Business Casual — Without Being Overdressed

business casual for women

2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on business casual for women, but you may want to check out The Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women.

How do younger women do “business casual” in a male-dominated environment — without ending up looking like the mom (or younger sister) of the group?  Reader S asks:

I have a question about work attire: is it possible to be “over-dressed” for work? Without getting in to too much detail, I work for a medium sized engineering firm as an engineer. I am the only female engineer in my group so it’s really hard for me to gauge what would be deemed appropriate work attire for my office. Most of the men dress business casual (as in jeans, or khakis at best, and a polo shirt- even on client meeting days) during the weekdays, with casual Fridays being jeans and a t-shirt. I usually wear dress pants, and an appropriate top; Fridays I wear jeans and an appropriate top. Am I overdressed? The only other person who wears dress pants is the group manager. I should mention I’m only 3 years in to my career.

I can totally see this being a problem. The guys are wearing jeans and polos and look like regular workers — meanwhile, if you wear jeans and a t-shirt you end up looking like their scrappy younger sister, and if you wear trousers and a nice top you look like the mom of the group.  We’ve covered whether you can dress “too nice” for work, and also how to transition to business casual from a more conservative environment, but I don’t think we’ve really talked about this exact question.

For my two cents, here are a few tips on business casual for women — I’m really curious to hear what the readers have to say on this one, though.

  • First, assess your own style.  Are you uncomfortable in jeans?  Do you love wearing skirts and dresses?  To be honest, it sounds like pretty much anything will go in your office, so as long as you’re dressed in clothes that aren’t ripped, see-through, low-cut, or otherwise inappropriate, I would suggest wearing what you want.  Things that may be unprofessional even in your laid-back office:  flip-flops, shorts of any kind, strapless dresses, mini skirts, maxi skirts/dresses, sequins, athletic wear… I’m sure the readers can add to this list!  (We’ve talked about what not to wear in more conservative environments before — check here for the summer list of what not to wear and the winter list of what not to wear.)  If you’re comfortable in what you’re wearing right now, I say keep on wearing it.  Remember that professionalism is more about how you act — ultimately, “dressing professionally” for your office means that your outfit does not distract from your actions and work product.
  • If you’re saying, “I don’t have a style,” here are some tips:
    • Consider 5-pocket styles in fabrics other than denim — for example, cords.  There are even ponte knit pants that might be appropriate for work, yet more comfortable than traditional trousers.  (I think some nice jeans in a dark rinse — perhaps in a trouser cut and a skinny cut — would be fine in your office.) (In fact, perhaps our last roundup on the best washable pants for work will be helpful for you.)
    • To go back to a golden oldie, you may want to take a look at some of my previous advice in “What to Wear When You’re Laid Off and Looking“– there are a number of footwear options, as well as outerwear options, that are going to be comfortable and might nudge in the right direction of “laid back business casual.”
    • Stock up on basics like professional t-shirts and other classics like cashmere sweaters.
    • Keep a blazer in the office (and perhaps a pair of classic pumps) to throw on if the opportunity arises to meet an important client.
  • Finally, find a “muse.”  Find a character on television who you think looks professional, or a personal style blogger, or even a particular catalog or store stylist, and follow them.

Readers, what are your tips?  How can women look professional in a business casual, male-dominated environment, without looking overdressed?


  1. Hello engineer! From your description, it sounds like you are dressing “too fancy”.

    I doubt you’d ever need heels but there’s no harm in keeping them around. A knit jacket or cardigan will definitely help “age” your look, if that’s a concern. But you’re too fancypants, literally. Khakis, cords or jeans (even trouser jeans) sound more appropriate for your office. Your shoes should be appropriate enough so that they don’t keep you from cool site visits.

    Being a young female engineer isn’t easy. I have to be in the office and the field, which requires completely separate wardrobes. But the work is challenging and fun and I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to email me (linked above) if you have any questions.

  2. In a different life, I managed a group of engineers and planners in a similar environment. I think women need to dress up a notch from the male engineers for a couple reasons: they need to clearly signify to clients that they are professionals and need to be recognized as such; I’ve seen biz casual interpreted as “grad school dressed up” – the 5 pocket cords for example- and it doesn’t translate into “take me seriously, I know what I’m doing” ; and depending on the person, young age + female = easily discounted. Looking smart and pulled together (dress trousers, simple skirts, blouses, cardigans, simple blazers) will not be overdoing biz casual, but will signify you get what it means to look professional and are serious about getting the work done for the client.

