When it comes to workplace attire, there's no question the majority of women have lots of options. In the last 20 years, there's been a movement for variety, and with offices ranging from "business casual" to "casual casual", it's been somewhat easier (and cheaper) for us to buy clothes for work. But there's one busty problem that affects a lot of us: when it comes to breasts, how much is too much at the office?
"In a corporate world, you want to stand out for your job success and not your cleavage or triple Ds," says Diane Gottsman, a U.S. based etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. "Because if you like it or not, when you are exposed, it sends a message."
Gottsman says in most corporate offices, the general rule of thumb is a woman's shirt or dress should land two inches above the cleavage. In other words, your breasts or "cleavage line" shouldn't be showing. She says the more skin you show in an office (for both men and women), the less power you actually have.
In 2010, Liz Jones, a reporter for the Daily Mail, said she used to use her cleavage to get away with making mistakes in a male-dominated newsroom. Jones says over time she grew tired of male attention and favouritism, and eventually had her breast size reduced.
She also pointed out several women in her office used their cleavage or way of dressing to either get ahead or work around problems they had at work.
Linda Allan, a Toronto-based behaviour and dress specialist says this advantage only ends up working for a smaller number of women than most people assume. "For every woman who gets away with that, there are far far more women who do not," she says. "It's very narcissistic for an individual to think their cleavage is keeping them hired and promotable."
But on the flipside, some women feel showing cleavage can attract unwanted attention, slut shaming and sexual harassment. The Canada National Council Women's Advisory Committee estimates that approximately 90 per cent of female employees will face some type of sexual harassment at the workplace, with young women and unmarried women at the highest risk.
And when women do decide to show their cleavage (for any reason), it's also common for them to be called distractions. One awkward study said women who showed their cleavage at the workplace left men "confused and teased." But as Jezebel writer Hugo Schwyzer says, "Most men are not biologically incapable of either empathy or intuition. They can learn to distinguish sexual interest from politeness, a fashion choice from an attempt at seduction."
Big boob problems
In this case, size does matter. Most women with large breasts would agree it's not easy to find workplace attire that buttons up or looks flattering.
"In a sense men and women are almost hostage to bad clothing styles that generally exist in stores," Allan says. "It's hard to go against trends to find something that's flattering and holds modesty."
Others disagree. Jezebel writer Dodai Stewart said in 2008, "If I'm comfortable, then I'm getting work done, and that's all that matters...I can't just put them away in a drawer and pull them out on Friday night. It doesn't work that way."
The other trends
Discussion around appropriateness of workplace attire tends to focus on a woman's bust-line or wearing flip-flops at the office, but Allan says in the last couple of years, she also sees an emerging trend of men wearing overly tight pants. "I have companies tell me they don't like to look at male employees standing sideways, and we see this trend with young men in particular."
And when it comes to ranking appropriateness, one study showed employees were more offended by cleavage, see-through clothes, shorts and flip-flops on men and women.
Making the call, for yourself
But whether you're just comfortable in your own skin, or just trying to keep up with trends, Gottsman says at the end of the day, the decision is solely yours. She has had clients who spoke to their employees individually about dressing appropriately, but women (and men) should keep in mind who they stand for.
"You start to realize you don’t have to be like everyone else and you have to be brand responsible," Gottsman says. "You are your brand and I am not talking about clothing."
What do you think, is workplace cleavage something you're OK with? Let us know in the comments below.
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