Tag Archives: etiquette

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!

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?”

Fashion and The Female Geek – First Steps

This is part of “Ask a Geek Feminist” series! Questions are still being taken at the Ask A Geek Feminist post – so ask away!

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?

“…I suggest that manners and etiquette, like language and fashion, are fundamental means of communication and self-expression. And, as with language and fashion, manners and etiquette adapt effortlessly to social change.” John Morgan, introduction to Debrett’s New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners, 2001.

On the heels (no pun intended) of my post about girls, stereotyping and the colour pink (‘Does It Mean A Thing If It ‘Ain’t Got Pink Bling? Gender Differences, Toys And The Psychology Of Color‘) – apparently Barbie’s now an engineer? Sign Of The Times: Barbie’s A Tech Geek:

Mattel put the selection of Barbie’s 125th career in the hands of online voters for the first time… To create an authentic look for techie Barbie, designers worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to develop the wardrobe and accessories for the doll. She wears a binary code patterned T-shirt and is equipped with the latest gadgets including a smart phone, Bluetooth headset and laptop travel bag.

It’s interesting that they have the endorsement of the Society of Women Engineers and National Academy of Engineering in the creation (as I look at the doll, I notice that the article forgot to also mention the vibrant pink high-heels, laptop-logo and glasses – what, no contact lenses?).

I guess I’m in favor of changes to a doll which has traditionally perpetuated a rather narrow-portrayal of women – and yet it’s still limited by its portrayal of ‘geek-chic’. The blog post title says ‘Barbie as Tech-Geek’ – why not Barbie as educated or technical-savvy? Why is one of the most popular dolls on the planet (arguably, the most popular) – still posed on her toes and biologically impossible?

And what on earth does it mean to be ‘geek-chic’ anyway? Apart from sounding rather nifty when you say it aloud?

I’m going to see if, by responding to this question by a reader, I can address not only how to be taken seriously as a ‘front-line geek feminist’ – but also how to maintain a standard of comfort that is (quite frankly) essential to a woman who has plenty of ‘geeky’ passions that occupy her time and keep her on her biologically-accurate toes.

Despite the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ – we do. Some companies do have a written dress code, some rules are unwritten and we follow the lead of senior management when considering building our wardrobe.

We’re not dolls. But we’re can’t ignore that there are eyes upon us and that a little startifacts.com might make them ponder ‘Maybe I can be like her one day – and doesn’t it look fine to be her?’

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