I’m trying a new strategy at work to raise my oomph and improve my legit appeal. I’m no slouch when it comes to sparring about ideas, concepts and ways of working – in fact I count myself among the innovators and strategists at work. However, my latest theory is that if you’re partnered up at work with a manager who is always – and I mean always wearing suits, including a tie and jacket that never comes off – then as a woman you’re at a disadvantage when you’re not similarly attired. This is probably true for more casually attired men as well, although because of the gendered inflection at work I don’t think so. Not wearing a suit – and I speak here more of the jacket which holds the greatest symbolic value – creates an inequality, a space that is instantly calculated in black and white terms through our cultural understanding of what it means to be influential, respected and in command at work. And if you’re not wearing a jacket, if you’re not suited up you run the risk of being calculated out.
I’ve taken to jacketing up, especially at meetings and workshops where I’m on show and so too are my opinions, perspectives, assertions, theories, explanations, innovations, insights and recommendations. I’m packaging these all up and wrapping them to be presented by what I imagine my audience seeks, or at least seeks to be reassured of: a confident, authoritative, thought leader who will inspire and transform the meeting or workshop in a way that won’t happen (can’t happen) in my very conservative industry if I was in a T shirt and jeans.
I’m finding that jacketing up lends me the kind of authority – and yes, I’ll say it: power – that paradoxically I have challenged in men, as they embodied a workplace subjectivity of which I was not a part, but am finding that I need to borrow and appropriate through this code of dress in order to exert that same legitimacy and authority. After all, I’m not the one judging and evaluating my performance: others are. We all exist within cultural worlds, and I too have to respond to the cues, norms and expectations of workplace cultures as well. And, as I’ve said before, don’t let anyone fool you by saying, “Oh this is informal, don’t worry too much about your speech/PowerPoint/presentation/evaluation” because you’re always being evaluated in the workplace and this is true of how you present yourself in your manner, attitudes and presentation as well as through the products and efforts of your work. It’s not left to the time of year alone when you drag out the PDR form at your workstation to complete for your manager …
We like to imagine that we live and work in enlightened times, but this is simply not true. Articles and blogs appear on social media and in the press with monotonous regularity with the central theme of how the hell are women supposed to manage in the workplace: the glass ceiling, problems for women within business cultures, managing work/life balance, the impossibility of a career structure and managing fertility, then advice aimed at mums on school lunches, childcare and parenting. This is not part of our overt work cultures, their policies, corporate logos or identities but certainly exist in the everyday practices that are inscribed within our everyday work worlds. Just check out who wipes down sinks at work, cleans fridges and organises catering…
Not all these problems will be resolved by simply donning a jacket and I’m certainly not arguing for that. I’m just painting a picture here….
I’m starting to pay attention to the advice on covering your shoulders, suiting up, opting for plain and not patterned office wear and basically wearing the business uniform. Shirts, (mostly) sensible shoes and even pantihose. I can’t come at flesh coloured hose because that’s just too much of a lie: at least black or smoke coloured hose make a statement. But I’m not sure what I’m trying to do here, and will admit that the motivations that may still be inspiring me may not emanate from ‘How To’ women in business handbooks, or the latest thinking on creative leadership, but may exist in the realms of my unconscious, in which case I don’t really know what’s motivating me and may be using this blog piece to explore these themes. Am I trying to make myself invisible? Am I defeminising myself? Have I failed to remake the workplace in a way that I could own by stamping it with my own style? Am I trying to turn into my male counterparts?
This got me thinking: what are uniforms all about? Clearly they are about conformity. But they’re also about letting the work shine through irrespective of the package that produced it. So the thinking goes. This is the line we push at schools here in Australia when we’re arguing with children about hemlines and not subverting the principle of uniformity when they’re trying to wear Doc Martens instead of approved footwear. “It balances out differences!” we argue. “Everyone’s equal!” we rail. “No one’s at a disadvantage!” we spruik.
Uniformity has its advantages: it’s cheaper than buying a huge wardrobe. It’s easier to mix and match. You tend to buy some things that are better quality and hence less affordable, but probably last longer that your usual top and bottom ensembles. Unless you work in the fashion industry or somewhere in the arts (I wish), or outdoors, if you want to be taken seriously you have to dress the part. I should qualify that by asserting that you have to dress the part whatever that means in your industry. Uniformity promotes a teamwork approach and a sense of belonging (I’m told). We’re all wearing the ‘company logo’ or the ‘badge’ by suiting up. At least you signify that you belong in the business world with a suit anyway.
