Who are you dressing for?

I’ve got a pile of discarded books in my living room intended for a project, and tonight a few of us were flipping through the books for passages of note. I came across a quote that reminded me of a recent ask a geek feminist question about how to dress. This is from “Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women,” a feminist business advice manual published in 1977.

In business you are not dressing to express personal taste; you are dressing in a costume which should be designed to have an impact on your bosses and teammates.

Some of the advice in this book is hilarious, and I may write a post about those bits later, but this one actually made me think. It’s a very different perspective from the one expressed in the first answer to that question, which focused more on being comfortable, expressing yourself, and staying within your budget. I’d like to take a stab at answering the question again with this “retro” feminist idea of clothing as a costume meant to influence your colleagues, because I think it’s a useful point of view to consider.

Here’s the original question again:

I’ve got some general questions regarding dress code…

I’ve never been terribly observant regarding fashion matters, but it seems to me that male geeks can get away with a much sloppier wardrobe than female geeks. Is that just my impression or have others noticed anything similar?

What’s considered a suitable professional wardrobe for front-line geek feminists trying to be taken seriously?

Do male geeks get away with more sloppy clothes?

I have definitely noticed the same. And it’s not just at geek social events: I notice the same thing in academic research as well. In my experience, the more professional the event, the more clear the divide between genders. I don’t always see it in all geekdoms, but I’ve seen it often enough to take notice.

When I first noticed, I asked around and I found out something interesting: while my female friends and colleagues were often aware of the disparity, my male friends and colleagues were much less likely to have noticed.

This can be good news. Those sloppy guys probably aren’t holding you to a higher standard than they’re holding themselves. In fact, your fiercest critics against sloppiness may be your fellow women! Many geeks seem to try to avoid taking clothes into account when taking the measure of people, though, so even though the women may be more likely to notice, we may try really hard not to care or make snap judgements.

Why do we women seem to dress up more than the men in geekdom? I’m guessing it’s not really peer pressure, when only a minority of our peers seem to notice or care. We can blame it on societal pressures that make us more aware of our dress than many male geeks, or we can blame it on the fact that often those hideous free t-shirts don’t fit us at all, so we don’t have as many opportunities to dress really badly. I’d be curious to see an anthropologist tackle that one. I don’t know why; all I can say is that I’ve noticed it too.

What is a suitable professional wardrobe for geek feminists who want to be taken seriously?

Let’s start with the big warning: there is no guaranteed perfect professional outfit for all situations. What you should wear depends on your field, your company, your customers, your location, your age, and your gender. Some places it’s jeans, some places it’s suits, some places it’s the company logo. Your mileage will vary.

If you go back to the 70’s business advice, your primary goal for your work outfits is to have a positive impact on your colleagues. (Or investors, customers, etc. — anyone who might influence your career path, when we’re talking “professional” dress.)

Believe it or not, we’re at an advantage when it comes to clothes in professional geekdom: your geek teammates may just not care whether you’re dressed up or dressed down. And if you’re perceived as a geek, you may find that the fashion rules are a little more relaxed, and that the occasional fashion faux pas will be overlooked or unnoticed. You probably can dress down to your geeky team’s sloppier level sometimes, just to show that you fit in. Even upper management is less likely to blame you for doing that now and again if that’s how everyone else looks.

That doesn’t mean you should default to sloppy because you’re a geek. Not if you’re also concerned about your professional credentials. Look around: you might even find that the sloppy males aren’t doing as well professionally as their slightly better dressed counterparts. No, really! I was shocked the first time I noticed this, which was when the most dressed down guys in my office all wound up in the layoff queue. The dressed up guys were valued for real technical brilliance, but somehow there seemed to be a correlation…

I heard of one theory for this with respect to women and makeup. Women who wear makeup apparently get paid more, and one almost feminist friendly interpretation of this suggests that putting on makeup takes time, and sends a signal that you’re organized and on top of your job enough to get up early, and spend time, effort and money into looking good. Guys are pretty much doing the same thing when they’re nice and clean shaven. So regardless of how you feel about makeup, you might want to consider ways to use your appearance to send subtle signal that you’re organized and willing to go the extra mile.

