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Dress for success, i.e. dress like a man September 14, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, teaching, work.
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This week, I had a speaker from the career center come and talk to my classes in preparation for a career fair.  He spent some time talking about appropriate dress, and showed examples of potential outfits for both sexes.  I found this quite interesting, especially given a previous discussion on the topic of women’s dress on EngineerBlogs.

The first thing that caught my attention was that he said that women should wear their hair up if they want to be perceived as more professional.  As a woman who has long hair, I can totally see this.  I’m also not terribly happy about it because when my hair gets to a certain length, I start getting headaches if I wear it up.  Beyond that, though, I think it’s interesting because of potential social implications.  The speaker said that a woman who is willing to expose her neck comes across as more confident and competent.  But that does make me wonder why…and the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that women who wear ponytails look a lot more like men.  Men who are considered ‘professional’ tend to wear their hair short.  A woman who puts her hair up and exposes her neck looks more like a man with a short haircut, and men, in general, are going to be perceived as more professional.  I may be wrong about that, but I couldn’t help but wonder.

Women’s clothing choices seemed more limited, IMO.  It seemed like men could wear a lot of different things and still look ‘professional’.  (I do have to note, however, that men don’t have extremely wide wardrobe choices to begin with.)  By contrast, women’s clothing varied so much more in style, and most of them were not professional.  Make sure you wear sleeves, be careful of color, watch the jewelry, etc.  Beyond that, one of the outfits was one that I think a lot of other women would find professional or stylish but apparently weren’t perceived that way by potential employers.  I’ve seen women criticize other women’s clothing, but apparently some of the choices that were being criticized as ‘unfashionable’ were being judged differently by employers.  This makes me wonder if it’s not a good idea to get ideas of professional dress from other women, particularly if the field is much more male-oriented.

Beyond that, I had to wonder if presentations like this are ultimately harmful.  On the one hand, I think it’s good to make sure the students understand the implications of their dress choices.  Still, I have to wonder if these presentations reinforce ideas about what is professional and not, leading students to eventually make evaluations of others based on what they were told.  I sort of feel like this is perpetuating a system where people are evaluated based on their clothing choices, especially on how feminine they look, rather than their technical ability.  This is particularly frustrating because my observation is that someone who is quick to catch on to what constitutes professionalism may not necessarily be the best engineer.

 

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Comments»

1. Anandi Raman Creath (@anandi) - September 18, 2012

I take these presentations with a HUGE grain of salt (bushel?) because I honestly don’t think it matters much for a technical interview. I think it’s ridiculous to say it matters for women to put their hair up, though I do think it’s important to keep it brushed, neat and out of your face just so you don’t look “messy”.

I also think if you get *too* dressed up for an interview at a very informal tech company (like a young startup), it may reinforce a notion that you are more style over substance.

I do dress up for interviews, but not in a suit.

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2. mareserinitatis - September 19, 2012

I had to point out that the notion of wearing high heels is very bad in engineering because of exactly this.

I guess I’d be okay in a pants suit…but my frustration was that it seemed like the only really acceptable option for women.

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3. Sophi Kravitz - September 20, 2012

I work with nearly 100% men in all of my jobs (I’m both a freelance design engineer and technical sales rep) and have never worn a pants suit. YUCK.

When I go to an interview, I always wear pants, not a suit, because I want to look like I can do stuff. Wearing a suit or a dress conveys the impression that I would not belong on a factory floor. The dress conveys that impression because it’s not the kind of thing you want to get dirty, not because it’s female attire.

I agree that keeping your hair up and out of your face looks neater and cleaner. Think food service where men and women wear hairnets to keep the hair out of the food. Exposing your neck looks more confident? How about just BEING confident?

I also think that obviously you want to have sleeves and not have parts of your body’s skin too exposed. Also true for men.
For me professional attire to visit a customer is fashionable pants, low heels and a clean shirt with sleeves on it. Also a sweater in case I spill something on the nice clean shirt.

I also continue to work, which makes me think that what I wear is not as important as what I can do.

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Miss MSE (@MissMSE) - September 24, 2012

This is my strategy too. I dress to be prepared to go on a tour of the plant floor during the interview (with the possible exception of shoes, because I only own black steel toe shoes). To me, this means pants, no dangling hair or jewelry, and glasses, not contacts. Even now that I do computational work, I want to look like I’m ready to start *right now*. And layers, because I’m a frequently messy eater…

My biggest issue with pant suits is that very few women wear the same size top and bottom, and pant suits are typically sold as a unit. Most women inevitably end up looking like they raided someone else’s closet for at least half of the outfit, which doesn’t look very professional, regardless of gender.

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