When being professional means dressing in men’s clothes

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters:

I work in a research lab with about 15 employees. There are two women, and administrative assistant and me (an engineer) we are getting ready for a big design review and someone suggested we get shirts that we can all wear to match for the big presentation. The problem is that there is a local style of shirt that men wear but women do not typically, the woman equivalent of the shirt is usually sleeveless and sometimes skimpy and not work appropriate. I asked that we not do the local shirt because it wouldn’t really work for me and instead do polo shirts. When I made the request one of my co-workers suggest another local dress that is associated with old women and everyone laughed. I have just found out that the decision was made and we are buying the local shirt and I am supposed to just get a men’s small (they don’t make them in women’s sizes). If I don’t wear the shirt I won’t look like part of the team but I feel like my lab had the chance to try to be inclusive but chose not to. The other woman isn’t happy about it either but she doesn’t have to do a professional presentation. What do I do? I could dress professionally in my own clothes but then what do I say when a customer asks why I don’t match? Do I just put on the men’s shirt?

15 thoughts on “When being professional means dressing in men’s clothes

  1. Kristen

    I’d see what I could do to layer the inappropriate t-shirt over something fairly neutral, like a thin long-sleeve higher-necked shirt.

    I’d also make sure that I had a blazer to toss on over the two-shirt combo for my presentation: that way, I’d be professionally attired for the part that really mattered, and be able to walk around as a good team player at all other times.

  2. A.Y.

    I’m neither a geek, nor an engineer, but I thought I’d just toss in my outsider’s $0.02-
    I think you should bring up the inappropriateness of your wearing the men’s clothing at the presentation. If these shirts are as sleeveless and unprofessional as you make them sound, I think you should avoid wearing them, even if it means you don’t match. If your teammates can’t see how wearing a skimpy shirt to a presentation isn’t ok, they sound like tools- especially with that old women comment. Why not try wearing an outfit that’s the same colour and general style of theirs so that you coordinate instead of trying to match? In this situation, I think your integrity as a female engineer is more important than matching a non-inclusive team uniform. Plus, you’ll be putting your foot down, which may keep this situation from happening again.

  3. E.D.

    Unfortunately, you should probably wear the men’s shirt in this situation, especially if the women’s version is not work-appropriate. Wearing non-matching clothing will distract from the presentation.

    I would go back to the team/management and ask/insist that they look for a new supplier that can do women’s versions. They may not have had time to do it for this show.

  4. Sharon

    I notice the words written, that the report of how it was conveyed to the co-workers is “we not do the local shirt because it wouldn’t really work for me”, which sounds like someone wanting something for no reason beyond personal perference, but the reasons given in the explanation here, that “the woman equivalent of the shirt is usually sleeveless and sometimes skimpy and not work appropriate” and “they don’t make them in women’s sizes” are very solid reasons as to why going for the local shirt would have been a bad idea.

    I don’t know what tendencies (or otherwise) your co-workers have towards inclusivity – would they have seen the problem better and been more willing to make a sensible clothing choice if they had understood the problem better?

    As for what to do, if it’s too late to change decisions, then I’d go for the men’s shirt if it does fit, but also have a word with whoever procures the shirts and explain explicitly that this is going to look unprofessional because it’s not tailored to a woman’s shape, and strongly suggest that they update the clothing choices to allow female employees to look professional too – the company presumably won’t want its women to look shapeless and unprofessional.

  5. Catherine

    It sounds like you have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep up the war!

    In the short term, if it were me, I would go ahead and wear the men’s shirt. It sounds like your coworkers are ignoring your preferences rather than actually trying to degrade you (which might be the case if they insisted you wear the skimpy feminine version of the shirt). That’s not right, but I think that at this stage you have more to lose by not wearing the shirt. By wearing it, you can at least show outsiders that you are indeed part of the team. Just keep making your preference known every time the issue comes up in the future.

    Because businesswear was originally developed for men, women have had ongoing problems with trying to adapt feminine clothing styles (all of which were for the social world) to the purpose. It’s worth noting that suits and even polo shirts, chinos, T-shirts, and jeans were men’s clothes that were adopted by women. I don’t know what your local shirt is like, but maybe you can have some alterations done to tailor it more to your shape, creating kind of a hybrid style (which is really the origin of the “women’s” cut of polo shirts or T-shirts).

  6. Amber Shah

    I’d go ahead and wear the men’s small. It’s interesting that they even offer a different female variation, however inappropriate it may be. Oftentimes the female version is just a smaller version of the men’s anyways. And I always hate them – they are always uncomfortable and don’t look great. The only exception is a super-soft lounge tee, but these are rare in situations like this, especially professional. If you want to be super-cool, you could make your own shirt on cafepress or something like that using the logo, but customizing it to a style that works for you.

    By the way, while this does appear to be a women’s issue, it honestly doesn’t feel like it to me. For example, I’m a vegetarian and pretty much always have an issue with eating with the team, for ordering in and going out even. I’m stuck between making a fuss or just sucking it up, and mostly just opt for the latter. Longer term, I try to work in a company that is (1) laid back and (2) sensitive to people’s different needs, and then it’s not so much a problem. To me the issues are similar because it’s a case of people being blockheads, rather than trying to be exclusive.

  7. the scrum mistress

    I don’t know about what the situation is with your particular work environment but I would question the professionalism of everyone in the office dressing in the same (rather casual?) shirt for a formal review or presentation. Especially when that mode of dress is obviously exclusionary. You presented a viable alternative to your male co-workers and they responded with an even more sexist, not to mention age-ist and rather immature, attitude.

