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  • Chealsea Wierbonski

Smart Girls Don't Dress Like That



For as long as I can remember, I’ve used clothes, jewelry, my hair style and color, shoes, tights, and other accessories as a way to express myself. In other words, I’ve always been into “outfits”. I say “outfits” instead of “fashion” because before I moved to NYC, I hadn’t the slightest notion about what fashion even entailed. But “outfits”, they’ve always been a way for me to express my creativity–things just feel more interesting to me in a good outfit.


As a child, my favorite ensemble was a tutu with a Mickey Mouse club sweater; when I became a teenager, I got into punk rock music and so my outfits took on a much more DIY rebellious appearance. I even made a lot of my own clothes, both from scratch as well as by modifying clothing I’d bought at thrift shops. In college, I dressed a bit more smartly, focusing more on trendy looks that were more fashionable and less counter-culture, until finally landing in NYC in the late 90’s, where I was exposed to actual fashion, which I embraced wholeheartedly and never looked back from. 


Recently, I spoke at a women in tech conference in Orlando with 16,000 attendees, most of whom were women. At the conference, I couldn’t help but notice that there was an absence of what one might characterize as stereotypically feminine expression in terms of fashion. Instead, the default dress code seemed to be somewhat nondescript, understated even. Plain shirts and jeans, simple shoes, nothing too over the top. 


Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that women are obligated to adhere to the stereotypes of femininity or a feminine dress code. After all, feminine expression can look different to different people. But it did make me wonder, are we women intentionally dialing back our own notions of feminine expression in the workplace? 


When I first started working in tech in the 1990s, things around the office were a bit more conservative than now and everyone dressed according to the “business casual” dress code of the time. For women this meant plain black pants (or a few years later, dark denim) with some sort of button down shirt or crew neck sweater from Banana Republic or J Crew, sensible flats or low heels from Steve Madden or Coach. Guys were strictly wearing pleated khakis with a button down from Brooks Brothers. I’m pretty certain that most places I worked for those first 10 years did actually have a dress code. 


My natural style tends to be over the top. As far as I’m concerned, the more sparkles and bright colors, the better; however, I always knew that showing up to the office looking like a cross between 1980’s Boy George and a Glam Rocker might not be the best for my career as a woman in tech. In other words, it seemed necessary to dial back my own notion of feminine expression. 


I did the best I could within the business casual constraints of the time and played by the rules for the most part, not getting too crazy out of fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I actually showed up looking like myself. 


When office culture started to get a bit more casual in the mid-aughts, I was torn. I wanted to express myself, but I also still wanted to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to stand out too much and I certainly didn’t want to look too feminine. Anyone who came up in this era will remember countless clothing directives to women in the workplace to not look “too sexy” or “too over-the-top”. Bright colors–no. Crazy prints–absolutely not. Showing skin–are you out of your mind??


This directive has stuck with me even as newer generations have come into the office looking way more casual and baring way more skin than I ever would have considered. Now, it seems, most companies have gotten rid of dress codes. 


According to Adzuna.com, in less than 5 years, employers citing casual dress rose to 70%, while those asking for a business casual dress code dropped to 29%. Offices that require dressy attire is at only 0.2%. Even Wall Street has finally succumbed to sneakers and slacks; suits it seems are now part of a bygone era. 


But just because outward styles have become more relaxed, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed– and that’s the unspoken directive to women that they still shouldn’t be too feminine. 


If you work in tech, finance, academia, or any other type of business or STEM field, there are unspoken assumptions based on the way a woman looks. Specifically, if you do anything to try to accentuate your looks, or even stand out too much, you aren’t taken seriously. Anything to do with making yourself look attractive is often seen as frivolous and the women who care about these kinds of things must also be frivolous, aka not very bright. Meaning, if you try to look pretty, you can’t possibly also be smart. 


According to one Medium article, “In 2023, workplaces are increasingly recognizing the value of individuality and self-expression through clothing.” 


So my question is, in this era of totally casual dressing, where individuality is hailed as an important ingredient for a more productive and happier workplace, why is feminine expression still off the table?


Is this because it’s too distracting for men in the office? Is it because people are threatened by women who are both beautiful and intelligent? Or is it us women oppressing our own feminine expression because men are the dominant gender in these environments and we don’t want to remind everyone just how very not like men we are? 


In addition to having a desire to be taken seriously, women also fear unwanted attention and advances from male co-workers. It’s already difficult enough for many of us in the office, the last thing we want is to have to deal with weird man vibes around us. 


For some women, these types of concerns can extend beyond just clothing. Many women also wear glasses that they don’t actually need, change their voice to a different register, modify their language and word choice, or make other modifications all in an effort to establish themselves as intelligent, accountable, and serious about their jobs. 


These concerns are even more pronounced and compounded for LGBTQ+ women and women of color, who are not only contending with gender expectations, but also cultural and racial biases. According to McKensey’s 2023 Women in the Workplace study, 78 percent of women who face microaggressions self-shield at work, or adjust the way they look or act in an effort to protect themselves. 


Just do a search for “women looking feminine in the office” and you’ll see countless blogs, reddit threads and Quora’s providing advice about just how feminine to look, outfits that are somewhat feminine but still acceptable, discussions that insist that it’s better to tone down femininity, and so on and so on. 


And all of this is for good reason apparently–there was a study in 2019 that found that when women were perceived as beautiful, they were also perceived to be less truthful, less trustworthy as leaders, and more deserving of termination than their “ordinary looking” female counterparts.


Why are we even still talking about this? Why can’t a woman express her femininity in the workplace if she wants to? Dare I say that empowered female beauty is often perceived as a threat, is considered a “distraction”, and is even more threatening when women are also intelligent?


So in addition to all of the other stressors that are unique to women, such as balancing family care with work, hormonal transitions such as pregnancy and menopause, various biases and microaggressions that are a daily part of working as a woman, we also apparently are stressing out about just how feminine we should look! 


All of the data above, as well as the fact that there is likely no cis-man alive wondering about how much masculinity is acceptable at work, signals one key point to me–we are still so very far behind in creating an equitable workplace for women. There is a lot of time and energy being spent discussing and thinking about how women should dress in the workplace, when this is just not the case for our male colleagues. 


These types of workplace attire discussions indicate that there are certain boundaries that only apply to women. And any type of boundary, even if it’s related to clothing, keeps women in a narrowly defined box when it comes to expressing ourselves. 


Limitations imposed by this box can also carry over into how we do or don't express ourselves in other ways, such as speaking up or asserting ourselves in the workplace. 


In many of my posts I try to give helpful advice about how to overcome challenging situations at work. For this post, however, I want to be careful–I would not want to put any woman in a position where doing something that goes against corporate culture could potentially damage her career or her credibility. 


With that said, expressing yourself in your truest way through your attire at work can help you express yourself in other ways. It can help you to feel more true to yourself, authentic, and therefore more comfortable, which all help you to feel more empowered in other aspects of work.


Expressing yourself as you see fit–whether that's through over the top creativity, non-binary, looking traditionally “feminine”, or any other expression that you desire, is your right. Don’t let the preconception of what “smart girls” look like define the way you present yourself to the world!

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