Are Skirts and Dresses Unprofessional?

Are Skirts and Dresses Unprofessional? | CorporetteAre skirts and dresses unprofessional? What if you have a boss who has a firm opinion, one way or the other? What if you have a boss who forbids YOU from wearing dresses and skirts, when other women in the office can and do? Reader A wonders…

I recently started a new job in a creative industry, and our offices are officially business casual but usually just regular casual. My boss hates that I wear dresses and skirts. She told me that looking feminine in the workplace is bad for careers and she only wants me to wear jeans or khakis if she’s in the office and I can only wear skirts when she travels. I’ve abided by it for a couple months since she was really persistent about it, even though other women in the office wear skirts. I’m confident that my skirts are not inappropriate length wise, they’re standard work skirts from Macy’s and Lane Bryant. Nothing ruffly or lacy either.

Anyway, my manager is leaving the company, but now I feel insecure about my clothing. Is it a bad move to wear skirts and dresses several times per week?

Wow. Honestly, your former manager sounds super annoying — particularly given that other women in the office wear skirts! I can only assume it’s a personal problem with you (something about your style irks her) or she is being sizeist, whether consciously or unconsciously. (The other possibility I thought of after Googling Reader A’s email address: The manager felt threatened professionally by Reader A, who already has an established, successful career — and wanted Reader A to look less managerial.)

Whatever the issue: I’m sorry you had to deal with it, and I’m glad the manager is on her way out. We’ve talked before about when feminine clothes are unprofessional, as well as how to look professional in a business casual environment where the guys are in jeans and hoodies, but not all at once. So let’s discuss.

  • Know your office. You say other women in the office wear skirts — how are yours different, if at all? Are you wearing them with much higher heels that you wear with pants? Are the women who wear them in different roles than you are (for example, much more senior or much more junior/administrative)? Reading office culture — and fitting in — is an important part of your job. You don’t have to give up your entire personal style, but you do have to learn when to play it safe — years ago we had a successful goth lawyer guest post on this very topic; we also recently discussed how clothes are only “empowering” if they actually help you get power. Without seeing your office it’s hard for me to make suggestions, but when I hear “creative business casual” I think of a shirtdress with flat boots, for example, or a sheath dress with a jean jacket and a scarf instead of a cardigan. We’ve talked about how to transition a conservative wardrobe to a casual office before.
  • A feminine style is one thing; being in costume is another. This doesn’t sound like it’s an issue with Reader A, but I’ll mention it briefly. If you tend toward a more girly style — A-line skirts, high heels, full makeup — you may be crossing the line from “dressed up” to “in costume.”  Particularly be wary of more vintage styles for the office.
  • Start slowly. Since you’ve been abiding by your manager’s weird “rules,” the office may perceive this as a style change — so start slowly. Wear one dress a week, not all dresses. See how people react, what comments you get. On the days that you aren’t wearing skirts or dresses, dress up your pants outfits as well — wear a blazer with jeans, or a feminine cardigan with khakis. (Some of our advice on dressing for a promotion may help bridge the gap between your jeans wardrobe and your dress/skirt wardrobe.) If you have a favorite pair of shoes you wear with your skirts or dresses, wear them with your pants and see how it goes.
  • Get an honest second opinion. If after a few times of wearing a dress you still feel uncomfortable, talk to your HR department or a more senior colleague you trust to give you an honest opinion. They know your former manager, your office, and you, so they may be able to give you better insight here.

What are your thoughts, readers? How would you handle this (now, as well as with that manager) if you were in Reader A’s shoes? Do you think dresses and skirts can be unprofessional?  

(Pictured: Hollywood 819, originally uploaded to Flickr by Jessica Hartman Jaeger.)


N.B. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course we highly value all comments by our readers, we’re going to ask you to please keep your comments on topic; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. Thank you for your understanding!

Feeling Jealous of a Younger Colleague

Feeling Jealous of a Younger ColleagueWhat should you do if you’re feeling envious of a colleague who’s younger than you, seemingly unappreciative of the opportunity you’re giving her, and also — in your opinion — inappropriately flirty at networking events? Reader J wonders:

I’m a 40 yr old business development manager at an engineering firm. I’ve formed a group of female colleagues that helps with networking and business that’s getting notice in my city (like a Stiletto Mafia). A few months ago one of the key ladies in my group invited my junior engineer in my firm to join.

This engineer is funny and smart but also a gorgeous 24 yr old. Now I am torn between wanting to be a mentor and jealousy. I am jealous that she has access to this group of high powered ladies that are my friends and doesn’t seem to grateful that I’m including her. This engineer also occasionally helps with networking. It’s frustrating to attend a business event while these men are flirting with her. She isn’t overt, but she is aware of her looks and plays them up.

I’d like to drop her from the group and ask her to focus on current clients vs networking. Am I being a hypocrite?

