Home > rant > One reason corporate culture sucks for women

One reason corporate culture sucks for women

November 19, 2013

Am I the only person offended by the recent wave of articles wherein “senior women” at corporate offices are going around telling “younger women” about the appropriate dress code?

For example, here’s the beginning of a WSJ piece on just that subject:

Clothes may make the man. Can they undo the woman?

When female employees at Frontier Communications Corp. show up at its headquarters in very short skirts, sweatpants or sneakers, Chief Executive Maggie Wilderotter sometimes pulls them aside for a quick, private chat on dressing for success.

“I want women to be paid attention to for what they say–and not how they look,” explains Ms. Wilderotter.

Later in the article the explain why this is ok:

Women face more pitfalls because they have more clothing choices than men. And because male bosses fear being accused of sexual harassment, it usually falls to female supervisors to confront an associate about her attire.

This is one reason I hate corporate jobs. And yes, it’s because I come from academia and because I’m essentially a hippie, but seriously, why do we need so much policing? Why can’t people just leave each other alone to express themselves? It’s also a double standard:

Rosalind Hudnell, human resources vice president of Intel Corp., occasionally intervenes when she sees young female staffers clad unprofessionally, even though Intel staffers often wear shorts and jeans.

It’s just another in a long list of things you are scrutinized on if you’re a woman. In addition to whether you are a good mother, a feminine-enough-without-being-too-feminine employee, and, as a tertiary issue, if that, whether you actually do your job well. Fuck this.

Question for you readers: what does it really mean that these “senior women” are taking it upon themselves to scrutinize and criticize young women? Am I wrong, is it actually generous? Or is it some kind of hazing thing? Or is it a media invention that doesn’t actually happen?

Categories: rant
  1. Abe Kohen
    November 19, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Clothes do and don’t matter, even for men. It’s about the office “culture.” It’s a fuzzy concept. Sometimes it’s about “balance.” At the hedge fund where you worked there was no dress code. Hence a co-worker once appeared in a bustier. Giggles and stares abounded but no direct impact. But when a job applicant appeared in tee and jeans,a the consensus was that he didn’t respect the place enough to dress for the interview, even though those interviewing him were in tees, shorts, and sandals or bare feet. No job offer was the result. Was it fair? Life isn’t fair.


  2. Guest2
    November 19, 2013 at 8:03 am

    I have to agree with Abe.

    My experience is that this is more of a generational thing — what is accepted dress for one, is not for the other, and herein lies the problem. Body art, piercings, huge ear hoops, can make co-workers, and especially older supervisors, uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. You need a little sensitivity for the other gal or the other guy to navigate the inconsistencies.


  3. Gordon
    November 19, 2013 at 8:43 am

    I think you’re wrong on two counts: firstly, guys are held to a dress code (one of my cohort when I was a junior I-Banker was sent home to change when his suit was judged unacceptable for a client meeting that he had that day); secondly, it’s generous of those women to offer advice about the culture of the firm that those juniors have joined. Better that than have their colleagues or clients judge them because they’ve misunderstood a standard that might be less clear cut than it is for their male partners.


  4. JSE
    November 19, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I’m just glad you’re taking a break from pointing out the things about the academic workplace that suck for women to recall the important fact that lots of things about the non-academic workplace also suck for women.


  5. SamChevre
    November 19, 2013 at 10:04 am

    I’m a man; I’ll leave the female-specific issues for others.

    I work in an insurance company, in a completely internal role. When I was looking to get a promotion, one comment I got from my manager in a fairly formal setting (formal performance discussion) was “if you want to be perceived as a candidate for lead jobs, you need to dress like that’s what you are, not like a junior. Wear dark pants, and make sure your shirts are always pressed.”

    In that case, it was definitely generous and it was helpful (although I still haven’t gotten the promotion.) Note one thing that affects this a lot is social history; I grew up poor working class and worked as a carpenter for 10 years, so I don’t have a good reference point for “how would a professional dress” without someone pointing out what to notice.

    I’d think about self-expression differently; “is what you are expressing what you want to express in a professional environment?” seems to me a reasonable question.


  6. November 19, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I’ve been similarly appalled. I don’t actually think defining conservative dress for a workplace is terrible in and of itself. Corporate culture, whatever. But to single out the women at the firm and make it a gender issue — and then for the WSJ to treat it like that’s totally normal — makes me want to run really fast in the other direction.


  7. Joshua
    November 19, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Without data, we’re left with anecdotes from the original article, whatever a quick search turns up, and our own experiences. I’ll give some of mine, but I acknowledge these aren’t definitive, all drawn from several years in strategy consulting for banks.

    I’ve often seen sartorial advice and criticism given to both men and women. In terms of numbers, it was more often given to men because the population was disproportionately male. Other than inexperience, there were two standard reasons this advice was so common: our recruiting intake was from technical disciplines and we had a lot of people working far from their home country where standards and styles were different.