    • IN my office, the manageing partner does NOT tolarate me (or any one else) dressing casual. He says it is UNPROFESSIONAL, b/c we all need to look smart and FORMAL.

      That is why he gives me a clotheing allowance and insist’s I dress in a dress – no slack’s even if it is 10 degree’s out! FOOEY!

      I have been walkeing and my tuchus is getting alot tighter lately. YAY! I think Gonzalo was impressed and he keep’s calling. I am begining to wonder why all of a sudden he get’s me into his head and what hapened before? Myrna thinks he has a flea – brain. OUT of site, out of mind, in site in mind. FOOEY if that is the case. So I have to think before I decide to go out with him.

      I do not know if that was HIS apartement that I saw him comeing out of or some one elses’ and b/c he only has a cell, I cannot tell by lookeing him up in the VERIZON page’s on LINE! FOOEY! At least he does NOT know where I live! YAY!

      • I might suggest looking into taking some appropriate college level English writing and/or composition courses. If your writing is any indication of your professional “style” it might be helpful.

      • What?

      • Are you high?

        • Anonymous :

          She must be high, I am shocked that she is employed at all, she sounds like very whiny and her grammar is not even at a elementary school level.

          • What if she’s not a native speaker of English? Would that be a good excuse?

  3. I work in a similar environment, although I’m about 15 years into my career. My solution has been to wear a casual third piece. Something like a jean or courdoroy jacket, or a cardigan. I agree with Kat’s recommendation that non-jean trousers (aka woven cotton or something) serve the same purpose. In my opinion women who violate the unwritten (and very casual) dress code are either dressed like they’re going on a date instead of to work (everything tight, very high heels, etc) or dated (wearing a jacket with enormous shoulder pads, for example).

    This is something I struggle with so I’m really curious to see others’ responses.

    • Concur with the 3rd casual piece approach! If I want to wear a jacket/blazer, I wear my work jeans (well tailored, dark wash); if I’m wearing a pencil skirt or slacks I wear a field jacket or cardi instead of a blazer.

      I’m a jr professional as well at an engineering corporation, and when I first started I felt the strong need to dress bus casual so I didn’t look like the high school interns. Dressing for work helped me mentally as well to stay focused and professional throughout the day. It like how Mr Rogers changed his shoes and cardigan once he’s home.

      The great part about it is that I have the freedom to wear a little more fun colors/patterns, and can wear non-demure nail polish. Of course the glittery and metallic polishes are no-go.

      For more context, managers tend to go with dress shirts+slacks+dress shoes, and only directors and higher do ties and suit jackets. Most men on a daily basis stick with polo shirts at ‘worst.’ Thankfully don’t see too many tshirts unless you’re in a test lab or SW folks who don’t have meetings often.

      p.s. about the looks-like-they’re-on-a-date faux paus O_O kills me every time I see mid-thigh length skirts, or club heels. Or in the summer tank tops and ‘dressy’ flat sandals, GASP!

  4. Good question–sounds like my office only the guys wear un-ironed button downs. Frankly, I dress more formally than they do (I also observe women dressing more formally at tech companies aka my clients). Working with guys, you kind of do have to be twice as good to get the same recognition in all things–not that guys are purposefully sexist but society/patriarchy/etc still applies.

    Some general rules I’ve developed (starting from the feet):
    1-comfortable shoes. Guys wear comfortable shoes by default so expect a lot of fast walking. Wedges and flats work best for me.
    2-Pants/slacks: jeans should be dark wash and in good condition. I wear traditional slacks and have a pair of ponte knit slacks in rotation.
    3-skirts and dresses: go for it but keep it comfortable. I wear with opaque tights or tall boots. Just make sure the length is work-appropriate.
    4-shirts and blouses: I avoid button-downs because I can’t find any that fit right without gaping. I like knits and cashmere sweaters. Try to avoid anything too low-cut–boys will be boys. Sleeveless is OK. I like bright colors but the women in my office wear a lot of neutrals too. For warmer layers, I have a “swacket” and a firm jacket in my office.
    5-jewelry: yes (unless you are working with heavy machinery)! Clothes get so boring and I feel like I dress like a secretary instead of a lawyer most of the time. Jewelry is how I express myself. Limit to two pieces+wedding ring.
    6-hair: make sure it’s controlled. Guys don’t understand hair and get distracted by it. If you’ve had the same hairstyle since high school, update it.
    7-make-up: minimal, if any. I only wear make-up for big client meetings and even that is pretty minimal.

