On a frigid winter day at work last year, I witnessed a perplexing paradox. My coworker took out her warm, dressy-casual outfit in preparation to walk to an important meeting in another building. She swapped her knitted sweater for a thin, polyester dress shirt, corduroy pants for a business skirt and winter boots for a pair of thin flats, no socks.
“I really should wear heels,” she said. “Our boss will be wearing heels … I don’t want to look unprofessional.”
As cold temperatures approach again, I remember how pressured my coworker felt to dress a certain way despite the weather. I can’t help but wondering: Are women’s professional clothing just one more way we face sexism in the workplace? Why is women’s work attire scrutinized. My coworker, along with many other women, feel like she has to make herself uncomfortable to be socially accepted at work.
People expect women to look sophisticated and polished at all times at work, even if it means dressing impractically for the weather. I’m not saying that acceptable professional wear can’t be warm, but it can be difficult to find for women. Take shoes for example: just try to find a pair of heels or flats that work with thick socks. Go further: Find a pair of stylish heels or flats that work with thick socks. The shoes must be stylish because part of how women, especially young women, show they have their lives put together on the inside is by being put together on the outside.
There’s also an unofficial rule that women have to wear a nearly endless variety of clothing in the latest style to look truly put together.
Men can wear a different shade of blue button-down shirt, khaki slacks and loafers every day. Many of women’s routine choices for a professional style includes clothes – skirt or pants, suit jacket or no jacket, heels or flats; hair – curled or straight, up or down, ponytail or bun; makeup – just mascara and lipstick or full beat; jewelry – necklace and rings or is that too much, studs or dangles?
These questions must be answered by women if they want to be taken professionally. Men don’t need to consider any of those extensive measures of style. The world can advocate for women’s natural beauty all day, but professional women aren’t taken seriously if they aren’t dressing the part. Consider an interview between two women candidates: Merit isn’t all that matters; appearances matter, and if one woman wears makeup and another doesn’t, that’s taken into immediate consideration as a part of the “professionalism” associated with the position.
This practice of judging women’s professionalism by their clothing choices is unfair. If a woman can do her work well, it shouldn’t matter what she’s wearing. Let’s stop holding women to an impossible standard. If we’re going to judge someone’s professionalism, let’s consider her performance at work, her ethics, her treatment of coworkers, customer satisfaction and anything but her appearance.