Do women need to look the part?

by | Oct 21, 2017

Professional dress in the workplace and invisible constraints on women

Professional dress in the workplace and invisible constraints on women. Many workplaces favour professional dress for their employees, whatever their gender.

Whether you like it or not, many workplaces favour professional dress for their employees, whatever their gender. What’s more, this plays an important role in impacting how people perceive you and your company professionally, and even your performance. While dress codes can be all well and good, a decision made at a company’s discretion, it yet again ends up being women who suffer more scrutiny than men in this domain, which consequently could lead to them losing out professionally too.

Ann Pearce is a cofounder of Photofeeler website, which crowdsources first impressions of people in photos. She aptly expresses here what professional dress actually means for a woman, a demand that can be problematic and contradictory:

‘A woman must wear a version of the popular menswear, and it must fit her in a way that is feminine, without being sexually appealing’

professional dress

 The benefits of professional dress

Various studies show clothing can have an effect on creativity, negotiating, accuracy, and sporting performance. A study on doctors in 2012 for example, revealed subjects wearing a white lab coat were twice as attentive, making fewer mistakes than those in a painter’s jacket.

‘The clothes you wear can affect your mental and physical performance’

Anisa Purbasari Horton is a freelance journalist who works from home. She also details of how an experiment to dress up during working hours led to more sustained concentration throughout the day.  She also notes that it allows her to switch out of ‘work mode’ in the evenings.

Furthermore, it is generally accepted that first impressions and appearance do make an impact on how companies are perceived. Dress codes are a part of that. Smart business wear is noted as particularly important during business pitches and negotiations, and within certain sectors such as consultancy, where companies still need to exude a smart, professional air.

On the other hand, Mark Zuckerberg infamously wears casual clothes so he can concentrate on more important tasks. Sian Bostwick, jewellery designer, talks of feeling creatively stifled when made to wear blacks and greys. Many successful companies are shifting to more casual dress codes, and women are finding ways to mix the current trends into their work wear. Perhaps it is less the clothes themselves that are important, but the psychological link to them being designated work garments?

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Invisible rules for women

If this is the case, then it seems unfair that getting the ‘right’ image is so important, particularly for women. There are countless unspoken, but very real rules regarding fashion that women come under scrutiny for. Female politicians receive a lot of criticism for their clothing choices where men don’t. This can eclipse what they have to say. Claudia Drace notes, for example, that it was branded in the headlines as hypocritical that  Hilary Clinton wore an Armani jacket costing $12,000 while making a speech about inequality. Donald Trump however, made a speech about creating jobs for US citizens wearing a $17,000 Brioni suit. This was not commented on, but is it any less hypocritical?

Whatever their age or body type men’s choices are mainly limited to suits. In contrast, the choice that women have leads to many more chances to get it wrong. Skirt length, neckline, fit, makeup are just some of the invisible parameters surrounding female dress codes. Their acceptability is then further dependent on age, body type, and personal opinion. Women can be expected to wear high heels to look professional and it is often said to give them more presence among male colleagues. However it is hardly a practical or comfortable choice with associated health risks. Women that don’t want to wear them may be penalised or overlooked professionally, which doesn’t seem fair. Makeup is another tricky subject; most employers suggest that some is necessary, but too much looks cheap. Women also must be careful to dress their age whilst being neither revealing nor frumpy. There are many hurdles to overcome.

What should we be aiming for?

An online list of style tips for women on dressing like a leader said to aim for the following:

‘Both appealing and powerful, strong but not overbearing, confident but not arrogant’ as well as ‘fashionable but not trendy’

With a list like this, of very vague and subjective constraints, it is no wonder that many  women can find professional dress difficult and problematic.

It does seem that, overall, looking the part can be performance enhancing and can be used in a positive way. However, we need to remould our critical eye regarding women’s fashion choices, paring back the impossible standards we set.  As long as everyone looks neat and presentable we can focus instead on what they have to say, and their professional assets. Professional dress should empower women, not stifle them.

Unsure what your professional wardrobe says about you? An Introductory Professional Image Consultation with us will help you to dress for success

Hanna Greeman Contributor
Hanna is a languages and logistics specialist. She is currently living in Barcelona working as a Creative Copywriter.
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