Can you dress well and be taken seriously as a woman in technology?

This question isn’t exactly part of the ask a geek feminist series, but it did appear in the comment thread for the ask a geek feminist question about how to dress, which I re-addressed from another perspective here.

Melinda asks,

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?

You don’t.

But I really do think geekdom works in our favour here because we as geeks tend to want to believe that appearance doesn’t matter. You might have to wear the geek uniform sometimes, or you might have to prove yourself intellectually when you start the job, but once you’re accepted, geeks are more likely to be forgiving/oblivious if you want to dress up some. (Remember some geeky accents like jewelry can work geek into your professional look, so you can be geeky and dress up if you want.)

But there are limits: you’re probably not going to get dinged for dressing well, but you will get dinged if you talk about it all the time, or you fail on the practical front and refuse to pick up a dusty router lest you muss your dry-clean-only blouse. It’s different for men in America, especially those working physical jobs, since US workmen need tough shoes if we want houses that won’t collapse in on our heads in the middle of the night at random. But for a girl, anything like fashion blogs at work? Also a no-no. Looking good is usually fine, obsessing over it when you could be obsessing over something more geeky… not so much. Just shrug and say you felt like dressing up; don’t tell your colleagues if you’re always spending hours at the mall searching for the perfect sweater.

Not everyone who sees you at work is necessarily going to be a fellow geek, and that’s where things can get messy. Others may judge you based on what they feel is appropriate business attire for women, not what they’re willing to let other geeks “get away with.” While it might not always influence how you’re perceived on a technical level, what you wear may impact other professional development.

If you’re one of few women in your group, you may find you stand out no matter what you do: even wearing the standard geek uniform isn’t going to help you fit in if it’s clear that you’re shorter/curvier/use the other washroom. This can be a curse, but it can also be a blessing: people aren’t going to expect that you look like all the others, so you don’t have to wear tech t-shirts every day. You may be able to choose and set the standard for women in your group, once you’ve decided what it should be. This gives you a unique chance to really set the tone for your professional dress.

Use your judgement and ask around: your age, location, company may all factor in not only to what you should wear, but also how different clothes will be perceived. But in my experience, there’s more flexibility for women’s appearance within geekdom than you might expect, maybe even more flexibility than the men have!

18 thoughts on “Can you dress well and be taken seriously as a woman in technology?

  1. Laughingrat

    I think you really had a chance here to help this querent, and other women, by questioning the disparities in how women and men are judged in the workplace. You could have investigated assumptions about dress and femininity, and supported women to stop exhausting themselves trying to win a losing game. Instead, you coached this woman to play into oppression culture’s hands by distracting herself even further with self-policing behaviors. You could have helped her dismount from the femininity tightrope–a task difficult to imagine, much less perform, but one that becomes possible if women support each other in rejecting sexist assumptions and ideas–but instead you gave her tips on how to dance more prettily on it.

    If you’d acknowledged the sexist assumptions behind the expectation that women distract themselves with concerns about their appearance and behavior, while cynically admitting that until sexism is destroyed, we have to play this game in order to get a paycheck, that would’ve at least been some help.

    1. Terri

      I made a (perhaps incorrect) assumption from her phrasing that she was interested in having a higher standard of dress and concerned that this would be problem, so I took the question from that perspective rather than assuming that she’d rather not have to play this game and talking about it from that perspective.

      But you’re totally right that this may have been a missed opportunity. Thankfully, just because it was missed this time doesn’t mean it has to be missed for all time. Would you be interested in writing a post from that perspective?

    2. Mackenzie

      I think the expectation in work environments is that you’ll take the “middle path” on femininity. Too much toward the big-t-shirt-and-jeans or too much toward June Cleaver is “unprofessional.”

      I’m pretty sure I dress too feminine for either work or geek environments. Business dress tends to be just feminised versions of men’s suits. And we know what male geek clothing looks like. I dress like a hippy. Someday I’ll be told by a boss that I need to learn to wear polyester. I wonder if anyone will ever dare tell me my skirts are too long or not-form-fitting enough, since I wear long peasant skirts not those above-the-knee pencil skirts that business women tend to wear (I own umm…1…maybe 2 of those, but I never wear them).

