she's too sexy for her job

She’s Too Sexy for her Job

Women and appearance in the workplace

I’ve come across a lot of material recently about how women should conduct themselves in the workplace ranging from: smiling (too much/too little,) speaking up (too late/too quiet/too much,) stretching the rules (not enough/taking advantage,) flirting (do/don’t) and it just seemed to me yet again that women are in a double bind. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The final straw was when I saw an article about a woman in Citibank who was fired for being “too hot” , when the bank’s own diversity instructions and career advice for women encourages them to be more visible. But can a woman be too sexy for her job?

Beauty backlash

Reading the discussion, Debrahlee Lorenzana seems to be in a no win situation, with comments ranging from “she should dress in looser fitting clothes” to ” she was too focused on her clothes to do her job properly” , to “well she’s making a fuss about this to get into Playboy!” See below and make up your own mind.

Fired for being too hot

In a prepared statement Citibank said: “While we will not discuss the details of her case, we can say that her termination was solely performance-based and not at all related to her appearance or attire….”


In a survey contacting 60000 respondents with Elle Magazine and NMBC , 61 percent of women said they thought men judged them on their looks, followed by work ethic (54 percent) and accomplishments (49 percent). Do men ever struggle with the same quandaries about appearance and clothes?

Are they too sexy for their suits

Do they fret if their shirts are too tight or body hugging? Are bulging biceps a concern? Ladies, I said biceps! Do they worry about being fired for being too manly? Not one bit it would appear. Men feel that female colleagues judge them on work ethic first (43 percent), accomplishments (40 percent) and looks (32 percent).

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However, research indicates “both attractive men and women are often seen as more talented, kind, and intelligent and that can lead to promotions and raises,” says Gordon Patzer, author of Looks: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined. Unattractive men, meanwhile, earned 15 percent less than their attractive coworkers in a London Guildhall University survey of 33-year-olds. Unattractive women earned 11 percent less. Whatever attractive means.


So if there are lots of advantages to being good-looking it would seem short-sighted not to capitalise on a natural asset or even enhance one that is less than perfect. Like Debrahlee Lorenzana, if they’ve got it, should they make it work for them? How different tactically is it to strategic networking for example? Isn’t it about stretching the rules and being visible? Who defines the parameters of those rules anyway. Is this a case of suggesting we stretch the rules but only if it’s in a certain pre – approved (male-style) way. But how far do you go?

There is an ugly downside side to beauty in the workplace carrying certain advantages.

An increasing number of people who feel less blessed, are starting to facilitate their career opportunities with not just a makeover, but via plastic surgery , a sort of job seeker’s nip/tuck to give them that push up the corporate ladder. That could lead to a whole other “lookist elite ” sounding vaguely sci fi -ish which bothers me.

Double bind

I asked Katie a young women in her mid -20s, based in California, a beauty in anyone’s eye, how she dealt with it all. She told me ” I am very careful about my personal dress code and tend to keep it functional and neutral. I am also very mindful of the work and social divide and rarely join the guys for after work drinks, wanting to keep my business and personal personas completely separate. I want to be treated and judged only by my professional performance

Marcia , on the other hand, tall , slim, blonde, is based in London and takes a different view. “I work in a male dominated environment. My company has a dress code which I more or less follow. I like to make a statement in the way I dress, while appearing groomed and professional. I don’t want to blend into the background, but I’m not deliberately sexually provocative. I am aware of my male associates checking me and the other girls in the office out, but I ignore it. It’s never been an issue professionally in fact it’s been helpful. People remember me “.

If you’re an attractive woman should you hide your light under a bushel or a burka?

Playing to win

So if you’re an attractive woman and use your looks to your advantage, is that strategically savvy or a cheap shot? Should you hide your light under a bushel or a burka? Men seem to feel it’s the responsibility of the women not to distract them from the task in hand with their attire or good looks, rather than take responsibility for their own behaviour and libidos. But good-looking ladies also come under fire from other women, going back to the anthropological drive to snare the best men, typically found at the top of organisations, which is sometimes even tougher to deal with. Whoever said women are too nice, clearly hasn’t negotiated the minefields found in ladies’ powder rooms. There are fewer snipers in Kabul.

So pretty women seem to get flak from all sides and each woman therefore has to find the way which suits her best and the one she feels comfortable with, whether it’s statement, visibility raising dressing, or biz neutral. But above all, she has to put in a good performance. In the meantime we can hope that cultural perceptions will change, but truthfully, can today’s women wait long enough for that to happen?

What do you think?

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20 thoughts on “She’s Too Sexy for her Job

  1. Sharon Eden

    Love Marcia’s comments and think Katie’s comments are mostly saying similar things in a different way. There’s two very savvy women.