Uniforms mean that you belong in a place because you don’t stand out like a peacock. You also fade into obscurity a bit, which can have its advantages in providing a bit of a level playing field in the gendered sphere of the workplace. You’re heading towards being asexual. Let’s face it, you’re less likely to be taken seriously in that cute floral number with the red and green pattern teemed with a matching cardigan and high heeled black Bo peep shoes… Having said that, I have worked with CEO’s on projects who were indeed dressed like that. As the CEO, there is the opportunity to be the peacock and let’s see anyone tell her otherwise…
Conversely, uniforms do not necessarily mean uniformity. There are issues of gender, class and ethnicity that inflect business wear, its meanings, intentions and embodiment. Not all suits are the same and if you’ve got money you can wear them well. Probably lots of them. I don’t own many suits, but do have a variety of well-fitting jackets and trouser-style pants to match. As I’m not at the high-spending end I have less to invest but the most to lose if I get it wrong. And considering everything I wear to work (almost everything) is second-hand, from Op Shops, Charity Stores, Bargain Basement Sales and NGOs, I certainly face some challenges in getting it together for work. This is a choice that I have made BTW.
Uniformity also dulls individuality, but like many things, if you have enough money to throw at it, I’m sure your individuality will shine through. Me? I make do with a scarf in Winter, but Summer is challenging as the desire to turn up in less, for example thongs (the flip flop kind, not the G String), a short skirt and a singlet top is really strong most mornings. I have come to accept that much like the mask and the role studied extensively in undergraduate anthropology, the insights about the loss of the subject while putting on masks or fulfilling roles still pertain as we as adults morph into the workforce and attempt to fit in, making use of and attempting to fit into whatever the jacket signifies within your particular industry.
Uniforms are also like wearing armour. I can invoke a whole range of metaphors that invoke the compliance required and symbolised by uniforms and uniformity in military settings, and can admit that this too forms part of the reluctance – and paradoxically the desire – to wear the jacket and join my one force with the many to produce something greater, and be part of the victorious, not losing team at work. Amour is made of precious materials, much too like the fine fibres of a well-fitting, tailor-made suit, increasing the magnetism and appeal of that signified by joining the forces and symbolically shedding my individuality to comply with the command structures and personnel in my workgroup, my battalion.
Like all rules, uniformity in attire is merely an external mirroring of the uniformity required elsewhere both in our schools and in the workforce. It is this symbolic statement that I make by donning the jacket at work as I wordlessly tell my colleagues, my managers and directors and clients that I too am knowledgeable of, can understand and interpret and clearly follow the rules. Bodily adornment is a way in which social codes are embodied and enacted. Think pearl earrings and a matching necklace. Bodily adornment too is also a way of challenging authority, but inscriptions on the body must usually be hidden, because once seen, like the knowledge attained through the biting of the apple in the Garden of Eden, cannot be unseen or unknown ever again, marking the individual for symbolic banishment for, like Eve and Adam, their loss of purity in breaking the rules.
In suiting up, I am implicitly making a statement that while I may come from a different background, may have different methods and approaches, use different theoretical perspectives and offer ‘out of the box’ thinking, I can acknowledge my place in the hierarchy, in the workforce, in the culture of both my own workplace and the industry in which I work at large through my allegiance, through my donning of the jacket and all the associations that form a line through history that have informed and modulated modern business sensibilities in the culmination of my putting it on in the morning. And I wear it well. Sometimes with accessories…
One day I will dump the jacket. That day will come when I find myself in a workplace culture where the work is paramount, not so much the appearance of the person. The kind of work culture that I inhabit now can force your compliance in many unspoken ways, of which subtly policing dress codes is one. However this doesn’t account for everyone, for other people’s responses to me. While appearances are still so important at work I will continue to show my proficiency in self-presentation through my allegiance to the code.
Until the day it doesn’t suit me anymore…
Photo Credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qlHIhjpAv44/Uaz4yFIPSTI/AAAAAAAAAJY/-M7jcBYKTSQ/s1600/business-suit-women.jpg