      I do laugh when told I dress really conservatively. I dress modestly, yes, but I can’t imagine telling a grownup in the 70s that hippies dressed conservatively. Conservative would be business attire. And it’d probably include pantyhose.

  2. deborah

    you’re probably not going to get dinged for dressing well

    I haven’t observed this to be true, actually. In the same workspace where I was chastised for dressing like the men in my department, a woman in my department always dressed well. Not provocatively, not sexily (and I can’t believe I feel the need to put in a disclaimer!), just professionally, but like a professional woman.

    And she was never treated with intellectual respect by the men in the department. They were surprised when she understood technical conversations, they were surprised to realize that she was competent at her job, and she was constantly getting hit on by her coworkers.

    Now obviously in a no-win kind of situation like this, you have to pick your battles. Would you rather be taken seriously by management (in which case dress like a female professional) or by developers (in which case do your best to dress like them). But it is certainly not cost-free to make either choice.

    1. Terri

      The problem with not getting treated with technical respect is that it’s not always clear that it’s about the dress: sometimes it’s just about being female, and no matter how you dress you’re going to get stuck with that problem. I’ve gotten shut out of geek conversations just as often when I’m dressed in the standard t-shirt and jeans as when I’m in business casual (strangely, I never get shut out of geek conversations when I’m in more formal clothes, but I suspect that’s a factor of when I wear formal stuff.)

      You’re right, though: there are no guarantees that your clothes won’t be a problem. I find that the important thing isn’t to keep wearing the geek uniform, but to prove yourself intellectually first, then once you’re “in” you can generally dress however you feel like. So I wouldn’t assume for a new group of geeks that I could show up in skirts and heels and makeup and get taken seriously off the bat, but I doubt I’d have to costume-match forever because once you gain acceptance, geeks tend to stop looking at what you’re wearing. That’s why I say that geek workplaces are often more flexible on the subject of dress: you can prove yourself as a geek for the first month, then gradually switch to something that will endear yourself to upper management as well without upsetting your direct coworkers, if you so choose.

      But, of course, everyone’s mileage *will* vary. I, for example, may have less trouble proving myself because of my ethnicity (the “asians do math” stereotype works very much in my favour, sometimes nearly offsetting the “girls don’t do math” stereotype) and perhaps that’s why I find the “proving yourself” phase to be relatively short and easy to overcome.

      1. Josephine

        This “proving yourself” phase, do you think that men are also subjected to this? For instance, if a man started his new position by wearing a shirt and dress shoes/suit pants each day, do you think his technical ability might not be taken seriously by other geeks? I don’t think so, in my experience other geeks interpret a man doing this as him being eager to make a good impression at his new job/position, not that he might not be that technical.

        1. Mackenzie

          I can’t really answer this from a workplace position, but the area where I have traditionally worried about being seen as too-well-dressed-for-geekdom is at hacker cons. I wore typical geeky black t-shirts and jeans for the first couple of years. Now, I’m told I’m good at “the geek butt-sniffing protocol.” That is, I prove myself in the first few minutes of conversation any time I meet a new person so we avoid all that awkwardness where they talk down to me. (Um, being able to answer the initial “what do you do?” with “I’m an Ubuntu developer” is rather handy–not what I do for work, but so much more “me” than my dayjob is)

          If I saw anyone at a hacker con wearing a suit (with jacket), male or female, I’d assume they were “ugh, a manager.” So no, I would absolutely not take them seriously from the get-go as a technical person. I’d expect marketing speak (“leverage” “solution” etc. ugh) and be surprised if I heard actual technical terms.

          If they had a polo & nice slacks, they’re either a speaker or they’re working a vendor booth. Mixed bag here. Could be a geek, could be a salesperson. Try to talk shop, and see how they respond to differentiate the two.

          If they dress in a black t & jeans or something not so mainstream… then I assume probably a hacker.

        2. Terri

          Really? I’ve actually seen guys get flack for dressing up at geek jobs: “so, you already interviewing elsewhere?” “I’m not sure about the new guy: he seems like he cares more about business than computers” I’ve never seen anything as serious as the challenges some posters here have encountered as women, but I wouldn’t say that it never happens either.