    Remember a thousand years’ ago when I was studying sociology research which indicated ‘attractive’ looking people got a better deal in life than ‘less attractive’ and ‘unattractive’ people. A tough reality of life maybe but if you’re attractive why not capitalise on the fact?

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Sharon – there is no doubt that as a society with a strong focus on a certain perception of physical appearance , looks play an important role in success in the workplace. Attractive people do tend to be more successful than unattractive individuals which is shame. To be fired from a job because of the visibility caused by good looks seems incomprehensible.

      Katie takes a traditional view about dressing neutrally and being judged only on performance. Marcia couldn’t care if people remember her legs, because she is confident in her ability to do a good job. Both ladies are confident and competent as well as being gorgeous!

      What I struggle with is the mixed messages. If employers urge women to be visible, provided that it is environment appropriate ( a corporate exec shouldn’t look and dress like a pole dancer – and vice versa presumably) then men should learn to deal with their responses appropriately !

  2. Jackie Walker

    I had a client who believed when she started working with me that she was employed for her looks, she received undue attention in the office, and ended up in a legal battle for discrimination.

    Although she played down her attractiveness and wore ‘prescriptive’ work wear, it was the way she conducted herself which drew the attention. She expected to be subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination, and boy did she get it.

    Once she became confident in her own abilities, cleared up the story she told herself, and removed emotional baggage, she started wearing less prescriptive clothing, adopted a different stance and now works in a much more male dominated environment than ever with fantastic success and respect!

    Perhaps the message from employers is that women become confident in their abilities and not their looks. That by stepping up to the plate to be visible is in the work they do, and not how they appear.

    A woman able to stand in her own power is a highly magnetic and attractive quality – to both genders. When she does so, she will, like Katie and Marcia, be less affected by others’ opinions.

    There will always be powder room and urinal snipers. Anyone who perceives someone as a threat will want to pull them down a peg or two for whatever reason – brains or beauty. Like all forms of bullying it only works when we give it power.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Jackie – excellent thoughts. Thank you! Of course women should be visible because of their performance. In an ideal world that is exactly how it should be, all the time.

      But unhappily all research suggests that women are judged by their appearance far more than men. Researching this post I discovered that generally blondes earn more than brunettes and redheads by 7%, and overweight people earn less than their thinner counterparts ( especially women).

      I just wonder if any men have ever been spoken to for dressing too sexily in the office or being too visible? If women stand out for any reason because of their appearance – the general perception is that they can’t possibly do a good job and if they don’t , they are not assertive and visible enough.

      It’s a fine line to tread and one I think that men, as far as I know, don’t have to negotiate.

  3. Cyrus Mansouri

    Clearly we live in a society where we are judged all too often on appearance. This applies not just to personal attire or indeed our physical appearance, but also the appearance of our car, home, office or even our watch, shoes and glasses. We each have an impression of what we perceive as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. To what extent these ‘prejudices’ should be allowed into the workplace is questionable. Companies openly advertise their company image as well as uniforms. We all know that those of us who lack that certain ‘look’ are unlikley to be offered a job as say an airline host/ess. The appearance of your staff convey a message about your business. Obviously employers do not want shaby appearances but it seems, from your blog, that there is now resistence against people who perhaps exceed expectations of appearance.

    I agree with your assertion that men expect to be judged more on performance at work rather than appearance. However; I find that expectation false and lacking in foundation. It is a lazy approach. A sharp, neat and organised appearance can well indicate a similar attitude to work performance. Perhaps men should pay a little more attention to their own appearance and (if at all possible) a little less attention to the appearance of the ladies!

    Dorothy – Agreed – there is a fine line between dressing well and dressing to arouse attention.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Cyrus – thanks for making such relevant points.

      The assertion about men expecting to be judged by their work ethic and accomplishments wasn’t mine- but came from the Elle/ NMBC research. I agree that sharp neat approach is the best solution for everyone, but if looking sharp and neat makes the individuall sexually appealing as well, then that can be perceived negatively.

      It’s just an issue I don’t think men have to deal with. I also wonder if there is some double standard at play , exhorting women on the one hand to stretch the rules and be visible – but penalising them when they do!

  4. Cherry Woodburn

    Good post. I’ve read many of the same type of articles and your post made me wonder how many similar articles there are for men. If there are ones obviously, I wouldn’t be paying attention because they don’t apply to me. That being said, I agree that there’s not as much emphasis on men’s looks as women’s, although there are indications that that may be changing. There have always been articles on how to act/lead/manage, which for years were geared to men.
    All-in-all I have grown weary of all the articles about what women should and shouldn’t do and how they should or shouldn’t dress (even if there’s validity to it), which led me to write this satirical post.
    Hope you enjoy and thanks for the provocative post. Cherry

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Cherry – funny post! You really highlighted many double standards and some I hadn’t thought of.

