Breaking the Wardrobe Barriers

I recently got an email from an associate that stopped me in my tracks. A friend of hers had been promoted to senior IT security leader at a top Silicon Valley tech company. The friend, now spending more time with company leaders, felt pressure to trade in the high-tech uniform (t-shirts and jeans) for a professional look. Having little time or fashion sense, this person was looking to hire a personal shopper for a wardrobe overhaul -perhaps I knew someone.

Can you imagine a man intelligent and competent enough to land this plum job but so self-conscious about appearing professional that he'd invest in a new wardrobe and consultant?

I couldn't, I realized with a jolt. Yet for a rising female tech star, the request seemed very normal.

The Continuing Reality

It's 2016 but the expectations about appearances in the workplace for men and women are still totally out of whack. Take fingernails.

In a study on executive presence authored by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and sponsored by companies like American Express and Goldman Sachs, 42% of executives surveyed said poorly kept nails detracted from a woman's executive presence, yet 37% found "overly done" nails to be "un-leaderlike."

Is that outrageous? Yes. Does my husband trim his nails at home while I spend $30 and an hour every other week on manicures? Yes.

But wait, it gets worse. Another study found that women who wear makeup are perceived as more "competent." Wait, what?

Hewlett, who studies people who exude power, said in a recent interview that fashion "is a critical piece of the puzzle because it's the first filter... If you show up without makeup or looking sloppy, no matter how impressive your ideas are, no one is going to pay attention to you."

Now I'm not sure I buy that entirely, but too many women have to spend more time and effort on looks than their male colleagues to be taken seriously and/or get ahead. It's no wonder English uniform company Simon Jersey found that the 2,000 women they surveyed reported spending on average 90 minutes a week debating what to wear; over half were kept up at night at some point fretting over their office wardrobe (see the depressing infographic).

How to Size All This Up

This email from my friend had me wondering: what can women do to make the best of this reality - until we get enough power to change it? Here are four ideas:

  • Know what's expected, then decide your path. For any aspect of business success, you need to know the rules. If they don't work for you, you can pick another way to make a living or you can follow them, get in the door, do amazing things and earn the right to start changing them. When women are 50% of company leaders and earn the same pay as men for the same work, I have to believe that makeup and nails will become appropriately irrelevant.
  • Consider picking a uniform. Steve Jobs' black mock-turtlenecks and jeans took the uniform literally, but men's suits are essentially a uniform, too. Limiting wardrobe choices to a few pants, jackets and dress shirts means more time/focus for work. Harper's Bazaar art director Matilda Kahl bought 15 white silk blouses and some black pants, and called her wardrobe done. A colleague alternates tights, boots, skirts and tops in various colors, and she always looks great. I pretty much wear the Silicon Valley uniform at the office (I'm just old and wise enough to know that I can), and on business trips take the same four or five outfits that travel well.
  • Reduce stress with expert help. If, like our rising tech star, you're hesitant to go it alone, don't. But you don't have to hire a stylist. Enlist a fashionable friend who'll steer you right, read up online and/or make use of free department store personal shoppers. I hired a personal shopper because I'm a VP with a pack of kids who travels extensively. I also happen to hate clothes shopping.
  • Don't be quick to judge. If you hate being assessed based on your clothes, hair, makeup or, yes, nails, then don't do it to others.

We have to live in the real world, even as we try to change it. Ironically, I can more persuasively command a room and capture hearts and minds about changing the reality for women in the workplace if I look my best. I think of it as wielding reality as a tool.

You can do it, too.