As I said, it’s hard to give advice here because every situation may be different. But here’s a few guidelines that might help you figure out what works for your situation:

  • Mimic the people you want to impress:
    Mimicry sends subtle signals that encourage people to like and trust you, and you want to look like you fit in, even with those up the professional ladder from you. Women in geekdom can be at a disadvantage because we so often stick out, but you can try to minimize this. (Be careful who you mimic: You don’t want to be mistaken for someone from the secretarial pool if you’re a sysadmin!)

  • Make sure your clothes fit you well:
    They don’t have to be skin-tight, but try to get stuff that’s tailored to your shape and doesn’t hang off you in weird ways. Remember both you and your clothing changes over time: Don’t fall into the geek stereotype of hanging on to a tech shirt long after the technology and the t-shirt have become obsolete! You want to look organized and willing to put time into being professional.

  • Make sure your outfit does the job:
    If you need pockets for your screwdriver, make sure you have pockets. If you need shoes for standing for hours at a reception, choose the right ones. You want to look prepared.

  • Get help (if you need it):
    Don’t know how to translate from one gender to the other? Not sure what business casual really means? Well, neither does anyone else, but there are books, websites, dubious fashion reality tv, and you can even pay an image consultant to give you a hand. Try friends, women’s mailing lists, or even ask your boss if need be!

Scheduled for tomorrow: I’m going to try to tackle a question from the comments: “How do you know that you’re not taken less seriously as a woman technologist if you worry about your appearance and how you dress?”

17 thoughts on “Who are you dressing for?

  1. deborah

    True story: The CTO called me into his office to talk about how I was dressing. I was wearing T-shirts that bore the logos of the technology companies that had given them to me for free, jeans, and sneakers. Periodically I would pull off my sneakers and walk around the office barefoot.

    He called me into his office to explain to me I was dressing wrong. “Please tell me the dress code,” I begged. “I’d like to follow the rules and I don’t understand them.”

    He looked puzzled. “There are no rules. You should dress like the person you most want to emulate,” he explained. “Dress for the career path you want.”

    “But I am,” I told him. And I was. I was dressing exactly like the chief software architect, except that I wore shoes more often than he did and I was more prone to have brushed hair.

    Eventually it became clear that he thought that the career path I wanted was that of the three women who were in technological management at my company: middle managers. (The three women shared an office; each of the male managers got an office to himself.) He honestly could not understand me when I explained to him that my career goal was to be software architect or systems architect, not management. The three female managers wore sportcoats and high heels and makeup and never got to touch technology, and he thought that’s what I wanted.

    God, that place sucked.

    1. Restructure!

      That reminds me of my boss trying to steer me into a secretary/PR role by offering me more and more secretarial/PR tasks, and he was acting like he was doing me a favour and helping me reach my career goals. When I realized what was happening, I purposely ignored those tasks and kept myself busy with development.

      Why would someone assume that a woman gets into programming in a software development company as an entry point to become a secretary/PR person? (I think some other programmers also thought that a secretary was higher-status than a programmer, because secretaries stereotypically dress higher-class than programmers (and are associated with attractive women).)

      1. Eva

        Yea, I know I soldiered through extra post-calc math to push papers and arrange press releases. Wheee!

  2. Eva

    I suspect that at least for some women, dressing nicely may be a way of boosting their own confidence that they are competent professional adults who are meant to be there and deserve respect (ie. countering impostor syndrome).

    For me, I’ve pretty much always been comfortable with the idea that I’d be happy being a code-monkey for the rest of my life. I want to have a good boss, but I don’t want to be one. I suppose that’s probably good, given that I’m not particularly apt at dressing myself “nicely.” I did sort out the concept of getting clothing that fit me in high school, since I am plump enough that I don’t need to look plumper (I’m fine with my weight, I’m just saying, it’s not flattering to lose your waist in your shirt).

    One thing I am curious about, how do you define sloppy? It sounds like you are stigmatizing a certain type of dressing and I’m not sure what that means. I’ve heard horror stories about coworkers (male) showing up to work in floral print skirts (and nothing else) but I assume you’re referring to something slightly more mainstream. Are we talking ripped jeans? wild hair and lack of showering? faded t-shirts from the 80’s with holes in them? (I’ve never seen any of those in a professional environment, so possibly that’s my confusion.)

