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Why What We Wear To Work Actually Matters

I remember watching my mother get ready for work in the mornings as a little girl. Every day she went through the careful, time-consuming process of doing her makeup and selecting a button down shirt to wear beneath a suit (complete with a shoulder-padded blazer, of course). Even when I moved to Washington D.C. for college just two summers ago, women wearing these complicated outfits abounded on Capitol Hill — even in the humid summer weather.

It's no surprise, then, that these images informed my understanding of "work appropriate" clothing as I dressed for an intern orientation a few weeks ago. And I clearly wasn't the only one: So many of my fellow female interns wore similar attire, including a half up-half down hairstyle, ballet flats, cardigans and skirts. The discomfort was palpable, as tight shoes pinched toes and necklaces started to feel heavier.

I was surrounded by young women chosen for an internship that is not only prestigious, but paid — an unfortunate rarity in the internship world. None of us lacked intelligence, ambition or previous successes. And yet apparently none of us — young women ready to fight our way to the top of corporate America — felt compelled to push back on a dress code that not only made us feel uncomfortable all day, but which required far too much time and effort before we even made it to work.

Soon after the internship started, however, the interns were reminded that in an effort to “freely express ourselves,” the company does not enforce any type of dress code. The very next day I was ready for work in half the time.
Given the prevalence of sexual harassment and other serious issues of inequality women still face in the workplace, clothing may seem like a relatively small battle. But the truth is it's still an unacceptable double standard: While women's competence may be determined solely from their neckline or skirt-length, for example, the same is just not true for men. I can't recall a time that a man was frowned upon for wearing the same outfit two days in a row, either, but should a woman do so her professionalism and even personal character is questioned.

In the competitive world of business, time is precious. Women are disadvantaged by having to spend significantly more time on their appearance than their male counterparts, and, what's more, allowing them to choose how much time they spend on their appearance and how they present themselves can beneficially shape her daily work experience. Women should be able to choose to wear a dress with heels or jeans with sneakers and her choice — like the choice to wear a headscarf — should certainly have no bearing on whether or not she gets that job in the first place.

Workplaces are happier, more relaxed and therefore more productive when workers are comfortable. When I think of my internship experience, I think of the calls I make, documents I type, and knowledge I gain along the way — not whether or not I look okay or how I'm coming off to others. And that's exactly how it should be.



More articles by Category: Economy, Feminism, Misogyny, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Sexual harassment, Working families, High school, Discrimination
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