          And no, I don’t think that men are subjected to this *nearly* as often as women are, although I have definitely seen it happen. Some teams welcome people with open arms, some don’t, but there does seem to be more skepticism if you’re young, or female, or from the wrong country, or speak the wrong language, or… It’s something people in minorities have to deal with all the time.

          To put my blasé attitude towards having to do this on context: I’m a visible minority. I get challenged on much stupider stuff all the time (“No really, where are you from?” — are you seriously challenging my statement that I’m Canadian? Oh, yes, you are. Just like every 10th stranger I talk to does. *sigh*) so to me this is just one more hurdle that sometimes you have to jump to get on with your life. It’s annoying, it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is and dwelling on it will only make me more miserable. It’s much less offensive to me if someone’s surprised that I can code than when they’re shocked that I speak English fluently, let me tell you.

  3. Terri

    Ingrid has an excellent comment on my other post that I’d like to quote here:

    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

    Now, the question here was the opposite but the same: “can you dress less casually and still be treated with respect?” is really just “can you dress differently” in some ways.

    Do you think that dressing up in geek society is a privilege?

    I suspect yes, but I’d love to hear other thoughts and stories.

    1. Mackenzie

      I think it’s strongly tied to the meritocracy. Nobody’ll care that you look like a Suit if they know who you are. So, whatever privilege issues exist in the meritocracy (“oh, a woman…she just does docs or something unimportant like that”) would extend here too.

      1. Eivind

        [~ Note from Mary: this comment has been edited by me in order to remove a disparaging remark about a specific geek’s appearance. ~]

        Excellent point Mackenzie. Valerie Aurora can dress however the fuck she wants, it’s not relevant. Nor do I think [geek] is less competent because he [… elided…].

        Clothes are important for first-impressions, if you don’t know someone. The more you -do- know about them, the less relevant the wrapping becomes.

  4. Eivind

    It’s not a problem to dress well. Not at all.

    But if you talk about clothes all the time, the basic risk is that I will actually come to believe that you consider clothes to be an important part of your life, something that matters. (if not, why would you talk of it all the time?)

    Thinking that clothes is important, is not mutually exclusive with being technically competent. But there is a finite amount of time in a day, or a year, so more of one thing DOES tend to mean less of something else. This feeling is in no way limited to clothing though, it applies to anything.

    If some guy talks of soccer ALL the time, especially if he never touches a ball himself, but merely goes on-and-on-and-on about which international player now plays for whom, it has this effect. Same if someone fills EVERY lunch with the latest details from the love-life of [insert-celebrity-here] or parents who honestly think it’s worth spending an awful lot of time discussing what particular brand of wet-wipes is superior. (Hi, I’m a triple-parent myself, that’s not the point)

    It doesn’t disqualify you technically, to have non-technical interests. We all do.

    But is it really that bad to assume that someones interests are overwhelmingly nontechnical, if that persons consistently displays interest only in nontechnical matters ?

    I’ve got a sister-in-law who is a IT-engineer. She has never -once- opened a single technical or IT-related question for discussion with me. She has talked of shampoo, and of clothing, in excess of 100 times this year. Is sexism the cause if some people (me included) get the impression that she’s not really all THAT interested in technical matters ?

    1. Mary

      It’s impossible to ‘diagnose’ sexism or non-sexism in such a short description of any interaction, especially based on the description by the person involved who is a man. Is it important though that she’s “THAT interested” in technical matters? How interested does she need to be, assuming that the two of you don’t have professional contact? Geeks, at least broadly speaking, don’t have a very strong work-after hours split in their subjects of conversation, but some geeks and many non-geeks do, and you don’t have to be geeky (in this site’s use of the term, anyway) to work in IT. Many IT jobs expect you to do most of your professional development after hours, this is exploitative on the part of the employers even though for some geeks it happens to suit how they’d choose to spend their own time in any case.