    Honestly, you won’t look overdressed unless you come in wearing a suit and dripping with jewels.

    • oil in houston :


    • Research, Not Law :

      Huge ditto for (1) in particular, but it’s all good. I do think (6) and (7) have wiggle-room, though.

    • Saacnmama :

      Doesn’t “dressing up” equate to looking like the secretary?

      • In my opinion, no. To me, secretaries wear a lot of rayon floral dresses and open-work cardigans, that type of stuff.

        Dressing up to me is more serious-looking jackets etc.

        • Horseradish :

          Oh, god, wow.
          “secretaries wear a lot of rayon floral dresses and open-work cardigans, that type of stuff”

          No wonder they’re not always keen on the lawyers they “serve.”

          • It night sound snarky, but that is EXACTLY what the secretaries in my government law office wear. To the letter.

        • We have lawyers, investigators, and a receptionist. The receptionist probably has business casual down THE BEST. She has a number of khaki and denim A-line skirts and neutral-colored twill jackets, white shirts that she mixes and matches with more brightly colored tees. She has a number of cute wedge-like sandals in a neutral beige, kinda 70s feel from Three’s Company. She is always cute. The others range from goth to club to cat-hair.

      • And there are secretaries? None in my building….


        There are a few clerks in the various departments, but there aren’t secretaries.

      • If you’re in high tech, the only woman with a jacket is the receptionist, absolutely. Unless she’s the president :-), and even then, only when meeting with clients. Overdressing is the surest way for a woman not to be taken seriously. After all, if she were serious about her work, she wouldn’t have time for that much shopping..

        • Absolutely agree. I worked in high tech before law school, and we all wore jeans and tee shirts, from code monkeys to CEO. We had this adorable college senior who always, always wore suit pants, heels, a nice top, and a cardigan or blazer. She worked the help desk (phone-only interaction); we joked that she got our job posting confused with the customer service desk at Nordstrom. She was good at her job but the impression she was playing dress-up overshadowed that. When we moved from a converted warehouse to a fancy office, the CEO put her the only place you need someone presentable: at reception.

          • SnarkyAtLaw :

            FWIW, as the only lady in my high tech office in the 90s (writing code and occasional sales/marketing), most days I wore nice jeans and cute tops one step up from tee shirts (thanks for all the cropped fitted tees, Spice Girls). Lots of short sleeve button downs in fun prints, lots of fitted striped sweaters. Also big clunky heels because 1997.

            The modern equivalent would probably be well-fitting straight leg dark jeans; button-down tops or tailored tees/sweaters; ballet flats, boots, or work shoes; and a blazer alternative (e.g. a cotton moto jacket or nicer leather). Maybe also ask someone you trust in the office if it’s time to ditch the trousers.

        • This. Frankly, this is why I can’t shop at Nordstrom for work attire. Everything is too embellished. In many workplaces, being overdressed does make you look more like the secretary than the boss.

          • It’s extra-confusing, then, when people tell you to “dress for the job you want, not the one you have” and imply that always means MORE formal…

    • Agreed!
      I find tradition button-downs fussy and not well fit, too. My solution has been to go with chiffon camp shirts or other simple styles, typically with 3/4 or elbow-length sleeves for practicality (at the keyboard). No need to iron them, and even the camp shirt or more ‘button down’ style ones are more feminine and relaxed in chiffon.

      Of course please go with a mostly opaque chiffon…and wear an underlayer (both for your sake and the blouse’s longevity’s sake).

    • I agree with most of this, but my office (specialty chemical company) is even more limiting. Sleeveless and skirts are seen as not OK in general. I still with blazers, cardigans, and at least marginally interesting earrings and necklaces.

    • I agree with most of this, but my office (specialty chemical company) is even more limiting. Sleeveless and skirts are seen as not OK in general. I stick with blazers, cardigans, and at least marginally interesting earrings and necklaces.

