In light of some perspectives on women’s fashion that have crossed Above the Law recently (and because I like to beat horses until I’m absolutely sure they’re good and dead), I’d like share a few thoughts. When it comes to what to wear at the workplace, most of us women agree that women should dress professionally. And most of us know what dressing professionally generally looks like, even if not everything is perfectly laid out.
However, there is this “small” issue that there are still too many sexist job interviewers out there who expect women to go beyond just dressing professionally, and demand that we dress in a way that they consider feminine and appropriate for a woman.
Now, some women are perfectly comfortable wearing skirts and heels, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Other women suspect that such items are the devil’s handiwork. In any case, most women aren’t happy when other people dictate how any of us dress in the workplace, so long as we’re meeting the basic standards of professionalism. After all, it’s a rare occasion that men at the office are judged for not dressing in more masculine attire….
There’s this other “small” issue that our economy totally sucks and job offers can be really hard to come by. The math just doesn’t work out these days. Unlike some applicants who are fortunate enough to receive multiple offers, most job hunters are looking for every miniscule advantage they can get in this market. If the choice seems to be between being able to pay for food and shelter versus putting on a skirt and a pair of heels for the interview process, it won’t take most of us women very long to conform to the stereotype rather than put any potential job opportunity at risk.
One problem with this is the sliding slope aspect. How far do we go in compromising what we believe in to make our lives easier? Once we obtain the coveted job offer, what if dressing more femininely than we’d like means that we’ll be provided more career opportunities? Would we give in to sexist expectations (however minor they seem) if it means we won’t get a promotion otherwise? There’s a choice we’re making on the issue every time we decide to go one way or another.
Standing firm for what you believe in isn’t easy. Rosa Parks was 42 years old when she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. My guess is that she gave up that seat many times prior to that fateful day when she decided that, nope, she just would not be doing that anymore. On that day, she went to jail. On that day, with that one simple act, Rosa also helped to launch a civil rights movement.
Now, I’m not saying that all women who hate wearing skirts should never wear skirts to an interview. Life is too complicated for such a trite and presumptuous statement. Everybody’s situation is different. We each care about and prioritize issues differently. And we need to be smart about the battles we pick. Each of us should make a careful analysis of the right and appropriate actions to take for our situation. And then, for our own sanity and self-respect, we should firmly pursue what we believe is the right course to follow.
For employers, is this an area that you should consider addressing for interviewer training? Could you have interviewers who are limiting their hires based on how “feminine” a female candidate looks during her interview? If you do, I’d contend that there’s a very good chance that you’re not always hiring the best candidates, since the pool of women who are actually being considered is smaller than the pool of women who are brought in based on the strength of their résumés. Over time, you’ll end up excluding an increasingly larger category of highly competent women.
Moreover, by excluding this group of women, you will exclude people who have particular qualities that could strengthen and challenge your teams. For example, women who are willing to question the norm and how things are usually done. Women who are a little less inclined to give in to peer pressure. Women who take risks for what they believe is right. Women who have taken on the challenge of finding perfectly-fitting dress pants head on. If you don’t hire them, many of your competitors will be happy to. You’ll lose opportunities to add these strengths to your company’s workforce and these women will instead contribute these advantages to the successes of your competition.
Also, as a general matter, is this the message we want to send to our daughters and granddaughters? Because the longer we perpetuate, support, and reward the hiring of women based on their looks instead of solely their skills, the longer we’ll encourage these behaviors to reach their generations.
We have a ways to go on gender equality in the workplace. We’re still struggling with the fact that women are making less than men in the same roles and that women are woefully underrepresented in the upper echelons of management. The longer we’re tolerant of such discrimination in the workplace, including during the interview process, the longer we slow down progress for all women, including those behind us who look to us for guidance. For employers, interviewers and job hunters, stopping discrimination during the interview process is a relatively simple act. Who knows when that simple act will result in large consequences?
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.