Recently, The Atlantic published an article that sparked the curiosity of many. An entrepreneur and venture capitalist event featured a woman wearing outrageously tall heels – inspiring Jorge Cortell, CEO of Kanteron Systems to take a photo and inquire on Twitter why this person would choose such footwear for business.
Rachel Kumar, a Product Manager in Silicon Valley, immediately told Cortell his comment was wrong. “Until you can walk in that woman’s shoes (metaphorically), don’t dismiss her choices as frivolous,” she wrote. Criticized for his supposedly sexist statement, I believe Cortell to be incorrect; yet unfortunately, such a perspective is far from scarce. Despite their outfits being professional and modest, women often face unfair bias when it comes to what they wear in male-dominated fields. It’s nearly impossible for females to gain the approval of others no matter how hard they try – an unjust double standard that has persisted over time.
The Associated Press just announced that Silicon Valley fashion has graduated from hoodies and Adidas slides with socks (cough, Mark Zuckerberg). Although this is great news for many, it can be a bit daunting for women. “As much as we want to think there isn’t a boys club, Silicon Valley still feels very much run by men and there’s a difference in expectations,” San Mateo-based image consultant Marina Sarmiento Feehan told The Huffington Post. “Women who rise to the top tend to be judged more, both by men and other women, and in order to succeed they do have to dress better.”
Women are frequently admonished if they don’t demonstrate a feminine figure or dress too plainly in power suits. Nevertheless, even when attempting to look attractive and stylish, their attire is often subject to judgment and gossip. According to CareerBuilder’s survey, pink and red were the least favored color choices of CEOs at only 1% each. They view those tones as too feminine compared to navy blue (which came in first with 36%) and black (a close second with 26%). It is a tightrope walk trying to navigate corporate expectations—especially if you’re wearing heels!
For women, the concept of “Casual Friday” does not exist. As Lea Goldman, Marie Claire Features and Special Projects Director has said: when you’re allowed to dress casually in your workplace it can be an even greater challenge. In a 2012 Wall Street Journal article, Kay Garkusha—a former hedge fund manager—lamented the struggle of obtaining professional office casual attire for women in financial roles. Reportedly, upper-level men wore 7 For All Mankind jeans and Lacoste shirts (which cost as much money as suits), however, a female would not have been able to convey the same degree of professionalism with such an outfit. Sadly there were no equivalent clothing options available for women at that time. “You can’t dress like the guys and you can’t dress like the other women who are in support roles,” said Garkusha.
It comes down to the issue of “feminine feminism.” This summer, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s picture in Vogue caused a stir of controversy as the public questioned her decision to recline on a chaise wearing designer clothes. It is unfair to presume that women cannot handle their jobs if they wear a fashionable 4-inch stiletto and leopard-print blouse. CEOs should not be judged based on their fashion choices! We must end these stereotypes, so why let clothing hinder the success of an outstanding female leader?
To me, a stylish woman is someone who knows what they want and expresses it with assurance. They have the right to express their unique style without fear of criticism or snide looks – we should never be ashamed of our tastes. “The perception in Silicon Valley is that if you dress well, you couldn’t possibly be smart, or you’re in P.R. but couldn’t possibly run a company,” said Leila Janah, 29, a tech entrepreneur who worked in New York before moving to the Bay Area. “I remember briefly attempting the Adidas and jeans and sweatshirt over T-shirt look, but I realized I was trying to dress like a young tech geek, and that just wasn’t me. Fashion is expressing my aesthetic sense.”
Fortunately, some women are bravely standing up against the discussion and dressing how they want (in a professional capacity). Recently, The Hollywood Reporter featured an article showcasing female executives in the entertainment industry talking about their transformation of power fashion. Blair Kohan, a partner at UTA, says the uniform has gone from everyone in the same Ann Taylor suit to ”more expressiveness. Women no longer have to look tough because we are tough.”
Get the scoop from Refinery 29 editor Annie Greenberg on her top strategies for professional dress.