Do Feminine Work Outfits Affect Your Job Prospects?
In the canon of great nineties-noughties rom-coms, special mention must go to Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon plays a young girl who, after scoring 179 (out of 180) on the intellectually strenuous Law School Admission Test, scores a place at the exceedingly prestigious Harvard Law School. There, through diligence and intellectual ability, she gains an impressive and highly selective internship, callously cross-examines a witness to win a complex court case, and is elected class speaker.
If you’ve seen the film, you might well be confused. This plot summary is technically correct, but it completely sanitises the strong characterisation of Witherspoon as a lovable ditz, obsessed with boys and shoes and makeup. We remember her fluffy pink pens, her pink and perfumed resume, her hot-pink skirt-suit, and the amalgamation of this image with the intellectual overachiever described above seems jarringly incongruous.
The point is that the image you present can affect people’s perceptions of your work ability. In Legally Blonde, Witherspoon’s character first adopts and then espouses the drab, unfeminine workwear of her peers, deciding it is more important to be true to herself. But was she wise to do so?
Does wearing feminine outfits hinder professional women? Or, conversely, does it help?
Real as the short girl’s struggles to reach objects on high shelves undoubtedly is, most women would agree that their reason for wearing heels is largely aesthetic. They make your legs and bum look better, they make that awesome clacking sound when you walk down the hallway, and they look more professional. According to 69% of interviewers, anyway.
Heels seem to carry some sort of persuasive magic too. Wearing heels doubles the compliance rate when the women wearing them makes an unsolicited request, and improves the chance of being offered help to almost 100%. Useful in an office environment? Absolutely! There is a small caveat though; heel-magic only works on men. When women decide whether to help out another woman, they simply do not factor in her footwear.
Why the gender disparity? Well, the same study found that men were also quicker to hit on a woman in high heels, suggesting that sexual attraction could be the deciding factor. Acolytes of Catherine Hakim’s theory of “erotic capital” will see this as a bias professional women can exploit to their advantage. Other women may find any encouragement of sexualisation within the workplace uncomfortable, especially for an aspect of dress code that many companies encourage or declare mandatory. And for some women, the psychological effects of high heels will not be as relevant to them as the discomfort and medical problems associated with them.
So, should you wear heels to work? Yes… if you want to. No, if you don’t want to. Because regardless of the whims of male psychology, you will be at your professional best when you feel confident and comfortable.
Studies have shown that the more makeup you wear to work, even into the realms of OTT “glamourous”, the more competent, likeable, and trustworthy you will be rated. On the flip side, wearing make-up regularly is going to suck a big chunk out of your day – 38 minutes on average – and a wear a b-i-g hole in your wallet: £100,000 over your lifetime.
So should you wear make-up to work? Yes, if you want to. No, if you don’t want to. Because regardless of the implicit personally traits of eyeliner, you will be at your professional best when you feel confident and comfortable.
Like a bit of skirt? Good news! A study has concluded that women who wear skirts to work are evaluated more positively than those who wear trouser-suits. Observers in the experiment classed skirted professionals as more confident and as higher earners.
Hate a bit of skirt? Good news! Another study found the exact opposite. Women who wore more masculine clothing to interviews were more likely to be hired by both men and women. True, they were regarded as more forceful and aggressive, but this was seen as a good thing because it indicated ambition.
So should you wear skirts to work? Yes, if you want to. No, if you don’t want to. Regardless of the effect of your legs on bystanders, you will be at your professional best when you feel confident and comfortable.
What was good enough for Legally Blonde is not good enough for female executive – fewer than 1% of them regularly wear pink at work. Many of them agree with broadcaster Chrissy Iley that “it is simply harder to be taken seriously wearing pink”. Pink’s place in the workplace may soon be on the rise, however, because research has found that men who wear pink shirts earn an extra £1,000 a year, are more qualified, more confident, and more complimented.
The colour pink has also been found to reduce aggression and suppress appetite in those viewing it. Okay, so that study was conducted in a prison. But you could argue that women who wear pink will facilitate greater team cooperation and decrease the productivity crashes that occur with the 4 o’clock munchies.
So should you wear pink to work? Yes, if you want to. No, if you don’t want to. Regardless of the tetchiness of your overfull co-workers, you will be at your professional best when you feel confident and comfortable.
And The Answer Is . . .
The complexity of human psychology means that both within the workplace and out, we make millions of implicitly or explicitly biased judgements about people because of what they look like. Unfortunately, these biases are impossible to accurately predict because all people react differently. Fortunately, in most instances the clothes you wear will never be as important to other people as your personality, your preservation, and your talent.
So wear what you want, be who you want. And whether you climb that career ladder in hot pink heels or flat brown loafers, keep believing in yourself.
See you at the top!
Beth Leslie writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching candidates to their dream internship. Check out their graduate jobs London listings for roles. Or if you’re looking to hire an intern, have a look at their innovative Video CVs.