      Something about your examples bugs me. It sounds like your sister-in-law is the concrete example you were intending to bring up, and a lot of the rest of it is hypotheticals. You think badly of your sister-in-law enough to count (or at least estimate) how much she talks about grooming: are there real examples of the soccer, celebrity or wet-wipe fans in your life causing you unease about their technical skills, or are you just imagining you’d censure them as much?

      1. Eivind

        Not at all. First, in no way shape or form do I “think badly” about my sister in law. She rocks. I -do- think that she is not terribly interested in technical matters, but last time I checked, that isn’t a crime.

        The others are certainly not hypothethicals, infact I’ve got 2 or 3 guys that fit the “all I ever talk about is soccer” in my office alone (this office has about 20 employees in total), and they definitely fit around the bottom-end of the nerdy-ladder, you’d -not- choose one of them to visit, if you where stuck on a tricky problem and needed a second opinion.

        I’m not saying an overwhelming interest in soccer, or clothing, is mutually exclusive with technical competence and interest in technology. But I -am- saying that those people who seemingly spend not a minute, other than their actual working hours, on technical matters, tend to be less knowledgeable than those for which technology is also a after-hours interest.

        There are real examples in my life of people who by education are engineers, but which nevertheless spends a hell of a lot more time and energy on, for example, the love-life of last-years idol second-place-contestant (he SHOULD have won!) than on any technical matter.

        I don’t -mind- that either. It’s perfectly FINE for people to have different interests. I’m just saying, if technology ISNT one of your interests, odds are, you’re less competent in your job, and less of a good choice for a technical question, compared to someone who is actually, you know, interested. And that is completely detached from gender.

    2. Brenda

      You seem to be saying that, if someone dresses well, they must therefore not be competent in other things — or at least less competent because they spent time on grooming and personal hygiene instead of increasing their expertise in something.

      What you are seeing is someone’s interest today, this week, in some topic, such as clothing or horoscopes. It says nothing of their 10 years experience as an electronics engineer at NASA despite also finding time to paint their nails. You cannot judge someone’s competence in any topic based on how much time they spend on it in your presence.

      1. Eivind

        Yeah, as a general tendency, if you spend more time on ONE thing, you’ll spend less time on OTHER things, the day has only a limited number of hours in it.

        However, I’m not saying to be technically competent, you must have ONLY technical interests, that is why I’ve underlines, multiple times, that outside interests are NOT mutually exclusive with technical competence.

        Nevertheless, if you never ever breach a technical topic when talking to me, nor offer any input on same when breached by others, I’m probably going to conclude that you’re unlikely to be terribly interested in that kind of questions, and thus likely also less knowledgeable about those kinds of questions. And that goes regardless of your gender. Notice, I said “unlikely”, not “impossible”. I’m sure there exists examples of people who choose to talk about clothes or gossip or soccer ALL the time, but which are nevertheless both interested and knowledgeable about, say, networking-protocols.

        It’s not having an interest in soccer, or clothing. It is behaving in a way that makes it seem as if this interest is a -lot- larger than any interest in any technical topic. Yes, it can be misleading, yes mistakes happen, but nevertheless, if that’s how someone behaves, that’s what I’m going to believe, until proven otherwise.

      2. John

        I don’t see such things so much in terms of time spent on one activity taking time from another activity, as being about someone’s main focus being either on presentation (surface, possibly hiding a mess underneath) or on underlying substance. And (and I think of this as a geek characteristic) I think of it as being better to get something right, than to get it looking right.

        The binding between form and function will often make something that works well look good too, of course.

  5. John

    I tend to assume that if someone routinely dresses “up” when there’s no specific need, that they’re trying to cover for a lack of competence in technical matters — or really want to be a “suit”. I think I make this assumption more strongly for men than for women (perhaps an allowance for lower technical self-efficacy seeming more common among women?)
    This mostly takes effect on early impressions of someone; once I know they’re competent, I’ll probably accept their being dressy as harmless eccentricity.

    But I think the actual clothes are just part of a package; the projected attitude to them makes a big difference. For example, one friend of mine dresses quite smartly, but doesn’t give the impression she’s at all bothered about it, and that makes her much easier to be with. In contrast, an ex-colleague managed to look fussy in jeans and t-shirt (and everyone was very relieved when she left).

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