In Australia’s corporate world it is clear that sartorially speaking men and women are not equal. And no matter what Karl Stefanovic thinks he’s doing to help the cause, it doesn’t change the fact that what women wear to work is far more complex than it is for men.
Men can wear just about anything they want while women have to walk a confusing tightrope in order to be taken seriously and respected. When I used to work in a top tier law firm, “demure” was the dress code for the girls. No bright colours; nothing too short or sexy. But for the men, it was anything goes which is why many of them sat around in their bike Lycra most of the day, unless they had client meetings. Why does this double standard persist and what can we do about it?
As Kathryn Haynes, an academic at the Newcastle University Business School states in her research paper ‘Body Beautiful? Gender, Identity and the Body in Professional Services Firms’, despite interest in the role of the physical body in popular culture, little is known about the combined relationship of gender, identity and the body in the corporate world, such as in law and professional services firms. Yet, the physical body is an important facet of professionalism because it is symbolic of aspects of our perceived identity and sense of self.
For me personally, what I have worn throughout my career has certainly influenced how I’ve been treated. It ranges from the subtle to the brash, but all the same, it’s just not cricket. At one large corporate firm being the token female during one of the graduate recruitment interviews was an illuminating experience. The candidate was a real-life incarnation of Barbie and as soon as she left the room after a mediocre interview, the most senior man in the room remarked, “Phwar! We have GOT to hire her. Did you see how short her skirt was?” Everyone in the room laughed and agreed, except me, needless to say.
I rolled my eyes but the worst part was I knew he wasn’t kidding. Hiring on the proviso that you might see more of that or, even better, get a chance to sleep with that, is sexual harassment and completely uninspiring. I spoke up and argued the merits for why her interview did not warrant us giving her a position; like any candidate she deserved a job offer to be made on the basis of her performance not her appearance. But if I wasn’t there, or hadn’t spoken up, who would have?
Hayne’s research points out that women are conscious of compensating for their perceived lack of professional demeanour by altering their self-presentation through the management of their body. This includes simply out-dressing others or using clothes as a cloak of professionalism. As one senior manager from an accounting firm said, ‘I sort of think that if you go to a meeting and you are the only women in the room you better be the best dressed one there, and if you go to a meeting with clients and you’re the accountant you better be dressed one notch above the client’.
This rings true for me too. For instance, I know for a fact that my career progressed far more quickly when I stopped wearing pink and eschewed a more ‘girly’ look for something more powerful. Bold colours – red, royal blue and black; high heels to be as tall as my male colleagues; bright red lips to command to be listened to. And you know what? It worked; I was listened to and I was promoted but I had to wear my masculine cloak in order to do it. (Or was it my sexy cloak? It doesn’t matter, the point is it was one or the other, just not myself.)
As Hayne’s states, ‘women have to tread a fine line between hiding negatively constructed aspects of femininity while displaying positively construed masculine forms of embodiment in order to be taken seriously. These issues may have severe implications for the women themselves as they subsume facets of their identity and sacrifice aspects of their bodies.’ Hayne’s research also might go some way to helping explain why women continue to feel marginalised in the legal and accounting professions.
These issues have serious implications for the corporate world and this kind of subtle inequality needs to be addressed. Men and women should both be able to wear what they like to work – obviously within the bounds of professionalism – and be taken seriously. Women should not have to ‘dress like a man’ or ‘dress sexily’ in order to get noticed and get ahead.
When will this double standard disappear? When can I wear my leopard print heels and still be taken seriously?