I am a female attorney, age 29, working at a large and prestigious litigation firm. I have a law degree from a top-five school, and graduated near the top of my class. I am smart, experienced and able to handle any case thrown at me. Yet at my firm I am surrounded by men, and I have had a difficult time getting them to take me seriously. One of our HR directors recently told me that she felt the men were “distracted” because of the way I look and how I dress. I was extremely offended by that. I’m in great shape and I wear professional suits that I get tailored and are of high quality. I don’t want to have to change my personal style and look like an old lady to be taken seriously. And I don’t think I should have to. What do I do?!
Sincerely, Hard Working Fashionista
First, let me say congrats. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you’re at the top of your game.
But second, let me ask you to wake up and put your smarts to work to keep you in the game. You’re missing a giant warning signal about your ability to climb much higher. After all, if you were taking a deposition and putting patterns together for a big case, what would the picture tell you? Either you’re surrounded by a bunch of bigoted misogynists or the HR director was trying to help you realize that you are unintentionally putting an obstacle in your way.
There’s nothing wrong with having great personal style. But in a professional setting, sometimes we need to be reminded of the difference between the office and the New York Fashion Week runway.
To be taken seriously by our male counterparts, how you dress is a huge factor. It’s not about just wearing professional suits and attire. It is how it fits and looks on you that could be affecting their entire perception of you. Men’s brains are highly visually attuned to the female body (even if they don’t want to be right then). So as a young and “in great shape” woman, that nicely tailored suit might have your coworkers and bosses distracted by your “great shape” rather than being able to focus on how well you handled that situation in the courtroom.
When I surveyed men about advice they would want to give women, many men from all ages and sectors talked about how some women dress; how some women seemed to be clueless about how “sexual” they were coming across. Not attractive, mind you: sexual. Because no matter how smart and competent a woman is, if her blouse is too low or her skirt too tight, it triggers the “sexual” part of the male brain and makes it very, very difficult for her to be taken seriously.
Let me give you an example. In one experiment, we randomly assigned a group of male professionals to view one of two 90-second videos of an attractive blond female professional in a nice suit, sharing four customer service suggestions. The only difference was that in one video, her blouse was cut high, and the other she showed cleavage.
The men who saw the first presentation remembered the details of what she said. But in the one with cleavage, the percentage of men who remembered her four points dropped by 25% percent! Many of those men didn’t even get at all what she had to say. They were too busy thinking, Look at her face, look at her face, look at her face.
And that was on video. Imagine how much more difficult it would be in person.
So don’t go in next week and jump all over the men at your office about the need for fashion freedom. And don’t assume, “Men are pigs, and it’s none of their business that I have a great figure; they should take me seriously no matter what I’m wearing.” The reality is that the men are distracted because they are trying to honor you by wrenching their thoughts away from where the sexual triggers in their brain want their mind to go.
Instead of getting furious that men are wired the way they are, work with it instead of against it. There’s no need to dress like an old lady. But enlist a trusted man (husband, boyfriend, brother…) to help you learn what will “trigger” that sexual thought process in the male brain, and stay away from those triggers. For example: Keep your tailoring appropriate but not too tight. Put a jacket on top of a close-fitting shirt. Opt for higher-cut tops, pants that don’t hug your behind, and skirts that don’t ride up high when you sit down.
Now that you got the fashion files down, go grab the files for your next case and knock em’ dead in the courtroom. You will find that by mastering your appearance, you will be respected by both men and women for your looks and your brains!