    In terms of offensive criticism (comments that I can understand the recipient feeling offended to receive), I saw more comments about poor hygiene for men (though some were directed at women) and all the comments about dressing too provocatively were directed at women. Dressing too casually seemed proportionally split.

    Incidentally, the only people who were told that they drank too much were men . . .


  8. Laminated Lychee
    November 19, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    There is a dress code wherever one goes…it’s a social agreement and in case of work environment, it’s how one represents the company.
    What I pick up on though is ‘cat fight’ written between the lines. I believe that’s a concept being pushed more in hierarchical male dominated cultures and unfortunately heavily executed by women who mimic the boys club.
    Can’t change the boys and many are great and supportive indeed. but when I hear something negative said about a woman regardless who says it, I make sure to keep an open mind. Women need to be supportive of women and understand and change the mechanisms that undermine us in male dominated environments.

    On that note….while working with an investment bank I was asked to tell the CEO of vendor to tell one of his (rock star skilled) employees to NEVER wear shorts again when coming to a meeting. Obviously none of the managing directors were able to focus because the dude had probably forgotten that he had an offsite and showed leg. LOL


  9. Zathras
    November 19, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    Yeah, this stuff is not good, but, seriously, it’s too far down the list to worry about. When set up against the long hours and total assholes you have to deal with in corporate culture, I really can’t care.


  10. Avivit
    November 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    I have a completely different view on this. I am female and relatively feminine looking with a PhD in mathematical physics and now working in finance. I always noticed that I had to dress extremely conservatively in order to be taken seriously by my environment and also to avoid being harassed. Of course in a world with no gender bias, there would be no relation between the way you dress and how you are perceived as a professional. Unfortunately the more attractive or the more feminine you appear the less competent you come across. So maybe the senior women were just pointing out this quite real aspect of gender bias. Naturally the ideal solution would be to remove the gender bias, but until this is achieved one has to live with the consequences of this gender bias. And that means that it makes sense for a young woman who wants to be taken seriously in a male dominated field to adapt her clothing.


    • Michael Robinson
      November 20, 2013 at 8:54 am

      “Of course in a world with no gender bias, there would be no relation between the way you dress and how you are perceived as a professional.”

      Sadly, no. Unprofessional attire is unprofessional, every bit as much for men as for women.

      There are places and occasions where showing up without a tie affects how you are perceived as a professional. Fewer now than before, granted, but it has always been the case, and always will be the case that humans use clothing as a ceremonial and tribal marker.


  11. Avivit
    November 19, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    And actually the harassment and belittling were much worse in academia than in the industry, so not sure this is a problem with corporate culture


  12. ignatzmehitabel
    November 19, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I pretty much think that I’m with you on this – gender bias not withstanding. Talk all you want about the “realities” of gender bias, this seems dangerously close to blaming the victim. If a workplace has a dress code, then as long as you’re within the constraints of that dress code, there is nothing else to say. If someone cannot take a woman seriously because of the way that she dresses, that’s bias, and THAT’S the problem, not the woman’s dress choices (given the proviso about being within the limits of any clearly stated dress code). As to “life is unfair,” well, yes, yes it is. But, is that an argument, and excuse, or merely learned helplessness?

    Not that it matters much, or at all, but I’m a man, btw.


    • Abe Kohen
      November 19, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      Is there a written “clearly stated” dress code? Usually not. But when I worked at Saly (a long time ago) I would never have dreamt of coming to work in less than suit & tie. Was it written anywhere? No. And at DE Shaw, my usual attire was tee, shorts and sandals. Was that written anywhere? No. Is that learned helplessness? No. To the contrary. It’s part of the unwritten social agreement. Do I have a problem with a woman wearing a micro-skirt or her birthday suit? Hell no! But the question is what is appropriate within a given cultural environment. It’s not discrimination, unless you think a baseball player who wears a football uniform and is asked to change is being discriminated against. (For the record, once when the A/C was broken at an I-bank, I was the only one who removed my suit and worked in tee and shorts. Sometimes “rules” NEED to be broken.)


      • November 19, 2013 at 9:06 pm

        Abe, I think that perhaps we’re making somewhat separate points. First, I agree that there is often no explicitly stated dress code and you have to infer what the appropriate dress code is. Furthermore, often (if not always) the standards are fairly (pardon the pun) pretty uniform, at least within divisions or departments. So, I will grant you that. However, there’s a fine line here. What I was addressing was the instance where a woman dresses within those inferred limits, but is expected to alter her appearance because what women wear is potentially something (what, suggestive? informationally loaded about her seriousness?).

        Also, my comment about “life is unfair” was merely addressing the fact that this statement if often invoked, but it’s not explanatory.


  13. mathematrucker
    November 19, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    “When female employees at Frontier Communications Corp. show up at its headquarters in very short skirts, sweatpants or sneakers, Chief Executive Maggie Wilderotter sometimes pulls them aside for a quick, private chat on dressing for success.”