    • I think that you were in my mind! I am an engineer and a lawyer and recently switched work locations. I was at my company’s corporate HQ and wore dresses and heels most days. Then my office moved – with a promotion- to my company’s research and manufacturing site. It has been a struggle to get the right look. Even the right shoes. I was wearing ballet flats, but I don’t think that they are really the “right” shoe for the location. I’m not in the plant or the labs, but it is still an industrial site. I am going to incorporate some of your suggestions, especially about the jewelry. Many many thanks!

  5. pinkrobot (engineer) :

    In no particular order:

    Whatever you do, -don’t- wear a blazer. I made that mistake at my first job out of college and I was roundly mocked by every one, including my boss & his boss. As one of them put it ‘no serious programmer wears one’

    The casual third piece is a good idea(suggested by gouda), though I’m usually wearing one because I’m cold. I generally go the interesting-but-covered-up top & dark wash jeans route.

    I’m hoping someone has some good ‘muse’ suggestions, as I have approximately 0 of those in my office.

  6. I’ve had the chance to work with a team at my company that is male-dominated, but has two women. The men all wear jeans and some form of casual to moderate shirt or polos, some wear sweaters or vests on top. The women in this group need to be power players, and I’ve been impressed by them and not judged them any differently by what they wear, and it is fairly consistent:

    – dark rinse jeans in a trouser style or pants in another color but that aren’t “work” pants – call them colored denim (in darker colors), cords or the like
    – a sparkly or shinier top (nice subtle sparkle or satin/silk looking in a rich color) that adds some pop to the outfit
    – a sweater (short or long) or a very casual jacket (army style, denim, colored denim)
    – ballet flats or other comfortable shoes, as their job requires them to be on their feet facilitating meetings most of the day

    Hope this helps!

    • I agree. Something to the extent of this outfit works. I would even throw in a blazer if you are wearing more casual bottoms.

      For pants, I agree with “non work” style pants. If you don’t want to do dark denim, I’d go for something like a skinny tailored pant (like a J.Crew cafe capri or Minnie pant) in black, burgundy, dark green, etc.

    • Saacnmama :

      I’m surprise about the ballet flats. I once accompanied a structural engineer friend who had to be in the field and at the office on her hunt for shoes. She wanted what I call “school shoes”–leather, not much of a heel (she wanted an inch or two but said twisting an ankle is really unprofessional), some tread, and she needed lots of insulation. Took half the day, but we found them.

  7. chocochat :

    I used to work in a similar environment. My method was “One thing less” meaning, dress as I would in a business casual environment, but make one thing about the outfit less formal. That is the jeans in the “blouse + blazer + jeans” combo. Or, t-shirt and a pencil skirt. Or blouse with cords. You get the idea. Of course nothing ripped, sheer, revealing, etc.
    Also, embrace the freedom to wear comfy footwear, and somewhat quirkier items.

  8. Really? Guys wearing jeans? Am I just not experienced enough, or is that *not* business casual? There’s a company in my building where alot of the guys wear jeans, and they look like they rolled out of bed before coming to work. Sneakers, wrinkled shirts….come on.

    But to Reader S, lately I’ve been wearing dresses (sweater dresses, for example) wtih a cardigan on top. It’s laid back enough to wear on a date, but still looks a little on the dressed up side in my business casual office.

    • kerrycontrary :

      It depends on the company. Our office is “smart business casual” when clients come in, and casual the rest of the time. Unfortunately, we have a lot of people wearing dark wash jeans on the “smart business casual” days. I agree that men in ill fitting jeans and sneakers look really sloppy.

      • See k-padi’s comment above. I’ve worked with men who absolutely looked like they had slept in their work outfits. I think they’re still at much lower risk of being mistaken for support staff than we are.

    • Diana Barry :

      I don’t think jeans are business casual – they are casual.

      Our office is business casual, but for men it means dress pants or nice khakis, NOT jeans.

      • Sadly or gladly jeans are ‘business casual’ especially at tech companies, and especially esp on the west coast. Sure the corporate policy officially says only jeans on Fridays (as a USO fundraiser they sold $5 passes so you ‘could’ wear jeans every day that summer), but in actually people are going to wear them.

