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As a rule, my colleagues exhibit a strangely backwards desire to blend in with male counterparts and a rigid unwillingness to buck tradition for trend.
"When you get dressed for work every morning, I want you to pretend you have a meeting with your biggest client that day," she instructed. At this point, mind you, I was barely allowed in meetings with other lawyers, let alone clients. "These pants you are wearing are too slim and unprofessional and you need to reevaluate them. I'm trying to help you become a better lawyer, that's all." She opened my door and exited, leaving me in my entirely work-appropriate J. Crew slacks to ponder my fashion missteps.
We, as women, have undoubtedly made tremendous progress in the workplace over the past several decades. Today we are constantly encouraged to speak up, lean in, and stop using phrases like "I just..." and "I'm sorry." We have watched as women in power have redefined the female wardrobe; the shift from Hillary's pantsuits to Michelle's gowns has not gone unnoticed. Given these relatively progressive ideals, I have been struck and dismayed over the course of my two years as a lawyer by the lingering silence in the corporate world regarding self-expression through clothing—not to mention self-expression in general. My office forbids casual Fridays and discourages open dialogues. And political forums or conversations? No way, no how.
My firm is particularly liberal by corporate standards—it is women-owned, meaning females overwhelmingly outnumber males—so one would think there would be greater-than-average emphasis on stylistic creativity, if not outright fashion-forwardness. In reality, it's the opposite. As a rule, my colleagues exhibit a strangely backwards desire to blend in with male counterparts and a rigid unwillingness to buck tradition for trend.
Not only that, but there is categorical antagonism expressed towards those who attempt, even subtly, to embrace more feminine undertones. My J. Crew pants ordeal was only a small porthole in a ship filled with skepticism towards self-expression. There are subtle slights: extended stares, eye rolls, raised eyebrows. There is middle-of-the-road sarcasm: "Oh, Ariel is the heel queen of the office." And then there is outright disdain, like when I wore a gray and yellow floral skirt and a ruffled gray top to an event and a female colleague said to me, "Whoa, did you actually wear that to work?" Yes, I sure did.
Rather than pushing back against antiquated rules, professional women have become accustomed to policing their peers.
I vacillate between what surprises me the most: The fact that absolutely no one seems interested in standing out from the black-suited pack? The fact that there remains palpable animosity towards those of us who do want to display some degree of individuality? Or the fact that this intensely educated group of women is so willing to adhere to the antiquated idea that to be a successful woman with any power and influence, you have to dress like a man?
Appearing as similar as possible to their male counterparts seems to remain a goal for the women at my firm. From the outside, they really do believe that men will take you more seriously at a negotiation if you look like them, and that you're less likely to be trampled if you exude male energy, all the way down to the way you dress.
Industries like law and finance are, for better or for worse, still dominated by men. I worked at a large top ten law firm for two summers in college. When I worked there, they had 200 lawyers—80 partners and 120 associates. Of the 80 partners, EIGHT were women. Eight. One was a black man. That means 90% of the leadership was made up of white males. And this was in 2006-2007. So it's no surprise that most women, particularly older women, still feel this intense need to conform to rigid, male-dominated rules of self-presentation. It is a surprise, however, that rather than pushing back against these rules (even a little), professional women have become accustomed to policing their peers, further engraining these outdated conventions.
Part of the reason why I am so incredulous about these rules is because in my experience, they're totally divorced from reality. Granted, the law presents its own subset of issues, because lawyers who practice in courtrooms and in front of judges do have to follow certain dress codes. But although I might be wearing an Alexis Bittar statement necklace instead of pearls, you better believe I am just as successful and persuasive as any other attorney there.
But although I might be wearing an Alexis Bittar statement necklace instead of pearls, you better believe I am just as successful and persuasive as any other attorney there.
What's ironic is that women in corporate positions are one of the few sects of the population who actually can afford to indulge in real fashion. It's totally okay if you don't care about clothes! I don't expect everyone to love this stuff like I do. But it is particularly unnerving that so many of my female peers are convinced they simply do not have time for fashion, just like they think they do not have time to cook, travel, or raise a family.
I have tried to think of exceptions; women who I have worked with who have shed their black suits and white button downs for something—anything—more interesting. I am having trouble coming up with a single person. My mentor at the large firm dressed beautifully—Dolce suits, Chanel pumps—but she wasn't a lawyer! She was in recruiting. Even the "younger" female attorneys at my firm now, women in their late 30s and early 40s, wear almost exclusively black, with maybe a colored drapey shirt if they're feeling adventurous.
Additionally, as hyperbolic as this may initially sound, I think many women are, to varying degrees, afraid of male colleagues. They're afraid that if they break the rules men set, they'll be subject to discomfort, retaliation, and humiliation. So when they get dressed in the morning, they're trying to blend in as much as possible. The less noticeable their outfits are, the less likely they are to get called out and commented on.
Ever an optimist, my hope is that as a new, younger generation moves up in the corporate universe, and women begin to consolidate their hold on power, these weird misogynistic tenets will disappear. They already have no place in start-ups and tech companies, and a small fraction of law firms even let their associates wear jeans to work (check out Cooley LLP). There is, as always, a world of work to be done, but someday my bright purple Prada pumps will be just as at home as a black poly-blend pantsuit.