On my much needed vacation this week, I finally had a chance to read Lean In. One particular point that really stuck with me was that one of the biggest impediments to the success of women in their careers is the pressure we often face to “fit in with the boys.” “Within traditional institutions,” Sandberg writes, “success has often been contingent upon a woman not speaking out but fitting in, or more colloquially, being ‘one of the guys.’”
One of the ways women have traditionally fit in with their male co-workers is by dressing for work like them. Sandberg continues, “The first women to enter corporate America dressed in manly suits with button-down shirts.” A quick visit to J.Crew will confirm that women’s pantsuits are still a staple in dressing for work—for better or for worse.
In my experience working in corporate America over the past few years, I’ve noticed a dichotomy in the interpretation of business casual among male and female employees. For men, business casual means a button-up shirt, pants, and nice shoes—simple and straightforward. For women on the other hand, the line between business and casual is more ambiguous. While we could just continue to copy the guys and dress in pantsuits and button-down shirts, our (fashionable) feminine side desires to be expressed through skirts, dresses, and (gasp) high heels. Unlike our male co-workers who most likely don’t think twice about their rather mundane work outfits, every morning we have to decide how to embrace our femininity without looking provocative.
I couldn’t believe a story my 20-something year-old friend who works at Bloomberg told me the other day. She tensed up while recounting that she and her female co-workers had been privately spoken to that day by their (male) manager who cautioned them to not dress too provocatively at work. Allegedly a (male) client had been visiting the office earlier that day and was visibly distracted during a meeting by a female employee’s legs. I have no idea how high that female employee’s skirt was, but I do have an idea of what kind of client would stare at a woman’s legs in a professional workplace.
Instead of the client taking the blame for his inappropriate behavior, the female employee, and all of her female co-workers, were blamed for invoking such behavior. For a moment I was certain my friend had taken this story straight out of a recent “Mad Men” episode. Are we seriously still stuck in the 1950s where the onus was on women to not attract and thereby distract male co-workers/clients by dressing as manly as possible? This clearly sexist rationalization must stop if we are ever going to achieve true equality in corporate America.
For the sake of making the conversation not about gender, I believe that dressing for work should strictly be a matter of professionalism and confidence. Don’t dress to impress, dress for success! In my two months working at Condé Nast, I have met some of the best-dressed women I have ever seen. Yes, there may be an air of “up-dressing” and one-eyeing each other. However, for the most part women at Condé Nast truly dress for success. They are undeniably fashionable, yet extremely professional, all the while exuding confidence. A woman in five-inch heels isn’t seen as slutty, but as powerful. Her outfits are a reflection of her: strong, smart, sexy, and successful.
I want to encourage my fellow millennial working women to not only lean in to your career, but to step up (literally) at work! Wear your head high and your heels higher. Embrace your authentic femininity that is so much more powerful than forced masculinity. It is only by embracing our authentic femininity from how we dress to how we lead that we will succeed in our careers and achieve true equality in corporate America.
How do you think the way you dress affects the way you are perceived at work?
Ask Levo mentor Annie Georgia Greenberg about how she uses fashion to express herself in the workplace!