By Alexis Lamb • September 11, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Other Career Issues, Issues, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
I’m going to throw out a bold prediction. Working from home is better for women. Especially for women in high-intensity, male-dominated professions, such as law.
Here are four reasons why – none of which have anything to do with childcare flexibility.
1.That Hair-and-Makeup Thing.
This morning, I witnessed one of my closest friends (a non-lawyer who works in an executive role at a financial institution in Midtown Manhattan) spend close to an hour on hair and makeup prior to leaving for work. After rising before the sun and disappearing into the bathroom, she sat down next to me on the couch to watch the morning news.
The shade of plum on her lips was a spot-on match for her skin tone and top, and her makeup was the right balance of professional and pleasing.
Her hair – which naturally falls in the sorts of spirals memorialized in many a Grecian goddess sculpture – was as straight as cornsilk (let’s table for now the racial implications of equating straight hair with professionalism), and worn down. If I didn’t know her political affiliations, I’d have thought she was about to present on Fox News.
Because my office consists of my living room table and studio apartment, I don’t need to spend an hour of my day to straighten my hair into a style that the stuffed suits deem appropriate or draw on my face to make my features more pleasing. I just do my work from the invisibility of my laptop.
2. No More Work Outfit Planning.
Men’s workplace fashion, especially in the corporate halls of the world’s megafirms, remains somewhat staid – charcoal pants, a white or baby blue button-down shirt, and a tie that doesn’t make people want to punch you in the face.
However, if you ask a hundred people on the street, Family Feud style, to describe the ideal female corporate uniform, you’ll get a hundred different responses. Wear Pantsuits! Don’t Wear Pantsuits! Shorten That Skirt…But Not Too Much! Don’t Wear Pink! Is This Sundress Too Casual? Whatever, Wear Pink! What about earrings? Headbands? Nail polish? Do I Need Pantyhose? Who The Heck Still Calls It Pantyhose?!
Call it implicit bias, stereotyping, or life being unfair, but presentation matters. Wear a pink frock to a meeting with gray-haired execs, and people may type you as a lightweight. Wear glasses, minimal makeup, and your hair in a bun: and, BAM, you’re a librarian.
Whatever we choose to wear to the office will communicate a different stereotype. Unless I work from home, and no one sees what I wear on a daily basis.
There’s a reason why Zuckerberg has his hoodies and Jobs had his turtlenecks. Insanely successful people try to minimize the number of decisions their brain has to make.
If I’m standing in front of my closet, debating whether the periwinkle or horchata-colored Equipment silk top will convey the right professional message for my client meetings, I’m not doing the greatest job of minimizing my daily decisions.
3.That Age-Old Issue.
Recently, I heard the term “schoolmarm” used to refer to a middle-aged female colleague’s appearance – by a man of comparable seniority. In a more high-profile example, the first woman ever to run a successful Presidential campaign was mocked by people of all political affiliations for the sin of looking her age.
The effect of age on professional success in the legal profession isn’t as stark as it is, say, in cinema, but a national poll of 2,000 adults conducted in 2013 found that as many as 42% of women aged 50-59 said they felt they needed to look young to be successful at work.
Optical evidence of aging is equated with experience and gravitas, but only for men. The managing director on the other end of the phone cannot see how wrinkled my face is: he or she only hears my voice, and if I work from home, you have one less superficial criterion by which to stereotype me.
4. Service With A Smile.
Unless you’re selling toothpaste, these are two words that should never belong in a performance review.
Unfortunately, I have seen bosses of both genders equate a female employee’s resting bitchface with a lack of enthusiasm for her job, or worse.
Professionalism does require a certain courteousness, but ensuring that my office behavior does not actively make people feel uncomfortable requires much more than a monkey grin.
Judging women on the wattage of their smiles adds “emotional labor” – the act of erasing our own dissatisfaction in order to manage and minimize others’ negative emotional states – to our already robust job descriptions. But, here’s a protip: my lack of a Cheshire-cat style grin doesn’t mean that I don’t like my job. It doesn’t mean that I have a bad attitude. It doesn’t even mean that I am unhappy.
If you work from home, no one can see you smile (or not). You’re more likely to be judged on your responsiveness, the quality of your work product, and your willingness to roll up your sleeves to work the late nights and weekends. No one will care if you’re providing client service with a smile.
Each of these four points have a common denominator – appearance. When we work from home, our superficialities and implicit biases aren’t as much of a factor when we consciously or subconsciously judge our employees, bosses, or subordinates.
Isn’t that liberating?
Alexis Lamb is a recovering lawyer who served time as a transactions associate in the New York office of O'Melveny & Myers and the Hong Kong office of Linklaters. She is currently Associate Director of Talent at Bliss Lawyers.
Her work has appeared in online and print publications including Inside, the NYSBA Corporate Counsel Section’s publication, and Thought Catalog; and her fiction has appeared in Five2One Magazine: The Sideshow.
Connect with Alexis at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexislambesq/
Visit The No-Pants Life, Ms Lamb's blog on location-independent careers and lifestyles here.