      • phoenixed :

        Yes. I switched to trousers and nicer tops/blazers (and started reading this blog!) after being mistaken for a technician one to many times despite the fact that was I used to wear was no more casual than what the male engineers I work with wear. This has not happened since I started upgrading my wardrobe. I am often the woman, and the only one not wearing jeans, in meetings. Company is a large technology company in the Midwest.

    • Research, Not Law :

      It’s not business casual. It’s engineering casual.

    • My take home from this discussion is the ‘casual’ varies by industry. Casual in a tech environment, when people may be working with chemicals, doing occasional machining, etc., is naturally different from lawyer-casual. The real issue for Reader S is what to wear so that she fits in with the guys and the definition of casual in her workplace.

      • Yep. There are many businesses that are far more casual on a regular basis than law or finance, and where jeans are completely acceptable (even if they’re not dealing with chemicals or machinery) and not too casual, inappropriate, or unprofessional. There are also many business where “business casual” simply means “no jeans, no sneakers, no t-shirts,” and without many of the expectations present in law or a similarly conservative environment – no one cares as long as you don’t look dirty, are wearing clothes that fit, and aren’t exposing body parts that should be kept clothed.

  9. I’d think about adding some colorful polos to your clothing rotation. If you don’t like them on “normal” days with dress pants, then they can be your casual Friday top.

    • I wear mine for days in the field and on some Fridays, and they’re usually branded with the company logo. That’s very popular in my office.

  10. Liz in the City :

    Though I work in a more creative field (advertising), we have a heavy digital component here. The women, when not dressing up for a presentation (when everyone in the office has to wear their best), usually wear more casual dresses or jeans with stylish tall boots. Right now, it’s skinny jeans, chunky sweater, black/brown tall boots season. Some of the other women wear pants that aren’t dress pants, but colored khakis or colored jeans (like teal, red or maroon) with a fun blouse (think H&M, not stuffy grandma). Good luck!

  11. Threadjack: Where’s a good place to get oysters on the half shell in DC?

    • Young Consultant :

      Old Ebbotts, near the mall, especially during the oyster happy hour (3-6 and after 11pm on Mon-Thurs and after 11pm on Sundays). Its a really pleasant atmosphere and in my opinion its a bit of a DC legend.

      • Young Consultant :

        Now I realize I totally misspelled that, which means it is time to get on the plane home! I do love thursdays in consulting.

        it’s Old Ebbitt’s

    • All the Clyde’s in DC (Ebbitt’s is part of that chain) have half-price oyster happy hours (just google Clyde’s oyster happy hour and you should get a list of places and times). I love oysters but am cheap and paranoid and I trust Clyde’s. There’s also Hank’s Oyster Bar, haven’t been there but it seems to be reputable.

      This is making me want oysters SO BAD. Unfortunately, my BF is the only one I know willing to eat oysters with me. Which is ok, but I seem to want them a lot more often than he does.

    • Oh gosh.
      Johnny’s Half Shell
      Pearl Dive
      Hank’s- several locations throughout DC/Nova

      I really love oysters.

    • Not really in DC proper, but Black Salt is a seafood mecca, and I think Brasserie Beck also does oysters.

  12. Anonymous :

    As a “muse”, would one of the female TV detectives work? Think Law & Order SVU, CSI, or Dexter.

    • Research, Not Law :

      This may be helpful:

    • +1000

      I love Deb’s outfits on Dexter!

  13. Research, Not Law :

    Not an engineer, but close enough.

    I don’t really think dressing too nice is an issue. I think the bigger pits to avoid are dressing like you are on a date or (particularly in some offices) are an admin.

    The good thing I’m hearing from this question is that you have a work wardrobe. It easy for young professionals in a casual environment to fall into the trap of wearing their weekend wardrobes to work. The guys you work with may be able to do it, but you shouldn’t. For example, keep the curve hugging t-shirts for the weekends and buy some loose ones for work. Don’t wear anything that shows off your b00bs or butt. I know that should go without saying, but I see it happen all too often in casual work environments.

    My tops are professional attire (sans jacket), but with casual pants. Agree with woven pants and dark wash jeans. I didn’t wear skirts until I was established, in the 3-5 year range. Gauge for yourself.

