Feminine + Professional = Career Success??

A good friend of mine inspired this piece.  In her professional life, Melissa (we’ll call her) is an engineer – a field, she says, that is typically dominated by men.  On one of our more recent visits, she admitted to me that she wears “the uniform” to work.  “The uniform?”  I asked.  Yes, “the uniform” – a basic pair of dress pants, a dress shirt (un-tailored, I’m sure), a blazer, hair in a bun or ponytail, and a pair of glasses.  That’s it!  THAT’S what she wears to work every single day in her professional life!  I didn’t know if I should be offended by this or sympathetic towards her!  How awful, how boring…. how unfeminine.  Hmmm, WHY does she dress this way to go to work?  I’ve seen her many times outside of work looking attractive, approachable, drop-dead gorgeous and always, ALWAYS feminine!

As I thought more about why she does this, I started asking myself: do women – like Melissa – suppress their feminine side in a professional environment?  Is this particularly true in a workplace dominated by men?  Do women feel that they NEED to appear less feminine to succeed and move up the “corporate ladder” or is this something that, while unspoken, is a cultural norm?

Since this is a topic that would probably attract differing opinions, I decided to start asking others (both men and women) what they thought.  Here are some of the responses that I’ve heard (of course I’m paraphrasing here):

  • Feminine attire can be somewhat ambiguous – to some people it means dressing more like a lady and to others it means portraying a sexy appearance.
  • Some women don’t want to stick out.  They think that if they blend in their work will speak for itself.
  • When a corporate dress code refers to the “female equivalent” for proper work attire, what does that mean exactly?
  • If a woman dressed at all feminine in the workplace, she could attract the wrong kind of attention both from colleagues and clients.
  • Women are not men – we shouldn’t have to dress like them (men)!

As a style consultant, whose goal is to empower people through the use of style, here are my thoughts on this topic:

  1. Women can be in professional roles and dress like a lady.  It’s about being confident and comfortable with yourself first.
  2. As my mother always told me, if you look down and can see your cleavage, your blouse is just TOO LOW for the office!  Being feminine in the office does NOT mean that your lady-friends get to say hello to everyone at work.
  3. Understand the difference (and appropriateness) between dressing feminine vs. sexy in a professional setting.  You always want to attract the ‘right’ kind of attention at work!
  4. Know your audience.  By this, I mean that you should always wear appropriate attire for the client-situation you are in.  This doesn’t mean that you should dress like a man if you’re in room full of men, but rather look to complement the group.  Perhaps this means wearing a skirt suit with a great pair of heels and a beautifully ruffled blouse – feminine AND professional!
  5. Women can create more of a feminine yet professional look by emphasizing simple details of their style, such as the texture and fabric of a suit, colours and patterns, the embellishment on a blouse, or the use of accessories.

Guess what ladies?  When you are comfortable and confident with what you wear, feminine details or not, others will be at ease around you and this will lead to greater personal and professional success!  But don’t let me have the last say.  Guys and gals, if you have a comment – whether you agree with me or not – please post it below.  I’m curious to know what your opinion is on this topic…