    I would suggest that you and your female colleague both wear the polo shirt or other matching article of clothing that is gender appropriate. Would a team that was 13 women to 2 men expect the men to wear skirts or other feminine dress? Would the men be expected to conform?

    I think not.

    In the end it depends on one’s own position and the politics involved. I am the only woman in an office of more than 20 men and the only woman in a technical and leadership position in a team of more than 40 men. I used to think that dressing in as male a manner as possible was the way to go but I learned, quite early, that it was better to make a point of my difference in gender.

    Dress for the job you want. Not the one you have. Let the so called men have their matching shirt boy’s club and you can wear something that is appropriate to the gravity of the situation that will call attention to your own professionalism and unique qualities. You will be remembered positively because you stood out from the crowd.

  8. Medivh

    I self-identify as male, so apologies if this comment is insensitive or otherwise a problem.

    For the choice of uniform, Catherine is right. You have lost out in the immediate future. You might be able to pass a complaint up the chain of command that your input was ignored, and that you feel it was because of subconscious (or overt, if you think it was) sexism. Especially if you include the ageist crack in the complaint. YMMV, though, given that your workplace may have a sexist culture. If you want to take it further, and have the emotional capacity to, bringing a complaint about workplace policy to your local equivalent of an equal opportunity tribunal is fairly likely to help you. Even just stating that you’re looking into the same will have some effect.

    Regarding the uniform shirt: if it’s not too expensive, you could get a shirt tailored to look like it’s in the same style, but more fitted to your needs. In effect, feminising the expected shirt, so that it looks like it was built for a woman but still in a men’s style. If this isn’t possible, it comes down to what you feel more comfortable wearing and doing. Is it more comfortable to wear a men’s shirt so that you can avoid questions? Is it more comfortable to wear something that looks close-but-non-uniform and answer questions? Further, are you able to get away with not wearing the shirt and presenting?

    If the last question can only be answered “no”, your decision is clear-cut in this matter.

    1. John

      Unfortunately, there are probably still quite a few countries without any equivalent of an equal opportunities tribunal!

  9. LetterWriter

    Hey Folks!

    Thanks for the responses. The review was 2 weeks ago and it went really well, even though I was wearing an ugly shirt/tent. I had some help from some friends that are much more fashionable than I am and I ended up wearing the shirt partially unbuttoned over a tank top and I put a chunking belt on it (think 1980’s). My boss, actually commented that he thought it was nice that I “added a personal touch”. I did talk to both of my PM’s about the issue and I think I conveyed my feelings pretty well. I made it clear that I felt the decision left me feeling excluded. However, I think they disagreed that my feelings were reasonable.
    They did end up getting polo shirts too and my (ladies size) will arrive next week.

  10. K00kyKelly

    Personally I would wear the shirt because the men who don’t get it aren’t going to realize it looks terrible and the women and the men who do will see what is going on. You want the situation to put you in the best light possible under the circumstances and that means wearing the shirt for team unity. The ideal resultis for the people who notice to think your team is insensitive and to not notice any effect on your performance.

    Do your best to combat the self confidence sapping nature of not looking your best when presenting in advance. Do more run throughs and brainstorm audience questions. You don’t want your irritation with this issue to come through in the form of a mediocre presenation.

  11. Ingrid Jakobsen

    I think you have to do the best you can with the shirt they’re giving you. If there’s any way to make the point that you’re a woman expected to wear a man’s shirt (eg with jewellery or hairstyle) that might work as a quiet protest.

  12. Hilary Burrage

    I’m surprised people should think it’s OK to require you and the other woman to wear clothes which make you feel excluded and uncomfortable – I’d see that as a big issue for HR to consider. Seriously.

    Perhaps you could (both) either get suitable specially tailored shirts and BILL THEM to your employer, or simply chose a different style which you both like wearing, and do just that. Nobody is going to tell you to get re-dressed on the day.

    I’ve seen far too many women in SciTech who feel obliged to dress to blend in almost as a man, as though they are invisible, and I don’t think it does anything either for their confidence or their lobger-term prospects.

    Talk to HR (or your union) privately if you wish, but don’t feel you must give in to this crass male preference unless you actually choose to hold your peace and can live with that, confident that you are as important and able as your male colleagues..

    Very best of luck,

  13. vaurora

    My recommendation: don’t wear the shirt, and whenever people ask why you’re not wearing one, smile sweetly and say you’re sad you couldn’t get one that fit. Don’t wear it even if they go with the polo shirt version, unless they get one that fits you well.

    I used to wear my company’s men’s polo shirt when they asked, which looks remarkably foolish on my body type. But around 2007, I started making the following deal with my employers: I’ll wear your shirt only if it is a women’s shirt. Admittedly, this is easier once you have a few years of experience and the status that goes with it, but it worked for me and I haven’t had to wear a man’s shirt since.

    You can easily argue that wearing a shirt that clearly doesn’t fit and looks stupid is unprofessional in itself. You can also try the following deal: I’ll wear a man’s shirt if a man on the team wears a woman’s shirt. The two situations aren’t equivalent, since a woman wearing men’s clothes is usually more socially acceptable than vice versa, but it will usually make them shut up.

    In the last few years, I made a policy of simply not physically accepting any shirt that is not appropriately sized and cut. When they try to hand you the shirt, just don’t reach out your hand to take it. This leaves some confused people at the conference registration desk but creates less landfill.

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