Finding a personal style at work is full of roadblocks for women

The Cohort is a Poynter newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Blazer, blouse, skirt, heels. I pulled my go-to interview outfit out of my closet and tried it on in preparation for an upcoming job interview. I loved this floral skirt for interviews; it’s bright and fun, knee length and professional. But this time, after gaining some weight, it fit a tad awkwardly, and I was worried about choosing it for a high-stakes interview where I wanted to convey competence and confidence. 

This wasn’t the first time I felt this way in front of my mirror, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. After being laid off for eight months last year, I didn’t have a ton of spare cash to buy better-fitting clothes for my new job, which made getting dressed for work a daily headache. Whenever I wore a button-down to work, I was worried it was gapping instead of focusing on the meeting I was in. I was afraid I was being judged because my clothes weren’t quite right, which I found frustrating because I knew from asking male friends that few of them give a second thought to their wardrobe. 

Women face more scrutiny over what they wear because it highlights their difference from men, said Nichole Bauer, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University studying the different expectations for men and women in male-dominated spaces.  

The man’s uniform for the workplace has been long established and is meant to convey authority and status regardless of the role, but clothing for women is primarily made to accentuate the body. Women are still seen as objects who should be pleasing to the eye, Bauer said.

Women have far more clothing options than men, and while that might seem like an advantage, it makes it easy to misstep: reveal too much or too little, appear too feminine, too masculine, too casual or too powerful. Judgment is always lurking around the corner.

“The onus is on women to change their behaviors or their appearance to adhere to the norm,” Bauer said. 

Women who spend more time and effort on their hair and makeup, one study found, make more money than women who do not invest energy in a polished look.

These experiences can leave women feeling as if they can’t win unless they make the most conservative or predictable clothing choices. 

S. Mitra Kalita, the vice president for programming at CNN Digital, said when she first became an editor, people gave her lots of advice on how to be a good manager, but no one talked about how to dress. 

“In the beginning, I think I tried to look like everyone else — black blazer, business suits, pearls, neutral colors. But I was never really comfortable. Because I am not like everyone else. And I'd like to think I get hired because I'm not like everyone else,” Kalita said. “So I started with small statements, say, ethnic necklaces or bright shoes or patterned tights. Now, it's not uncommon to see me in a fur vest or leopard-print dress or even tunics from India over leggings. Thankfully, as my own styles of dress have evolved in my more than two decades in journalism, so has the expectation of what women wear to work!” 

Kalita said these statement pieces are her combat boots. They remind her to be the most authentic version of herself, staying true what she believes in big meetings. It’s also a great conversation starter, sometimes giving her an opportunity to highlight journalistic accomplishments. 

“‘I love your necklace,’ someone might say. ‘Thanks. I got it in Nigeria.’ ‘When were you there?’ ‘Oh, in 2014. I helped launch an Africa edition. Worked closely with sales, product and editorial to make it all happen…’ See what I did there? That's better than a game of golf, if I say so myself,” she said.  

Mitra’s daughter loves shopping vintage at thrift stores and converted her. 

“We both love dresses and pantsuits from the 1960s and 1970s. When I wear them, I often think about what the women who wore these clothes went through. And it makes my 21st century problems seem surmountable,” she said. 

No matter what your style is, wear what makes you feel good. Some days that might be a power suit; other days you may gravitate toward Converse sneakers. 

“In order for other people to think we're fabulous, we gotta start with ourselves. So wear the things that make you feel that way,” Kalita said. 

Mandy Velez, social media editor at The Daily Beast, has worried that her feminine style of dressing — flowy dresses, bows in her hair and bright colors — is not taken as seriously in the newsroom as more neutral clothing. 

“I love when I’m at a job where I feel I can dress like myself without being judged or underestimated,” Velez said. “Having a woman in a superior role to me, like an editor, who dresses feminine or to her own personal style makes a difference and makes me feel so much more confident that I can dress like myself and not jeopardize my professional reputation.”

