Female Business Casual: Stop Telling Women to Be Tasteful

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Meg Prater (she/her)
Meg Prater (she/her)


“What Women Should and Shouldn’t Wear in the Office” “What Does Business Casual Really Mean for Women?” “What Is Business Casual for Women?” These are a sampling of the articles you’ll find when you type “business casual female” into your search bar.

Even the titles are full of self-doubt and helplessness -- sentiments many publications assume women feel when considering their appearance. What should we wear? How can we read between the lines and decipher what business casual really means for us?

When you open these articles, you’ll find advice warning against looking too trendy. Tips for adding extra hooks to your Pucci sweater to make it less revealing. And hard-hitting articles reminding 21st-century women that “modesty is key.” Yes, really.

The Double Standard of Female Business Casual

You can guess what’s next. A similar search of “business casual men” reveals jaunty titles such as “The Gent’s Guide to Men’s Business Casual,” “A Man’s Guide to Dressing Office Cool,” and “Do Polos Count as Business Casual?” Because, as the late William Wallace (probably) said, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our pastel, business casual polos.”

Honestly, until I can tell Ted in accounting that his palm tree tie is egregious, or that Bob needs to tone down his salmon-colored self-proclaimed "party pants," or, for the love of plaid, that wearing a puffy vest with short sleeves does not make sense -- I don’t want to hear my makeup is too loud or my jewelry should be tasteful.

And I’m not the only one. Women across industries are speaking up about this double standard. Co-author of “Aligned to Achieve” and InsideView CMO Tracy Eiler recently joined other female CMOs on the SaaStr Annual panel “Career Advice from Top Female Leaders in SaaS.” Eiler and the other panelists recalled being told by male executives to “tone down” their appearance and “smile less.” “Smiling is part of who I am,” Eiler exclaimed. “It’s hard to imagine a man being given the same feedback.”

Bozoma Saint John earned international acclaim for her work with Apple Music, before joining Uber as chief brand officer in 2017. Saint John also has a well-documented predilection for “statement-making ensembles.” Because, we can’t simply focus on a woman’s career accomplishments, can we?

When Saint John was asked at espnW’s 2017 Women + Sports Summit how she responds to being told to dress and act more professionally, she mused, “These expectations about what we’re supposed to look like and what we’re supposed to be -- my cleavage about to be out every day this week ... you’re gonna get used to it.”

She continued, “You know what? The heels are just gonna get higher, because I want you to be comfortable with it. This shouldn’t look like an anomaly.”

How do we square the expectations of our various industries with the increasing demand for equality, openness, and fairness in the workplace? I don’t live in a dream world. Many jobs -- including and especially in sales -- require men and women to maintain a level of formality in their appearance.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a few best practices to consider when asking, “What is Business Casual for Women?

1. Know your audience

Headed into a board meeting? Grab your power suit and accessorize as you see fit. Having a casual lunch meeting with a longtime client? Consider their usual dress code, and match your level of formality to theirs. Sitting at your cube all day in your casual workplace? By all means, rejoice in your Lululemon. Know your audience, and dress accordingly.

2. Work for the job you want

Ah, the old adage “Dress for the job you want.” Let’s retire this phrase to the non-recyclable garbage, shall we? I have a hard time believing that if I don’t come to work every day dressed like Gordon Gekko, I’m going to be seen as lesser by my peers and managers.

Show up. Do the work. And let’s collectively stop pushing the idea you won’t get a promotion you’ve earned simply because Chad rolled into work every day wearing a three-piece suit.

3. Wear what makes you confident

You know the outfit. The one that makes you feel like you just belted out a Celine Dion ballad in perfect pitch and won all the karaoke that ever was and ever will be. I feel best in my favorite dark jeans, a sweater, and my biggest gold hoop earrings. The reality, however, is that I work from home, five feet from my bedroom.

This means I also feel confident when I shrug on my favorite “Splash Mountain” sweatshirt, grab my flying avocado socks, and brush my teeth before 10 a.m.. Like what you wear every day, and don’t apologize for it.

4. Use good judgement

Before you throw on those jean shorts for your 9:00 a.m. Tuesday meeting, pause and ask yourself if you’re using good judgement. If that answer is, “Absolutely,” by all means, move forward.

If you’re uncertain you’ll feel confident and competent in the outfit you’ve chosen, pick something else. Most of us know when we’re pushing the boundaries of what’s “comfortable” in a business setting. If those boundaries need to be pushed -- push them. If not, follow them.

When in doubt, take a cue from other women in or above your position at the company. If your manager is rocking jeans and flats, it’s probably O.K. for you as well.

When Bozoma Saint John caused tech industry ripples by trading her job at Apple for one at embattled Uber, The New York Times published “Is This the Woman Who Will Save Uber?,” a profile on Saint John which ran in their Style section.

It’s hard to imagine the newspaper running a similar piece featuring ex-CEO Travis Kalanick ("Is This the Man Who Will Sink Uber?") anywhere but on the front page of their Business section.

Listen, it’s likely women will continue to confront outdated company handbooks and double standards of dress for a while. In the meantime, ladies, know your audience, wear what makes you confident, use good judgement, and, above all, do the damn work.

Topics: Women in Sales

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