Monday, April 8, 2013

Working Women, Appearance, and Discrimination

This morning as I dressed for work, I selected a work-issued polo shirt, khaki pants, and my steel-toed shoes. I may work in an office, but it's in a Lab, and steel-toes are acceptable work attire.

Nothing unusual about my outfit, but for some reason it led me to recall a day several years ago, when I was wearing a similar outfit, and was pulled aside by my then supervisor, and told that I needed to "work on my appearance".

I was a bit taken aback. Other than the weight I had gained post-pregnancy, my appearance had not changed. I was well within our employee dress code, and dressed similar to the rest of the (male) team members in the office.

The truth is, I felt discriminated against. Nothing in my job requires me to "dress up" or "look good". I do not interact with the public or customers. I sit in my desk in the corner, and do my work. I was dressed well within our corporate policy. My then-long hair was pulled back into a low ponytail. I wasn't wearing makeup, but well, I don't. Never have.

So what changed? After all these years, why was I being told to work on my appearance?

See, I couldn't decide if I felt like I was being discriminated against because I was a woman, or because I'd gotten fat. Maybe both.

But that wasn't the most disturbing part to me.

The most disturbing part was when I took the issue to a working moms message board to ask for advice. And there, among other working women, I was chastised.

It was my fault, they said. As a working woman, I should know that I have to present myself better than the men around me, and should have already done so. I should know how important appearance is in the working world, and should just follow my boss's direction.

Don't I know that a polo and khakis just look better on a man, and even if it's within dress code, I shouldn't wear it, because it just tends to look sloppier on women then on men?

I should dress up, slacks & heels, if not an actual business suit, and fix my hair & wear makeup every day. This is what I need to do to be respected in the work place. It's just how it is.

I still have not forgotten their comments. The feeling of being chastised by the people you went to for support.

I'm not going to argue the world isn't that way, that - particularly in male dominated workplaces, like mine - it's harder for women. Because it is I see it regularly. It is more difficult to get recognition & respect for the work you do. You do have to work harder, and yes, maybe it would help me get noticed if I put on some heels more often than I do.

But I still can't get over it. I can't get over the idea that women - professional, career women - have just accepted this as fact, and instead of standing up and saying "no, this isn't fair, you have to treat me the same as a man dressed the same way", they just give in and slap on some lipstick so they can play the game.

I can't get over other women saying it was okay for me to be told that even though I am dressed well within dress code, dressed similarly to the men in the office, that yes, it was okay for my male boss to tell me to work on my appearance.

I can't get over them chastising me for not knowing that it was okay for me to be treated differently in the workplace based on my appearance and/or gender.

I still can't figure out why they think women in polo & khakis look "sloppy" compared to men in the same outfit. Is it the curves that bother you? Do breasts ruin the clean line you see on men? Do full hips and buttocks not fit in with what you see as professional?

Isn't that your problem, not mine?

I have forgiven the male boss I had at the time. I never did change my appearance, and he apparently got over it. I've never heard a word since, from him or anyone else at my workplace.

But the words of those women haunt me. Women so accustomed to being discriminated against based on their looks and their gender, that it has become the norm to them, a rule that other women should be chastised for breaking.

This is 2013. And I find it ridiculous that a group of professional women have not only accepted, but are perpetuating the idea that it is okay to judge someone in the workplace based on their appearance and / or gender, instead of judging them based on their actual work, on their output. What are we doing to each other? Why are we supporting the idea that this is okay?

I just don't get it, and probably never will.


areyoukiddingme said...

I sort of chose my career based on the fact that I was not interested in dressing up every day. My standard outfit is jeans and a t-shirt. When there is some reason that I need to look professional, I will wear dress pants (or khakis) and a nicer shirt. When I have to give a presentation to a larger group of people, I wear a suit and makeup. If anyone were to suggest that I should change my appearance, I would laugh at them.

When someone makes an effort with their appearance, male or female, I generally compliment them.

Unknown said...

Now, I think this is a sensitive topic to touch as much as I agree with you that men and women should be treated equally. People view things differently. And though we like to, it is impossible to understand all of their viewpoints. It's a matter of judgment. And so about your dilemma, I suggest consulting your company handbook about proper dress codes. If you're not going against it, then there is no reason for your supervisor to tell you 'to work on your appearance'.
Janay Stiles

'Yellow Rose' Jasmine said...

This is very interesting. I have heard that in other places, besides out here on the left coast, women are kind of pushed into dressing up every day and expected to look good all the time.
I must admit that here in grunge land I have often lamented how crappy everyone looks- style-less in Seattle you might say. And I dress up way more often than most women around here because I like to, not because I feel I must.
I think it is horrible for anyone to tell someone they "need to work on their appearance". Unless somebody is really having an issue, which you obviously were not, there is no reason to be rude and thoughtless like that.
Out here, we left coasters seem to have the exact opposite problem. The women get away with wearing flip-flops and shorts to work. They can go way more casual than the men and nobody says a word. Let a guy wear shoes that are a tad on the casual side and oh holy heck the hell he'll catch.
My husband always dresses for the next level up that he is working on attaining and he is from the East Coast so he is naturally more stylish, but he has seen and heard the men being chastised. It's almost like we have swung so far to the side of women doing no wrong that their looks are no longer appreciated or commented on at all and the men are treated much in the way you describe being treated here.
Either way, unless there is a real problem I don't see why anyone would comment on others looks or fashion unless they were just being an ass.

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