Does how you look at work really matter?

In one of the more interesting social experiments I can think of, a male Australian breakfast TV presenter has confessed to wearing the same suit every week day for a year. (He did get it cleaned!).

Not one viewer noticed or commented. Yet a mere new set of earrings on his female co-presenter generally warrants a flood of commentary. Meanwhile, a female TV presenter taking part in a Ted Talk decided to strip to her basic self to make a point that she was still the same person.

"I think few would disagree that as women we are regularly judged on how we look and held up to a tough standard."

Then there was a recent lament from a friend of mine: "my boss told me I should get my hair done, smarten up my workwear and put some makeup on if I'm ever going to be taken seriously and be considered for promotion. Surely that can't be right - it's the quality of my work that should matter not how I look?"

All that got me thinking - for women in the traditional corporate world, does how you look really matter? Really?
Let's start with legs. I have worked in six countries and the acceptable norms differ greatly. I found that in New York to go to work without wearing hose (tights or, in Australia, stockings) - even on 30 degree days - was tantamount to sacrilege and an admission you weren't really interested in a career.

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Yes, I'm serious. And so were they. I used to try and get round that one by wearing trousers where it was less obvious you weren't wearing hosiery. Heat and hose? Yuck!

In the same city, not having manicured nails every week (and always without chips) was just not done - even if you were a junior on low pay. These details were just ‘understood’.

So it wasn't long before I morphed (no real hardship I have to confess) into weekly manicures and bi-weekly pedicures (the latter for work days in excess of 30 degrees when sandals without hose were begrudgingly accepted but definitely not without well groomed feet - painted pink or red. Nothing more dark or demonic than that). And yes, people really did notice.

And then there is makeup. Here is a conundrum - too much and you are accused of looking tarty, with comments about understanding the difference between nightclubs and work. But go to work ‘au naturel’ and the view is "you obviously don't care about yourself so why should we?"

Most women know that to get the perfect ‘no makeup, yet made-up look’ takes ages to get right. I have to admit I give it my best shot most days as I cannot imagine leaving home for the office without makeup on. I'd feel slightly naked to be honest.

Then there's the ‘C’ word? I mean cleavage of course. I'm going to sound a smidgen old fashioned but is it really necessary to flaunt what you've got at the office? Any woman who thinks the plunge of their neckline and their visible red coloured bra strap will go unnoticed once they start espousing their great ideas at work is sadly mistaken (and it is rather sad).

While it is no longer necessary for women to wear the power suits with Dynasty-style shoulder pads (and yes I used to wear them too - thank goodness I don't have to anymore!), there are clothes, in my view, that are better suited to a night out or for the beach. My list includes: visible underwear, plunging necklines, flip flops, shorts and very short skirts or very tight tops.

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Let's not forget accessories. When I worked in Asia and would run town halls in some locations, it was not uncommon for attendees to rush up to me afterwards - not as I wistfully hoped, to comment on my words of inspiration, but to endorse a Chanel necklace or an LV handbag.

That was what they noticed and they expected and wanted their female leaders to wear these emblems of success. Somehow I managed to accept that expectation with no trouble at all and I remain rather fond of nice handbags and jewellery - for business purposes of course.

What of our male colleagues? They have fundamentally worn the same uniform for decades - suit, shirt and tie. They dress the same way as their bosses and then they become the bosses - could their lack of non-conformity be an ingredient in their success?

While on first appearances rather dull, might this commonality actually remove distractions and could it put them in a better position to be judged only on their work merits?

I recall during the time of the boom in the early 2000s, many bankers found they had wealthy clients in their 30s who used to turn up to meetings in jeans and t-shirts. Someone decided it would enhance customer relations if they dressed more like their clients and stopped wearing stuffy suits and replaced them with more relaxed wear. The results were interesting.

While these young and wealthy clients wore what they wanted to visit their bank, they did not want their bankers to look like them. Their expectation of what a male banker should look like was indeed a man (yes it was definitely "a man" back then) in a suit. The customer wanted the image of a banker to reflect what they expected to see. The casual clothing experiment didn't last very long.

I think few would disagree that as women we are regularly judged on how we look and held up to a tough standard. As we all know, life is indeed unfair. The question is, to paraphrases Rhett Butler at the end of Gone with the Wind, "should we give a damn"?

I'd love to hear your views in the comments section below.

Photo 1: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Photo 2: Featureflash /

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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