    Aha! This helps explain why Frontier is among the worst service companies I’ve ever dealt with. Instead of worrying about their customers, they spend all their time and energy worrying about what they’re wearing!


  14. Jim Birch
    November 19, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    The tie – a ritualized strangulation cord – indicates that this cuts both sides. Some outfits are trying to give the impression that they are conservative, reverential, and solid so you have to suit up. Elsewhere looking loose, agile and iconoclastic is the go.

    It all starts with biological drivers like power, sexuality, strength, intelligence, and gets multiple layers of cultural gunk layered on top. Different cultures and different industries go in different direction that develop a life story of their own.

    The big problem for women is that they are expected to look attractive – i.e. sexy, ready to float off with the next available male to make babies – and at the same time reliable, professional and and steadfast at the same time. It’s contradictory space. This is a basic biological evaluation that occurs without conscious thought, just like taller men are rated higher by automated biological value system.

    We can do without this crap, but to really achieve it you’d need to get people to be aware of their biological programming, and, actually think a little more. This is a big ask. The “simpler” approach is another layer of culture that mitigates the worse effects of the last synthesis and doesn’t soak up too much ongoing brainpower that could otherwise be usefully deployed for office politics or chatting up that nice girl/guy who works in HR.


  15. vicky
    November 20, 2013 at 6:58 am

    This is complicated. If the female supervisor was uncomfortable with what the younger woman was wearing, it could be because she knows that being sexualized by male employees (and supervisors) can be devastating to a woman’s career. On the other hand, she may just be repressive and conformist in her approach. It would be interesting to actually research this issue and find out how more and less senior women employees perceive the issues. The facts alone don’t tell the tale.


  16. Dolley
    November 20, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Being old enough to remember when “business casual” first came into vogue, and how the higher-ups resisted, I think it is a class issue more than a gender issue. Khakis are khakis. But a cheap suit looks MUCH different from a custom tailored suit. A dress from Target hangs much differently than a Tahari. THAT is really the underlying issue…formal dress makes it clear which class you are in, and that is conforting for those who percieve themselves to be in a “higher” class. Of course, I live in the south where a premium is placed on appearence for both sexes.


  17. loloyohe
    November 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

    I had a similar experience at a scientific conference this past summer. Not just in the corporate world but unfortunately seems to be popping up in all fields. Here’s my story: http://laurelburytales.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/you-must-not-know-about-me-women-and-science-and-beyonce/


  18. Turnip
    November 20, 2013 at 10:05 am

    As a senior female employee — admittedly only one datapoint — our younger female employees often dress like they’re about to go out to a nightclub — tight short skirts, crazy amounts of cleavage, midriffs bared. Hey, I’m all about dressing like that when you’re going out, after work, etc. But when you’re sitting in front of a client, trying to convince them that you’re the person they can rely on…or negotiating a multi-million dollar contract, then yes, your professional dress has got to tell a different story. I’ve also had to counsel young male employees about using an iron, wearing appropriate shirts, and the difference between carefully groomed fashionable beard stubble and “I was too hungover to shave” stubble and getting a haircut that didn’t make them look like they were 12 years old and their mom was till cutting it. There are fewer ways for men to go wrong, dress-wise, than there are for women, I think, just because women have so many more fashion choices.


  19. Bobito
    November 21, 2013 at 10:43 am

    It seems appropriate to recall the time I saw some long-haired bearded clown give a job talk about honeycombs and puzzles while wearing what used to be called parachute pants and a tank top. He later gave a juggling exhibition on the lawn in front of the student center. They offered him the job, but he turned them down for a better one.

    This is one of the many reasons I am happy among mathematicians.


  20. November 21, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    The sign said, “long-haired freaky people need not apply”,
    So I tucked my hair up under my hat and went in to ask him why.
    He said, “you look like a nice upstanding young man, I think you’ll do.”
    So I took off my hat and said, “imagine that, me workin’ for you.”


  21. Otter
    November 25, 2013 at 1:32 am

    “Why can’t people just leave each other alone to express themselves?”

    I grew up in a mining town. I could have used somebody like Ms. Wilderotter.

    “it usually falls to female supervisors to confront an associate about her attire.”

    Does “confront” mean an all-out assault, or a few quiet words and encouraging tips?

    When I was expessing myself, I was really expressing where I was from, and what masks and postures I needed to pass unmolested there. The people I worked with didn’t come from that sort of place. They didn’t understand any more about me than I about them. They were uncomfortable. To some extent I got by on sheer force of talent, but not as far as I might have.

    If you look around, you will see some people who both do good math and make others happy to see them. They get better jobs, get paid more money, get invited to more better parties … whatever it is they want, that they need other people to give them.

    Long-haired freaky people scare the customers.

    True, there are predatory, calculating rapists and deceivers. Ms. Wilderotter might have some advice about them too.


  1. November 20, 2013 at 4:36 am
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