a career choice.

I think it’s a travesty that more girls don’t get into science. Sadly, although more girls than boys study Psychology and Medicine at university now, far more men than women reach the top jobs in these professions.

What can we do?

We need to stop thinking about girls and boys as having different abilities. We need to move towards gender fluidity, gender equality and stop looking for differences between girls and boys at any age. We need to show how creative STEM subjects are and how rewarding careers in STEM can be. We need to encourage women to go for senior positions and support the lifestyles that enable a successful work-life balance. I was one of the very few women in the Computer Science department during my postdoc in Machine Learning. But more women are coming into the field now, and I see this trend continuing.

I think you highlighted a very insightful point here about gender differences and bringing creativity as well as maybe the feminine energy. There is an expression “like a girl” that is used to downplay a woman’s abilities. But why not actually run like a girl, embracing your womanhood. Why can’t it be an expression of empowerment?

Exactly, I think that’s really important. Science is creative!

When I was at London College of Fashion, I had discussions with people about creativity. Most of the staff described themselves as creatives, and I was a scientist. While I have no problem being described as a scientist, I am also creative. Scientists have to be creative. They need to create hypotheses. Also being a creative was sometimes given as an excuse not to be analytical. This is the same as feeling good about ‘not being good at maths.’ Being analytical requires creativity.

You did bring up the reward trigger mechanism of our brain. So how do you reward yourself after every small milestone that you achieve?

I’m a forward-thinking person. This could explain my need to seek out opportunities, but I like to reflect on what I’ve done, and I like to take pride in what I’ve done. So, for example, when I wrote the Master’s courses, I got excited about thinking about their potential impact.

Okay! I’m sure your journey must have had some tough times along the way. It’s not so easy to do what you do and where you are today. What kept you going during those tough times?

I have a strong work ethic which I got from my mother. I’m determined. Once I have an idea that I strongly believe in, I will push for that. I have met resistance of course. Any innovation will be challenging, but it’s been worth it. I find my career hugely rewarding. If you want to succeed in any innovative or entrepreneurial endeavour, you have to be determined, resilient, and a hard worker.

I completely agree with that.

Can you also share the key highlights of how your day looked like when you started working and how it looks like now? For instance, did you burn the midnight oil, or were you a very time-efficient person?

Well, I started doing part-time lecturing when I was doing my Ph.D. and at that point, I would say I worked 4 hours that were possible, certainly weekends, evenings, writing papers for conferences, but also writing my lecture. I worked a lot of hours. And then when I went to London College of Fashion to develop the department and write the courses, I worked my fingers to the bone, as the saying goes, so I did not stop for those five years. I worked pretty much 24/7, which is not a good strategy. When I left and became a consultant to set up my consultancy, I had more opportunities to reflect on my work-life balance, which I am very conscious of now, not taking on too much, although I still find it quite difficult to say no.

Fortunately, I’m in a position now where I can choose what I do. And I try not to work weekends. Now my working day starts at 8 or 9 am and finishes around 6, maybe 6.30 pm, I have one main client and several smaller clients, and I do a lot of press interviews and comments. I love how much people are engaging with psychology in the context of fashion. I had no idea it would become so popular when I brought the two disciplines together.

So, I believe these are the conscious choices that help you achieve work-life integration?

Yes, exactly.

Can you explain how clothing influences our mental health and some suggestions that can help us stay mentally healthy by choosing our clothes consciously?

Well, it starts the other way around. Our mental health and other individual differences influence the clothing that we choose. The same item of clothing would have a different meaning or influence on a range of people depending on a number of individual differences including their mental health. In addition, the industry shapes our perception of ourselves in terms of how we fit in with fashion and that can influence our mental health. For example, not seeing ourselves within fashion imagery can influence how we feel about ourselves, our confidence, body satisfaction, and so on. But the clothing can be a great tool for wellbeing. For example, so colours might make us feel good through the sociocultural associations we have with them. Yellow is associated with happiness in some cultures. So, if we believe that yellow is a ‘happy’ colour, and then wear something yellow, we may feel happier. But this belief and therefore the influence, comes from the person, not the clothing or the colour.

Are there any life lessons, experiences, or advice you would like to share with the young generation to be successful in life?

I would say work hard, persevere. Be kind and support others. Think forward, be realistic, have goals but be flexible, be ready to adapt, and look for opportunities. Make things happen for yourself, and don’t wait till you’re ready. I would say that don’t wait until you’re ready.

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with AlignThoughts! It was a pleasure talking to you.

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