    My coworkers seem to usually wear nice jeans or cargo pants/shorts and nice t-shirts or occasionally polo shirts. I think I’ve seen button up shirts half a dozen times in the last year. I also work for a state university, so I think our department dresses up pretty well given that setting. (I do wish I wasn’t quite so easy to mistake for a student, but I’m not putting on heels to avoid that. ;)

    1. Terri

      I don’t know how the original questioner defined sloppy, but what I’d suggest that sloppy in business is “a level of two below the norm” — It’s harder to define for geek events where the norm may just not be that clear, but within business contexts a norm is a little easier to spot from others in the organization.

      I work at a university too and sloppy in my department for students would be unintentional holes in shirts, failing to shower, wearing sleepwear to class, and lack of shoes. Sloppy for profs would start at worn jeans and head on down through the same paths. The bright red streak in my hear doesn’t raise eyebrows at work, even when I’m teaching. Sloppy for admin staff would be anything under business casual. The streak might raise eyebrows if I were admin rather than an academic.

      And sloppy isn’t universal: When interviewing with a consulting company, I felt sloppy for not having a suit jacket. (Amusingly: I discovered I was by far the most technical person they were interviewing, and perhaps because of this, it seemed they were unphased by my attire. I didn’t take the job, though.)

      1. Julie

        I’ve found that about university is quite relaxed too. I’ve seen female academics in all sorts of attire, from sports wear, to jeans to floral print dresses. I guess academia is one of those areas where you can express yourself, within reason (like you said, avoiding clothes with holes etc).

    2. Terri

      I suspect that at least for some women, dressing nicely may be a way of boosting their own confidence that they are competent professional adults who are meant to be there and deserve respect (ie. countering impostor syndrome).

      I just want to pull out Eva’s first statement here and say that although I hadn’t thought of it, I totally agree, and this is something worth keeping in mind both when you’re wondering how others dress and when you’re deciding what to wear yourself.

  3. Elysia

    As an academic scientist, I know I’ve dressed more formally than my male counterparts because I felt like I had to be smarter, sharper, faster, neater, etc. in order to get the same amount of notice and respect. It doesn’t help that being somewhat short and young looking, I often get taken for someone much younger and less credentialed, so I definitely try to look the part of Dr. Elysia when I’m teaching or giving presentations. (In the lab, comfort is much more important, but I’m cultivating an image that is clean and composed.)

    I’ve also been fascinated by the dress code of one of my undergrad professors. She was one of the few members of the department with whom I wasn’t on a first-name basis, because she asked that she be called by a professional title that she had worked hard to earn. She wore pants and more casual clothes in her lab, but dresses and skirts when she was teaching. She explained it to us in one of her classes: she does it to show respect for the importance of the work. By taking extra time and effort to dress more formally, she was trying to show that she took teaching seriously, and that she valued our experiences in her classroom. I’ve known some male professors who have appeared to have similar policies, although I never asked them about it. Which I think is consistent with the first quote, about dressing for the job and the role you’re playing, rather than dressing for yourself within the job.

    1. syfr

      My professor wears pants and a tie during the school year, when he is teaching classes. In the summer, he wears shorts and doesn’t wear a tie, because he is not in front of the classroom, and he is more relaxed dealing with us grad students

  4. Catherine Devlin

    I’m definitely way out on the dressy end of the bell curve – lots of skirts and heels, sometimes nylons, which would burst into flames if they touched the skin of many a geek girl. :) But sometimes I want to carry a big sign, “I just like these clothes – I’m not trying to get ahead, I’d rather be shot than move into management, and I think *your* ThinkGeek T-shirt is the bomb – please don’t ever change!” I deeply prefer workplaces with a very permissive dress code – that’s where the creativity is – even though I often look like I’d fit in at a law office. It’s sort of paradoxical, but it’s me.

