Dress codes prefer males over females. Ok, maybe not. But it’s hard to deny that men who work in jobs that expect traditional, corporate-minded attire, certainly have far fewer choices than women. And fewer choices can mean fewer mistakes. Let’s face it, a suit is a suit is a suit. Granted, men can make some pretty bad choices about their tie-shirt combos but it’s quite different than selecting accessories like earrings, necklaces, scarves, shoes, and the list goes on.
I recently read a post by Laurie Ruetimann at Team Building Is for Suckers, which talked about an article in The WSJ on the issue of women’s choice for work wear and the effect it really has on their success. Her post raised some interesting questions about whether there is a double standard when it comes to fashion choices by men and women.
Among practicing attorneys, the belief that lawyers should “look like lawyers” remains firmly in place. Even less conservative attorneys that I know would never consider going to see a client or giving a seminar in anything other than the traditional blue or black suit. Brown doesn’t cut it, for those of you who were wondering.
Personally, I have many times struggled with “what not to wear” as the show’s title goes. I, for one, take my fashion choices pretty seriously. Ok, maybe even too seriously. But, knowing that I tend to be far more fashion forward than fashion conservative, I try to be especially aware that I don’t cross the line–wherever that may be.
The most grounding experience I’ve ever had regarding professional attire occurred before I ever was a professional. The “memorable” and eye-opening encounter occurred during law school when I participated in a intra-school “moot court” competition (think debate team for lawyers in training). My female teammate and I burned through our competition during the early rounds and suddenly found ourselves, unexpectedly, in the semi-finals.
Our opponents, two men, were friends of mine. They were also very good oralists and were taking the competition very seriously. The panel of judges were actually “real” judges, who volunteered their Saturday afternoon to attend the event, fire questions during our arguments, critique the speakers, and, in the end, declare the winners. Our panel included two male and one female state court judges. The men ranked significantly higher than the woman in the judicial hierarchy.
Our opponents went first and, without a doubt, were outstanding. Then, it was our turn. We gave an equally outstanding performance. I was thrilled. My family had come to watch and I was so proud to have made what I knew was a finalist-worthy argument. I was excited to hear the critique of the judges but, honestly, did not particularly care whether we advanced or not.
The satisfaction of performing at my best was satisfaction enough.
The judges gave our adversaries their critiques first. As is the norm, they included both good and bad points. Hearing the comments, I knew we were going to be declared the winners–all of the points where they had done poorly, we had performed at a top level.
Finally, it was our turn and my teammate and I walked to the podium to hear from the judges. There was a true audience in attendance, too. The family and friends of each of the four participants, as well as participants who had been knocked out in earlier rounds, and the hosts and volunteers running the event were seated in the auditorium style seats behind us. I was beaming with pride.
The male judges spoke first. Each of their points were right on target. They’d caught us when we’d struggled for answers or tried to evade their questions. They commented on our demeanors and our use of eye contact.
The female judge was the last to speak. She began with my partner and then turned her comments to me. She made a few, half-hearted introductory points, like, “Overall, your presentation was very competent.” Then the niceties were over. She glared at me, looking over the rim of her eyeglasses, which sat perched at the end of her nose. And, without emotion, she announced that we would not be proceeding to the final round.
Without hesitation, she declared that she had voted for our opponents because I had not worn a skirt.
That’s right. I had worn a pants suit to the argument. For no reason other than, at the time, it was the nicest suit I owned. The one skirt suit I had was fairly worn and I wanted to make sure that I presented the best appearance possible.
She explained in an almost angry tone that, if this was the real United States Supreme Court (instead of the mock trial version), would I have really shown up in pants? She almost shuddered in disgust when she finished the sentence.
Clearly, she went on, I had not taken this competition seriously. It was a flagrant act of disrespect for me to make the fashion choice that I had made so flippantly.
She continued on about the trials that the women before me had been forced to endure so that I could even attend law school today or have any shot at success in my chosen profession. She continued on.
But, by that point, I was no longer listening. I was fuming. It took every ounce of self-control I could muster not to react. I wanted to cry over the sheer humiliation I felt as she berated me in front of my mother, my father, and an entire room full of strangers. More than that, though, I wanted to tell her that it was women like her that would force my daughters and granddaughters to continue to fight for true equality in the workplace. Not the two men who sat beside her–they had been courteous and genuine when they spoke. It was clear that they believed in each of the participants and felt a kind of true joy to see what would develop into the next generation of lawyers.
It was her, the only woman on the panel, and women like her, that the future generations had to worry about.
And what about now? Now do I wear a skirt suit or a pants suit when I go before the Court? I’ll be honest and say that it is something I consider each and every time.