      I did try to research men who might have been fired for looking too hot but came up with nothing. I can’t imagine a man being let go for having well constructed biceps in a short sleeve shirt!

      Like you I tire of the mixed messages sent to women about what to do and what not to do in the workplace. They’re confusing to all. If a man finds a co-worker sexually attractive – he has to deal with his own libido ( provided her conduct is appropriately professional) and not blame her for being too hot and try to cover her up!

  5. Ann Hawkins

    My initial reaction to this is : “Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose”.
    In the early 70’s I was very naive and newly qualified and the only female manager in a printing company of 1200 people. There were 5 trades unions one with a special sector for women.
    The first Equal Pay bill was introduced. (It was subsequently merged with the Race Relations Bill and became the Equal Opportunities Act.) Implementing this legislation into the company was a nightmare . None of the trades unions wanted it and the rest of the management team, most of whom had come through the apprenticeship system, thought it was huge joke. Applications from girls to become apprentices were greeted with “she’ll have to work with her top off like the lads do” and a black applicant for a sales job was told that customers wouldn’t accept him.
    As for me, no-one knew where I fitted in. The managers had a monthly dinner with speakers on our industry but weren’t comfortable with inviting me to join them – their excuse was that their wives wouldn’t like it. They compromised by inviting their secretaries and the whole thing became a joke.
    I was a good looking, single, young woman and although fully qualified and very bright was left in no doubt that most of the workforce thought I’d got the job because of my looks.
    It was a crucible of fire and gave me plenty to work with in later years!
    By the way – men are discriminated against based on their appearance. There is a lot of evidence to show that the highest earners in the Fortune 500 companies are above average height, white males with dark hair.
    That’s why I call one of my talks “Why we ALL fall for Tall Dark & Handsome Men” – it gets a lot of discussions going!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Ann – thanks for your insightful comments. I agree women are in a double bind. If they’re attractive they are accused of manipualting their looks for advancement and if they’re not they are less likely to be successful and encouraged to make themselves more visible.

      Someone suggested that men don’t dress sexily for the office so why should women? The fact is women are attracted to men for many reasons other than their looks – power, success, confidence are all powerful aphrodisiacs – so they simlply don’t need to. As you say physical characteristics associated with being good looking for men are also perceived as being part of the success formula and re- named: charisma. If any man has been told to wear a looser suit because he’s distracting his female co-workers I would be delighted to hear from him!

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  7. Annabel

    I have worked with men who were sexually harassed in the workplace (some by women, others by men) and they were all ‘beautiful’ men whose lives were made a misery by people thinking ‘he’s handsome, he’s male, he must be available or willing’. The individual men I worked with tended to be immaculately dressed – it was part of their self image to look good. Rather than dress as slobs they all found new employment in environments where they could be taken seriously as colleagues, rather than as toys.

    Women have run this gauntlet for millenia, and I suspect some types of men too. I have worked with women who were very beautiful who struggled to be taken seriously in their chosen field. Others plainly have used their looks to their advantage.

    The old fashioned British workwear ‘uniform’ of tailored suits all round avoided a lot of this (though not all). Now that women go to work in a wide variety of outfits, they are bound to get a wide variety of responses.

    Years ago, having dressed as I pleased at work (not sexy but quirky) I asked my Mum, why aren’t I getting promoted. She took me shopping and bought me a pin stripe suit with a split skirt and grey high heeled shoes. I was promoted within a week of wearing it. Nothing else about me had changed. I have no regrets about experimenting with that tactic – never had to use it since, since after that, what I do speaks for itself…and anyway that old pin strip suit would be way too small!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Annabel – thanks for your comment. Research suggests that good looking individuals of both sexes are paid more than their less attractive counterparts. If there is any man who has been asked to change his appearance to make himself less attractive I’d be delighted to hear of the circumstances.

      I also know someone in the legal profession, a quirky dresser, who was asked to conform to the professional dress code norms! It seems to be a conservative profession.

      1. Dorothy Dalton

        Hi Irune – thanks for your comment. I agree it would be hard to imagine a situation where a man was asked to dress less sexily, unless on dress down Friday – he was really dressed down!

  8. Irune

    I just fail to see how a man would be asked to dress “less sexy”. In the few corporate environments I’ve worked at, they all were wearing mostly boring suits. They weren’t provocative 🙂 And beautiful people always had it easier, they have usually more confidence and are better at networking (usually because they have had more chances to practice) so get the best work deals.

    And anybody working in the banking industry, at least in London, knows that testosterone runs wild. Strip clubs were horribly affected when the banking crisis happened! I don’t think a woman can be taken seriously in that kind of industry at the moment, even if she is wearing the most conservative attire you can imagine. The problem runs deeper than good looks 🙂 I’m on the web industry as a programmer, and I still get the “oh! but I thought women sucked at computers”, though less frequently than say, 10 years ago 🙂

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