Ruchika Tulshyan, a freelance journalist based in Seattle who wrote the book The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In the Workplace, echoes that women balance two different judgments when they select their clothes. She said women who dressed more neutrally (pants, muted colors, untailored shirts, low maintenance hairstyles) may be seen as serious, but less likeable and less presentable to move into management, while women who dress on the feminine side (skirts, fitted blouses, pastel colors, heels, makeup) may be seen as less competent. 

“The double bind [is] really confusing as a journalist because we don’t have a standard industry expectation,” Tulshyan said, comparing it to industries like technology or law that have known expectations. She added we can’t ignore that this is worse for women of color who face the double jeopardy of racism and sexism. 

An episode of Harvard Business Review's Women at Work podcast dived into the issue of leading with authenticity recently. Tina Opie, assistant professor of management at Babson College, summed this up well: “We really need to wrestle with our cultural understanding of what is professional.” 

One aspect of leading with authenticity is figuring out your personal look. Abra Belke, the woman behind The Work Edit blog, said women need to know the elements of their style and then adapt them for different environments, such as being in the office versus out in the field reporting. Do you prefer dresses to pants? What about solids versus prints? What neckline looks best on you? 

Many refer to this as having a uniform, taking a page from the working man playbook. (My uniform is skinny ankle pants, a blouse and a blazer, with the occasional dress or skirt. I wear a mix of ballet flats and heels.)

“You have to do the most painful thing for most women to do, which is to go to the store, pick out a lot of things, and try them all on. It can be an absolutely demoralizing experience, but it’s kind of like a science experiment: What looks good on me?” Belke said. 

Implementing a few strategies can help you manage the extra time and energy you put into looking professional. No one is too old to lay out their clothes the night before, which will help you dress with intentionality without ruining your morning routine (see this Glamour video on how long it takes women to get ready versus men). And if you have a new outfit for a big meeting, take it on a test run by wearing it to the grocery store or Starbucks. 

“You don’t want to find out in the middle of a meeting that the skirt moves around when you walk or the slit in the back is too high,” Belke said. 

Bauer, who holds a doctorate in political science, said clothing can be a tool to help women overcome the stereotypes that they are not as intellectual or credible as men in workplaces. This often results in women dressing like the expectations for men, such as business suits and dark pants. While this may work for some women, Bauer said that we rarely discuss how to get society to stop judging women instead of always expecting women to fit in. She said finding allies at all levels of the organization is key.

“Having a seat at the table is helpful, but if it’s just one woman at the table, it’s not very helpful. If people aren’t thinking about change at the lower levels, then any institutional change you want to make once you have a seat at the table won’t happen. … Institutional change requires coordination and a lot of patience.” 
 


Things worth reading


Do your homework

Does your workspace speak to you? If you’re feeling unsettled at your desk, see what you can add to the space to make it feel more your own. Look for photos of loved ones, pretty designs of your favorite mottos, travel mementos, anything that keeps you grounded and inspired. My amazing best friends filled out a small book called Why You’re My Bestie, and it’s the perfect addition to my desk. 

And P.S. We’ve added more than a dozen coaches to our free coaching for women in journalism site. If you haven’t scheduled time with one of these amazing women, what are you waiting for?


Focus on the work

Hannah Wise, the engagement editor at the Dallas Morning News, launched Curious Texas, a Hearken-powered project, in December. In the first five months, the community has asked more than 300 questions, and the newsroom has answered 32. Wise said they aim to publish one story every week that’s based on a reader-submitted question, and these stories often exceed average story metrics and regularly convert readers into subscribers. 

“I'm proud that reporters and editors from all areas of our newsroom have been involved. I'm also proud that our community has responded so strongly to the invitation to be part of the reporting process. … This project is a way of getting us off our newspaper mountain to listen to what our community is actually curious about. Readers are smart and their questions are important to answer,” she said.


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