    I actually find working in a male-dominated field freeing in the fashion department. There’s no ‘right’ way to dress if you’re the only woman, so I get to do whatever I want.

    • This! a corporette commenter, once said if the bottom of your bottom is outlined by your slacks/skirt/dress, then it’s a no-go for work.

  14. Jubilance :

    I worked as a chemist on a male-dominated team/company for 7 years. Because I worked in a lab, often working with dangerous caustic chemicals, I tended to wear what the men wore – jeans & a polo for the really dirty or dangerous days, khakis/polo/sweater on the regular lab days, and maybe some dress slacks & a top on the days where I didn’t have to be in the lab or needed to make a presentation. Because of lab safety, wearing skirts, dresses, sandals or other non-steel toe shoes wasn’t an option. Sometimes I felt lazy or sloppy getting dressed in the morning, but I also ruined many tops & several pairs of pants in the lab, by spilling chemicals on them or catching things in equipment.

  15. As someone who works in a very large engineering company, I think you’re overthinking it. Probably nobody notices if you wear jeans or dress pants, especially if you’re female. Women have a million more options and as long as you’re neat, clean, and not wearing anything suggestive or super formal, you get a pass. Wear what you like.

    A lot of people here start out wearing more businessy clothes because they already have a wardrobe from internships or other jobs, and then we all eventually become lazy and start wearing jeans. ymmv.

    • hamster428 :

      This! I started with dress pants and button down shirts, and somehow moved to khakis and knits over the years. I think something along the line of LOFT style is a safe bet for female engineers. And just be dressy either on top or bottom but not both. E.g. if you wear dress pants, forgo the blazer and opt for a cardigan instead.

      • Agreed! I’m an Engineer and LOFT is my go-to store. I also shop Nordstrom’s Halogen for basic cardigans. I don’t wear skirts or dresses to work because it’s too cold lol

  16. boring threadjack :

    can anyone recommend a good place to get a basic haircut in NYC midtown west? My usual spot is in a neighborhood far from where I now live and work and I am too lazy to keep going there when I think I could get a trim/long layers pretty much anywhere. Thanks!

  17. I’d also like to expand the original question for my situation: I’m a young female engineer at a cement plant. The location of my office in the middle of the plant requires me to wear steel-toe boots, hard hat, safety glasses, and reflective vest just to get to my desk. I might spend all day at my desk, or I might spend part of the day out in the plant, getting dusty, and I can’t always predict which it will be. Everyone wears jeans, from the plant manager on down the chain of command, because it’s a dirty environment. The other engineers and managers wear jeans and polo shirts or button-up shirts. There are several women in the front building who don’t have to wear the safety gear just to get to their office. There’s only one other woman with a similar job title who also has to don the safety gear daily, but once she gets to her office, she really never goes out in the plant much.

    I usually stick with 5-pocket bootcut jeans from Old Navy. In the winter, I can wear a sweater or slightly nicer top, since it can be protected by a jacket if I’m out in the plant, but I struggle with what to wear in the summer since our 90s+ temperatures pretty much limit me to one layer. I wear a nice watch and bracelets that can be removed if necessary, but I stay away from other jewelry. I use my nails as my major form of self-expression – I keep them short and round, but I can be bold when it comes to color. Any other tips for bringing a little femininity to the table, while also dressing practically and avoiding clothing I don’t want to ruin?

    • Colors. Bright colored t-shirts and blouses for the summer. Maybe swap out the shoelaces of your boots for something bright, too? My field clothes (or plant clothes) are strictly for the field. I don’t want the particulates or whatever else mixing in with the rest of my clothes – I wash and store them separately.

      Also, what kind of steel-toed boots do you wear? I need to order a new pair.

      • Meg Murry :

        Women’s steel toed shoes & boots are the worst thing to shop for, ever. Anyone want to take up the shopping challenge for shoes that are:
        1) Steel toe
        2) Not butt ugly
        3) Comfortable enough to stand and walk briskly in for 8+ hours a day
        4) Not 1000 pounds (Doc Martens, I’m looking at you)
        5) Leather (no non-leather tennis shoe style allowed at my job, even though they’re the least uncomfortable)
        6) Available in wide widths

        Oh, and I wear a woman’s 7-8 depending on the style, so ordering the smallest size mens shoe isn’t an option either. I hate steel toed shoes! Anyone want to start a company with me called not-fugly steeltoes for women?

