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:
Iâ€™ve got some general questions regarding dress codeâ€¦
Iâ€™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?
Whatâ€™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 youâ€™re not taken less seriously as a woman technologist if you worry about your appearance and how you dress?”