Dressing “Too Sexy”: Career Suicide Or Sexist Excuse?
Yesterday, Feminist Law Professors drew my attention to the Miami Daily Business Review's "Rodent" column, a weekly anonymous rant written by various members of the legal community. The latest missive, "Lady Lawyers Should Dress the Part," warns female attorneys that they may be sabotaging their careers with overly sexy business attire. Actually, I think it's more likely that the conveniently anonymous Rodent, who spouts off platitudes like "women who dress like Barbie dolls get treated like Barbie dolls," is the force that's keeping women down in the workplace.
According to the Rodent, otherwise capable female lawyers are ruining their chances at being taken seriously by forgoing pantyhose, wearing heels, and revealing their cleavage:
Women who dress like Barbie dolls get treated like Barbie dolls. I know a lawyer who is in her mid-30s. She is stunning—tall, long blonde Lady Godiva hair and a body that would make a porn star jealous. This woman also happens to be a crackerjack lawyer. But she dresses to emphasize her looks, not her mind; as a result, her career seems to have stalled. Though she is an extremely bright woman, no one sees past the stilettos and low-cut blouses.
The vermin continues:
Clients tend not to hire women who look like hookers unless they hire them as hookers. Don’t show your “girls” at work unless you are looking for a one-night stand.
All right, let's hear one more:
I knew an associate who wore shoes that looked like she was a bridesmaid. She was a good lawyer, but there was a real disconnect between those gold sandals and the notion that she wanted to go the distance as a lawyer. She didn’t, and the shoes were a tip-off.
The Rodent's theories are convenient: The lawyer who looks like a porn star stumbled because her shoes are too high. The lawyer who looks like a bridesmaid is not serious about her job because her shoes are too strappy. The lawyer who looks like a hooker is not successful because her breasts are too prominent. Beyond the offensiveness of grouping female professionals into categories like Barbie, porn star, hooker, and bridesmaid, the Rodent appears to be going to great lengths to deny the obvious. Perhaps the lawyer who looks like a "porn star" is devalued because people think she's too attractive to be smart, not because she dresses like a Barbie. The lawyer who wears anything other than a turtleneck is devalued because she's got boobs, not because she dresses like a hooker. And the lawyer who looks like a bridesmaid, whose strappy shoes are a "tip-off" that she's not a serious lawyer? That sounds like a pretty insane explanation for a career misstep to me.
The Rodent, of course, is attempting to explain away a more offensive aspect of the legal profession: women are consistently partnered and paid less than men are. A commenter on Feminist Law Professors draws the obvious comparison between devaluing a woman's work based on her attire to outright sexual harassment. She writes that men have informed her of the harassment rule: “If she’s going to dress like trash, then she’s going to get treated like trash.”
Blaming a woman's clothing choices for her professional failure is simply a strategy for selectively discounting women without being called on your sexism. All you have to do is project your biases on to "her choices," and you can discriminate away.
This becomes clear when the Rodent gets specific about what aspects of a woman's appearance are unacceptable. Interestingly, several of the Rodent's tips are not specific to female lawyers. "A tattoo that shows is NEVER appropriate when you are a female attorney," the Rodent writes—as if face tattoos are generally accepted among lady litigators' male co-workers. The Rodent then offers up a weak defense for focusing on lady ink—women sag. "I promise you that once you are a woman of a certain age, your skin will lose elasticity, and that cute Asian saying . . . simply won’t look good when it’s sagging."
Many of the Rodent's recommendations are inconsistent. According to the Rodent, "Frumpy is the opposite end of the spectrum, and I see a lot of that these days, too. Looking like an unmade bed—wrinkled clothes, no makeup, dirty hair—doesn’t inspire much confidence either." Apparently, femininity-enhancing attire like heels are unacceptable, but makeup is required. The anonymous ranter also points to Condoleezza Rice as an acceptable style icon, even though Rice hardly shied away from figure-hugging, sexy-heeled outfits in her tenure as Secretary of State.
The lesson we can learn from this is that the standards regulating female appearance are largely arbitrary, and are designed that way to keep the door open for criticism. Men may either be labeled "sloppy" or "professional," but women must also navigate between being "frumpy," "professional," and "overly attractive." And since the "too sexy" meter can often be set off by simply looking like a woman, not dressing like one—having breasts, hips, legs, and a waist—hitting the right note can be a lot more difficult than learning to knot a neck-tie.
Feminist Law Professors' Bridget Crawford concurs with the Rodent on some points:
I myself am on record against visible toes in the office, so I am inclined to agree with the Rodent on this topic. . . . Displays of exaggerated female sexuality (cleavage, heels, etc.) are tools that some women attempt to use to their benefit. Kathleen Bergin explains this in her article Sexualized Advocacy and the Ascendant Feminist Backlash Against Female Lawyers . . . the Rodent reminds us that the same tools can be used against women, too.
I agree that this double standard—be attractive, but not too sexy—is used against women in the workplace. But I disagree with the Rodent's conclusion that the solution to workplace sexism is for women to modify their behavior by buttoning up and trashing the sandals. Apparently, no matter what a lady lawyer wears, there will be some vermin waiting on the sidelines to tell her it's not appropriate.
Photo by markusram, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0