Must women leaders dress like 'vanilla' to succeed?

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Must women leaders dress like 'vanilla' to succeed?

by Sharon Meers on Thursday, July 8, 2010 - 4:26am

Originally posted on July 2, 2010 in the Washington Post by Sharon Meers, Clayman Institute Advisor. sharon meers"Vanilla. Wear nothing that makes anyone think twice." That was the advice a successful man gave me as I started my career. I bristled at this idea but grudgingly tried to apply it. Like many young women, I was happy to be free of male fashion constraints (white shirt, dark suit) and man-on-man abuse for non-conformity ("Lavender-striped tie? Where'd you get that, your mother?"). But sartorial liberty has its risks. How polished should a woman look to convey competence? The standards vary widely. In the military, male commanders sport form-fitting outfits but female generals seem to tailor their uniforms only in the movies. What about open-toed shoes? Ruffles? Bold jewelry? Necklines? The choices - and perils - are boundless. As a debt-ridden college grad, I gladly accepted hand-me-downs as I began my first Wall Street job. My favorite was an Albert Nippon hot-pink suit with a skirt so frumpy I hemmed it above the knee. The first time I wore it on the trading floor, I got a call from my boss who was on the road: "Nancy says you're wearing a wild outfit." I'd been turned in by the senior woman in the office. This just weeks after another woman, in HR, complained about my wearing trousers. A few years later, a communications coach suggested I cut off my hair because I looked too young. And then I was told to adopt the air of a banker with pin stripes and a bowler hat - which I found more difficult than any financial spreadsheet I had to build. Given my personal experience with appearance angst, I tried to be gentle when it was my turn to be the enforcer. My firm initiated "casual Friday" just as, unfortunately, low-rider pants with short-cropped shirts came into vogue. "You see belly button every time they raise their hands," a female VP complained about the junior women on our team. So we invited all the women out to drinks, hoping to have a friendly chat about how to balance self-expression with office clothing norms. My young female employees looked at me with the same exasperation I felt at their age: "Who are you to tell me what to wear?" So is it just senior women who are making things hard? Are we too paranoid that female progress in the workplace might be reversed by one frivolous dress? Actually, both sexes have plenty to say about how a woman presents herself at work. I once stopped wearing make-up as a way to save time but got reactions I didn't expect. "You look look much better with eyeliner," a male colleague (and West Point alum) said in a tone that sounded like "Sargent, polish your boots." A few years ago, a male economist introduced a talented young colleague like this: "She dresses well, but she's actually smart." Can't we skip the gymnastics, wear what we want and succeed on our merits? Of course we can, but the odds are better if our results speak louder than our clothing choices. And if we master the art of familiarity. Organizational behavior experts say that both sexes hold women to standards that interfere with career progress, requiring women be "nicer" and less openly ambitious. But studies suggest women can end-run social norms by simply being more "familiar": understanding the power of putting others at ease. When people you work with feel they "know you" - that you laugh at jokes, watch the same shows - they are more likely to give you latitude to be yourself. I recall only one woman who mixed unconventional dressing with long-term career success: Ann, a tough-talking lawyer with skill and judgment worth millions, who matched stiletto heels (and occasional fishnet stockings) with a huge smile and the warmth of your favorite aunt. A recent piece in Slate reviewed the case of Debrahlee Lorenzana, a Citibank employee who was warned that her clothes distracted co-workers - and then fired. Seeing the pictures, I get the point. But the standards can be arbitrary. A female manager just told me how her male colleagues asked her to intervene with a young woman -- the guys felt her leather skirt was inappropriate. "It was long and loose," the woman manager said, "I told the guys that leather's just a clothing material -- like cotton or wool. That they should get over it." While honest people disagree, our book research told us that it's better for women if sex-appeal gets focused outside the office. But, yes, I know that's another topic. So, in the meantime, women make life easier for themselves by keeping the work look more Jackie O. and less J. Lo. As for me, I've learned to love vanilla - with a few sprinkles like big earrings and well-tailored shirts. And I do keep hoping that purple will someday be the new navy.