Does dressing down hurt women?

One of the most curious and confusing trends in recent times is the business dressing down culture. A fad from California and dot.com start ups in the 90s, it has spread with  the viral persistency of fast food outlets to other geographies. We started with casual Fridays, an employer’s way of showing the caring and human sides of their corporate natures.  In many organisations this has evolved now into every day dressing down, except quite often in client-facing situations.

Hard to navigate and get right

Business casual and dressing down is one of those professional dress code scenarios which is hard to navigate, and even harder to get right. But is it one area where women can suffer more than their male colleagues if they miss the mark? We work hard to pursue our careers ,yet do we run the risk of throwing that away by wearing casual clothes in a business setting?

I sat in a corporate meeting room recently taking a break with a group in a half-day coaching session. The door opened and a well-groomed woman popped a perfectly coiffed head into our session. The CEO was on a walkabout and asked if could he look in for a few minutes.  Of course  – he’s the CEO!

Instantly the men reached onto the back of their chairs and put on their jackets. One guy pulled a tie from his computer case (OK  – well he was in sales)  De daa…, they were all transformed within seconds from dressing down casual, into an almost business presentable CEO reveal. The women, on the other hand, who were actually in the majority in this case, looked exactly the same. It wasn’t that they looked scruffy or badly groomed. They didn’t.

They looked casual and not particularly business sharp. We could have been in an pre-school social, a sports club lounge or any other coffee morning. There were an array of cardigans, soft sweaters, some floppy casual trousers, a couple of sweet floral dresses and a puffa gilet.

Women judged more harshly

Given what we know that women are judged far more frequently and harshly on their appearance than their male counterparts, perhaps women have to be more cautious with casual dress codes and dressing down in the office. This is even more necessary in situations where there are fewer men and more women involved, simply to stand out, especially at the lower and mid levels of the hierarchy where they are more prevalent.

Although today there are less hard and fast professional image rules, we all need to be mindful of the impression we create. This is the memory that lingers long after we’ve left the room. The women didn’t look inappropriate in any way. There were no cleavages or unkempt clothes, but none looked memorable. In my recollection they had morphed into a gentle blur of soft pastels.

The peacock syndrome

We know in advance that the appearance of women is ranked higher than their qualifications and experience in any selection process, coming in at 3rd place for women compared to 9th place for men. Is this then something women should factor in and be prepared and ready at all times, to bring on their A games and stand out like peacocks? Or do they say that they want to be true to themselves and risk getting left behind in the “memorability” area of executive presence?  

The CEO when he did arrive was courteous and charming, impeccably suited, booted and well turned out. So this clearly was setting the tone for the company.

For women it’s more complicated.

Mark, the aforementioned Sales Manager told me “I’m not a fan of dressing down anyway. Like today, you never know what’s going to come up. I always keep a fresh shirt in the car and a tie on hand.  Sometimes customers want unscheduled tele-conferences and now client facing doesn’t necessarily mean a personal face to face meeting. I expect all my staff, men and women, to do the same. There are always external visitors in the building even if they are not meeting me” 

The question is should women abandon dressing down all together, or like their male colleagues simply keep jackets on the backs of their chairs? Image Consultant Claire Soper would probably say a yes.

But we never know if we might be called unexpectedly into a meeting whether with a client or senior management or even to an external lunch.

Jocelyn,  a Design Engineer was dismissive “Sometimes I have to go from a meeting on site, where I need to wear protective footwear and clothing, on to a business lunch and then to a cocktail networking do. I always keep makeup, tights and a change of clothes in my office. I’m not sure I would have a jacket on the back of my chair, but certainly handy if appropriate. If I turned up on site in a power suit and killer heels, I would be in breach of health and safety regulations anyway and sent away!”   

At a recent training event a participant shared how she struggled to be taken seriously by her male colleagues. I asked her to consider her professional image.  Despite being a 30 something professional she looked and dressed like a student half her age.  Women might put on their corporate suit for the big meeting or interview, but if on the other days of the year they don’t project a corporate look,  which perception will dominate? The one-off “dress-ups” or the daily visual memory?

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Does dressing down hurt women?

  1. Pingback: Professional Image checklist - daily dos and don'ts - 3Plus International

  2. Pingback: Dressing Down, from Soldiers to Starbucks | Hers.today | Different news for different mood

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