The New Professional Dress: Ladies, Leave Your Feminine Charms at Home

By a Third-Year Law Student

In the ongoing skirmish to redefine the parameters of professional dress for women, the old battlefields were permission to go without nylons and abandon the skirt. Today, barelegged women in pantsuits are fighting a more internal battle for the freedom to act like something other than a female man and still be taken seriously. Perhaps with the exception of Martha Stewart, whose empire is, after all, built around the concept of creating a warm and welcoming home, the top female professionals often maintain their queen of the mountain status only by ruling like a king. And women who rule like kings, though navigating the right personality to claim the mountain, are still chastised for being too manly even after they reach the top. Professional women, it seems, are damned if they squeak and if they roar.

On the one hand, I shirk away from writing this commentary because I don’t want to further Larry Summer’s contention that there are innate personality and aptitude differences between men and women. Preserving the exploration of that argument for someone more scientifically qualified than I, my contention is simply that, right or wrong, we as a society perceive certain qualities as either masculine or feminine (and in fact often socialize men and women to take on certain personality characteristics). For men in the workplace, it’s often permissible to scream on the phone during business deals, embrace and project ego and arrogance, cultivate interpersonal skills that rely more on charisma than connection, and maintain a professional “distance” from clients and underlings. Since men have only recently been joined by women in top positions in business as well as in law, the model for success and professional behavior is still overwhelmingly masculine. For women in the workplace, “feminine” behavior is more associated with secretaries than with partners, and to differentiate themselves and project “professionalism,” women are often forced to embrace the masculine paradigm of behavior to be taken seriously.

This balance is a delicate tightrope walk indeed since women who go too far in emulating traditionally masculine characteristics are criticized for their lack of femininity. Professional women are left with an extremely narrow range of personality traits with which to compose their outward selves. Smile too much (they’ll call it ingratiating) or laugh too often (they’ll say you giggle), and you’re soft and unable to be taken seriously. Maybe you’re naïve or sweet or just too reminiscent of so-and-so’s granddaughter to be viewed as professionally competent. Maybe you suddenly look like you belong more in a kitchen with a baby on your hip and a serving spoon in your hand than in a meeting with that important client. For whatever reason, too much “feminine” personality can sink the professional ship. On the other hand, if your grip is too firm, your walk too purposeful, your voice too crisp, then you risk being threatening, and the B word is tossed around, even if behind your back and even if the important client is no longer thinking of his granddaughter or how he’d really rather have a man on the case.

Dress and personal presentation have long been linked with women’s liberation. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, dress reform went hand-in-hand with women’s suffrage. Women, wanting their voices heard in public life as well as at the ballot box, found their voices constricted by corsets and petticoats. Liberation, then as now, came with the ability to better impersonate the men and wear pants. Of course we didn’t want to wear skirts, the argument went, because we knew we’d never be taken seriously if we were still objectified. The solution was to dress like the men. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with everyone choosing to dress the same or embrace the same norms of professionalism—this sameness could arguably herald true equality among the sexes. But is it a choice? And if so, why are women punished for making it?

As women become more successful, they are also more reviled regardless of how they play the personality card. Hillary Clinton is called a lesbian and criticized for being cold and hard—too like a man. On the opposite extreme, Harriet Miers is viewed as incompetent and silly—too like a woman—with her legal skills derided for things like sending then-Governor Bush a greeting card calling him “the best governor ever.” The nation derisively called Clinton the B word and rolled its eyes at Miers’ “crush” on the President. The new glass ceiling is one of perception: how do women earn the same respect afforded to men? If it’s not by acting like a man (you’re permitted to achieve but never accepted or liked) and it’s not by acting like a woman (you’re viewed as achieving because of your charms and not because of your brain), then what’s a professional woman to do?

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