The hard truth about appearance

dogshotHow do you look?  How do you feel about how you look?  Have you dressed for success in the workplace? Or for comfort? Are you dressing in a feminine or masculine way?

One of the most discussed aspects of my last book, The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, sits right at the end.

Lightspeed GMI asked the workforce of the UK, US and Russia some questions about how they showed up at work.  On a scale of 1-10 how feminine or masculine is your style at work?  We acknowledge of course that both everyone has both feminine and masculine attributes.  Women placed themselves across the spectrum, although the majority showed up as feminine in style about a third said they were more masculine.  Most men put themselves on the masculine side of the spectrum, with only 1 in 10 saying their style was feminine.  When we discuss this in our Glass Wall talks we often find that across advertising, marketing and media sales the split for women is more 50:50.  The profile for men is nearly always the same as our survey.

When we dug more deeply into the meaning of this, we found that part of the reason is “cross-dressing”.  100 years ago the women who did find their way into the workforce were not allowed to cross-dress – ie wear trousers.  In one talk, for the defence forces, we met a woman who remembered the first time women were allowed to wear trousers in the navy back in the 1970s.  Now of course it’s common and unexceptional.

Not so for men to do the reverse.  I only know one man who routinely wears a dress to a business meeting.

Now what does this mean?  And why is the thought of men wearing dresses still apparently so radical in 2019?  Is it just because there’s less availability in the shops as one talk attendee suggested last week?

I think that this issue is one of the “Glass Walls” of the workplace.  A point of real difference between the genders that is little understood, yet that has massive implications.

When a woman wears a pink dress, she might do so because it’s a sunny day and its a cool smart outfit.   When a woman wears a pink dress, she signals more femininity (whatever that means) to her colleagues who are men even if she does not intend to do so.  Simply because they cannot show up in a pink dress even if they’d like too, in most offices, without there being a very strong reaction.  Yet the next day she might wear a black trouser suit, and not feel remotely different.  The signals she gives are not the same.

Now it is worth recognising that not everyone is able to dress as themselves all the time – because senior management might find fault – and that the general term ‘smartness’ is subject to exactly the same prejudices within the workplace as without, determined by whoever is in power.

However, you dress, however you show up, one thing is certain.  Your appearance says more than you might think about how your colleagues, clients and customers will judge you.

If you are in any doubt about this try the set of pictures of dogs in HBR’s innovation issue from earlier this year.  Photographer Grace Chan has taken a series of shots of dogs before and after their Japanese-style grooming.  Irrespective of the advice in the story which is that you need to allow some uncertainty and confusion to create a true culture of innovation the pictures speak volumes about the dogs in question.  It’s almost impossible to avoid making instant character judgements because of the state of their fur.  You know it is the same dog.  And you know that the dog doesn’t change behaviour because of how its fur looks. Still you judge. Their appearance signals creativity (pre-grooming) or control (post), messiness or discipline, even aggressiveness or friendliness.

I’m sometimes taken to task when I talk about appearance, and after all I’m not an expert (although thanks to Campaign for allowing me to talk about my own style).  I believe you need to show up as your authentic self.  I also know that people will make snap decisions about you based on what you wear.  This is not a gender issue, it’s an issue of the conditioning that we have all experienced so much so that it seems like second nature.  You will be judged on what you wear.  The choice of outfit is absolutely yours but it should be a conscious one.


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