I think you’re being honest, Reader J — a lot more than most people would be in person. I don’t think this is unusual, though; I think a lot of younger women alienate good mentors by being too entitled (like the reader who expected her boss to help her network) or arrogant at work, or, here, too focused on other parts of life like flirting. (We have offered some tips in the past on how to network with older women that may help younger readers here!)

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Should You Ever Hire a Friend?

hiring-friendsHiring friends: yea or nay?  Does your answer vary if you’re hiring a friend to be a colleague/equal versus hiring an assistant?  We’ve talked about interviewing with friends, but not the reverse situation, hiring a friend. Reader M wonders…

I work at a small law firm. I’m pretty junior, but I have a considerable amount of input on decisions about the business. We don’t have an HR department or a formal hiring process. We’re getting pretty busy and I think it’s time to hire a new assistant to help us handle the work. A friend’s girlfriend recently moved to our city and has experience working as an assistant in a professional environment. I’m thinking of asking her if she’d be interested in the job – I know how hard it can be to find a good job in a new city and I know she’s qualified, so I’d be happy to help her and add some one likeable and competent to our staff in the process. Is it always a bad idea to hire a friend?

Interesting question, M.  There are two things that concern me about this situation.  First: she’s your friend’s girlfriend — not your friend.  You don’t know if/how things will end between them, or how awkward it’s going to be if you have to choose sides.  The second thing is that she’ll be an assistant — and being friends with staffers can get kind of murky, particularly for women.  In this situation there are two considerations here — first, if you and she are pals around the office, your superiors might start viewing you as “one of the girls,” which isn’t going to be good for your career.  Second, if you know this person enough to let your hair down around her, socially, it’s going to be a bit awkward giving her assignments and acting like a boss with her. (After all, you need to be respected, not liked.)  There needs to be some separation between work and life — and to me this is way too little space.

Readers, what are your thoughts — would you ever encourage a friend to apply to an administrative/secretarial position at your workplace?

Psst: we’ve talked before about using friends to network, as well as competing with friends for jobs.

Pictured: New Best Bitches set of friendship necklaces, available from Etsy seller guiltyeocrc for $4.50. 

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Should You Say No to Sports at Work?

sports-at-workYour office is planning an athletic event, and you want to stay far, far away. Even if you’re worried about feeling awkward, should you go anyway to take advantage of the networking opportunities? How can you say NO to work-related sporting events, like golf and tennis outings, and what are you missing out on if you do? Reader B wonders…

Your recent post about dressing for summer events led me to an older post about how to dress as a golf newbie… and boy, the comments struck a chord with me. Or maybe a nerve. I’d love to see a post, and more discussion, on how to deal with outings of all types — particularly when they’re for expensive and time-consuming sports that you don’t play and don’t want to pick up.

A lesson (or even a few lessons) are absolutely NOT enough to get me through a golf scramble. Can I swing and miss 18 times while joking gracefully? Can I pull off an outright refusal? Is it a bad idea to drive the beer cart (this always sounds like it should come with a costume), or just show up for drinks/dinner afterwards? And what do I do after 17 miserable holes, when my division manager is standing at the 18th with his arms folded to judge my golf game?

For reference, I’m in engineering, not law, with 15+ years of experience.

Interesting question, Reader B! In the past, Kat has recommended participating in athletic work events, even if you don’t think your skills are so hot, but we thought we’d get another opinion as well. We talked to Women on Course founder Donna Hoffman (who also advised us on our recent post on proper golf wear) to get her take on this situation. “Golf is so much more than getting the ball in the hole,” she says. “There are so many more benefits” — including the camaraderie, and the opportunity to build relationships.

Here’s what Hoffman recommends for Reader B:

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Becoming a Better Manager: Books and Online Resources

Become a Better Manager | CorporetteHow do you become a better manager and a more effective leader — whether you’re new to management or you’ve supervised people for a while and want to improve?

In the past, we’ve discussed various management books for women before, but readers recently discussed their favorites, so we thought we’d round them up, as well as some additional online resources for honing your skills.  (We’ve also discussed dressing like a managerimposter syndromedelegating work, and whether you should be friends with staffers.)



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Should You Buy a Wedding Gift for Your Assistant if You’re Not Invited?

wedding gift for coworkerIf one of your coworkers is getting married and you’re not invited to the wedding, should you give her a gift? What if it’s someone really important — for example, should you get a wedding gift for your assistant anyway? Reader L wonders…

My secretary is getting married very soon, and I’m wondering whether I should get her a wedding gift and, if so, what I should get her. She’s in her 40s and this is her second marriage (she has adult children). She’s just having a small wedding at home, so I didn’t get an invite or anything, I was just thinking it would be nice to get her something but I have no idea what. It’s not like she’s in her 20s and just starting out, so I’m kind of at a loss. Hoping you and/or your readers can help.

Interesting. I see a lot of questions from commenters about what to gift, when to gift, and so forth, so here are my $.02… (Note that my advice is the same if your admin is a man, as well; but because Reader L has a female secretary, let’s use the feminine…)

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