    1. Josephine

      Without fail, I am always the best dressed at university and of the technical people at work. I don’t see this as a disadvantage because in my experience it’s always better to be a little bit over-dressed than under, and I see work and uni as “events” that are worth taking the time to dress up for. I make almost all of my own clothes so I am really lucky to have complete control over what I put on my body, I don’t have to stick to what’s currently in shops etc. BUT. I do stand out quite a lot – being young, female, relatively pretty with a varied wardrobe does get you a bit of unwanted attention in a university Computer Science department, and in the workplace I have got the feeling a couple of times that I have been taken less seriously because of these things, or not given the meaty code projects etc. The flipside of this is that I do have to do a lot more client interaction, client training sessions than any other of the technical people at my work, but I think this also relates to me being one of the best communicators rather than the way I dress. But I’m not convinced that if I wore jeans and old t-shirts every day that I would be taken *more* seriously at work or at uni….
      One interested experience that I thought I would share: It was mid summer and really hot, I had taken off my shoes inside the office because of this, and I was setting up our meeting room in prep for a training session with a client. My manager knocked on the the door and asked me if I “was going to put shoes on” for the meeting. I told him of course, and considering I was dressed better than he was, thought it was a little bit silly of him to think that I was going to forgo footwear for the meeting. I was mostly annoyed because it wasn’t as if I had ever made a habit of going barefoot, yet he didn’t seem to mind that the other (male) devs did it all the time around the office and had a habit of wearing shorts and tshirts to client meetings. It seems like at my work in general, the women are held to a much higher standard of dress than the men are.

  5. Mary

    It’s sometimes worth noting when social pressure is explicit, I think, as some people seem to think that women are solely socially conditioned by subtle signals and that it’s no longer said out loud. False! Social conditioning is applied (to everyone) via both subtle and overt messages.

    In my case, I was explicitly criticised regularly about sloppy dressing by my parents, and told that I needed to dress better and in a way appropriate to setting and my gender in order to avoid negative judgements that would be far more costly to me than the time investment in learning how to groom myself and then grooming.

    I can’t really speak to the truth of this: these days most of my grooming problems are related to being a woman who is >190cm tall, and getting clothes to fit and so on, which is separate from the geek dressing problem.

    1. Eva

      Goodness. Have you considered hiring a seamstress or tailor for your more professional outfits? It can be pricey to have clothing custom made, but it’ll fit you exactly and last much, much longer.

      1. Terri

        Related: Can anyone recommend websites, books or other resources on how to do some basic tailoring and alterations? I have a friend who has been looking to improve her wardrobe on a budget. She’s adept with her sewing machine (she quilts and does a variety of other crafty things), but doesn’t know where to start when it comes to tailoring clothes. I’m guessing others reading this thread might be interested in learning some too, even if it’s more in a “this is what I should ask for” way. :)

        1. Mackenzie

          I don’t have any websites to explain it, but I just kinda worked things out years ago to tailor my sister’s trousers for her and now my shirts for me. I go with:
          1. Put the article of clothing on inside-out
          2. Place straight pins (no more than 1 inch / 2cm apart) around however tight you want it to be, taking equal amounts from left and right (very important if there’s printing or buttons centered on the chest…)
          3. Try to take off the article of clothing. If a pin pops out, it’s too tight, and you won’t be able to get it off after it’s sewn without popping a seam
          4. Smooth out the fabric so it’s not gathered funny, and adjust the pins so they’re making smooth curves (helps things lie right instead of puckering / having funny corners sticking out)
          5. Mark with a fabric pencil where you’re going to sew (helpful to get nice curves)
          6. Sew along your pencil line with a running stitch
          7. Cut off excess fabric, leaving 1/4″ (about 7mm)
          8. Finish edge (hand sewing, I do a blanket stitch, machine you’d use a zig zag)

          That’s how I tailored this shirt

  6. Ingrid Jakobsen

    One factor I’ve not seen mentioned explicitly: being able to act or dress casually while still being treated seriously, with respect, is a mark of privilege.

    I can’t find links, alas, but PoC have mentioned that they’ve been raised to dress ‘better’ than whites doing the same job to make sure they will be treated with respect.

    I think the ability of University staff to dress casually and be taken seriously is a form of classism – once you have Dr or Prof in front of your name, you can get away with a lot more.

    I’m also reminded of Suzette Hayden Elgin’s anecdote about getting male doctors to refer to female doctors as “Dr. Surname”. The men protested that they called each other by first names, and she told them that when they called female doctors by their first names, patients assumed they were nurses.

    I think the different dress code for female and male geeks is just part of that overall pattern. The male geeks may claim not to notice, but I suspect there is some difference the women have noticed and are responding to by dressing differently.

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