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Dress Code: Is The Power Suit Relevant In The Age Of #TimesUp?

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Is there an actual financial or social benefit to “fitting in” when it comes to dress code at the office for women? Unequivocally, yes.

While this is something that many have internalized as par for the course of corporate careers, is there really proof this is the case? And is it on the same tipping point of change as is the rest of the working world?

Working While Female

Dress code isn’t the only area of inequality women are facing in the workplace. You might have heard of the “Working While Female” experiment where two writers, one male and one female, switched email signatures for two weeks. For the woman, it was the easiest two weeks she’s had at the small company. For the man, it was impossible: clients questionning his writing and research, being condescending, and overall making his life a living hell.

All because they switched their names, their experiences changed.

So how does this play out in our fashion choices?

For men, the corporate dress code is clear: you wear a suit, or you get a job at a start-up.

For women, the story becomes a little more complicated.

The Red Sneakers Effect

Francesca Gino led a research study called “The Red Sneakers Effect”, published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2014, where they found that “under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors, such as not following the expected dress code or the appropriate professional conduct in a given context, can signal higher status.”

But only “when the deviant behavior appears to be deliberate” does it click that you’re of higher status.

That’s why Zuckerberg can wear jeans and t-shirts but Marissa Mayer dons professional skirt-suits: because the standards and cost-benefit analysis are still different for the men and women who deviate from the standard dress code.

Dress code comparison between Marissa Mayer and Mark Zuckerberg

Marissa looking like a professional businesswoman, Zuck looking like a college dude.

Francesca Stavrakopoulou wrote in The Guardian that women in academia still struggle with sexist expectations: “a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious academic, because a woman can’t be both attractive and intelligent – if indeed she can be intelligent at all.”

It’s still hard to come off as intelligent, stylish, and female in 2018

Along the waves of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and the McKinsey research on the financial benefits of diverse workplaces, the tides are changing.

Ainka Jess, Founder of She’s4Sports says her experience working in the communications industry has allowed her to bring her full self to work. “The workplace is starting to shift toward being more open to how people interpret fashion. These days you’re starting to see more people wearing bright colours, different hairstyles and other accessories. I feel like how you dress also depends more on the industry and the company you work for.”

Most women we talked to were hopeful that “dressing for your day” was becoming the status quo (which is very utilitarian compared to the need to always be super professional).

Kim Armstrong, Media and PR Manager at Sun Life Financial, echoed that she tries to “dress for the role she wants” as well as for her day. If she’s more client-facing that day versus doing heads-down work, kicking it up a notch is her go-to.

Many women are trying to just focus on doing the work, but productivity can plummet if “tall poppies” are being cut down too often, as cited in new research by Rumeet Billan with Women of Influence and Thomson Reuters.

Whether through cyberbullying or shunning, women are still struggling to succeed in the workplace.

Maybe just not as much with what to wear, and more on how to both express yourself and find a seat at the table.

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Arina Kharlamova

Arina Kharlamova is the founder of Wild Geese Creative Co., whose mission is to give women's and canna-businesses back their bite. She's been published in Lift & Co., the Her(b) Life, Women of Influence, Medium, Metro Toronto, t.o.night, and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award.

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