        • I have the exact same requirements and hope you get replies!!

        • Do the Blundstone steel toe boots come in a small enough size for you? I have a pair of their normal boots, love them and get compliments all the time, but I’m not sure they make the steel toes in small enough sizes.

        • I have to admit that I bought cheap Brazos brand ones from Academy. They’re actually pretty comfortable, but I only wear them in spurts (2-3 days at a time), not every day.

        • Walmart is one of the few stores I’ve seen that actually acknowledges women wear steel toes too. They usually have a decent, affordable selection.

        • I have a pair that’s nice for summer since parts of them are mesh (and NOT waterproof – learn from me!). They’re Timberland PRO in a style that’s not available anymore, but somewhat similar to these in brown:

          As a side note, I love this company. When I ordered my steel toes, there was a shipping snafu and they didn’t send them, so when I emailed about it they overnighted them and gave me a store credit. Great service!

          I would order leather boots from them – I’ve been considering it!

        • Bursting out :

          I used to have to wear these, and always appreciated Red Wings. I’m not totally sure if they meet #2, but they will fulfill the rest handily.

          • I also want to know more about the business causal..can you suggest me any best site.I am not getting proper guidance…I initially read article on it help me alot but i need to know more about business casual..

        • I have a work boot suggestion! Try Catepillar’s Blackbriar steel toe work shoe.

          Obviously I’ve never encountered “cute” women’s work boots, and believe me I’ve spent years looking, but these are a lesser evil. I have been purchasing them for the past few years now. I’m a 28 year old structural engineer who hates dressing like a man, and I do a lot of field work that requires being on my feet all day in steel toe boots. I’m hard on them, but they hold up well for at least a year. If you look around, you can also get them with a steel shank or in black as well as brown.

          • I thought long and hard about these, then went with the Caterpillar Carlie boots; I’m a Civil Engineer in Atlanta, and these are fairly lightweight, extremely comfortable, required zero break-in practically, and are almost narrow enough for my feet with only two pair of socks! (I have very narrow feet) I tried RedWing, but #2 caught me.

        • I have had a pair of LLBean steel-toe boots for 10 years. Wear them in, and they are comfortable.

    • Could you wear a cute, but washable, lightweight blouse in the summer? I don’t work in a plant like that but am often on construction site and cute breezy summer button downs are my go to. I’ve gotten a few from jcrew over the years that I really like.

      I think loose and flowy would be better in this environment than anything structured given how hot and sticky it must be on the plant floor.

      • Loose and flowy is generally a hazard on the plant floor. Not tight but no dangling bits is better.

      • I love Anthropology’s nice tees. They have interesting details and typically come in a variety of colors. Tulle also does great cotton blouses that are flattering by not too loose.

    • Belts. Patterned or bright-colored belts.

    • hair accessories? Like, fun barettes or something?

    • Chambray.

      Lightweight/featherweight merino wool tops (yes, they SOUND hot, but they’re usually super thin and good for 70-90 weather)

      silk tops (handwash! cool! feminine! business-y).

      If you want to feel more feminine–perfume?

    • LowerAlabama :

      I spent a few years as a project engineer working on site for a construction company in Florida. I was the only female professional on the project full time, but the geothermal engineer and the architect’s representative were females. I wore steel toe boots, khaki pants, and either a polo, oxford or fishing shirt. The guys in the equivalent position wore khaki pants and polos. The geothermal engineer wore skirt suits, meaning that when she was on site she was wearing a skirt and steel toe boots. This is not a good look. The architect’s representative wore mostly black pants and cardigans or suit appropriate blouses, plus the obligatory steel toe boots. This didn’t seem to work well either. Have you considered dressing like the boys but in higher quality cuts and fabrics?

  18. I am an engineer and my office is definitely casual. Since I do interface with clients sometimes, I do keep a blazer around. So, this sounds pretty much like my office!

    But other than that, my winter uniform is nice jeans + cardigan/sweater/casual jacket with a shirt underneath. Personally, I despise khakis. They make me feel frumpy. I try to look for the casual pants but most of the time I feel too masculine in them. Shoes are flats or boots.

    Summer is much tougher. Dresses and skirts stick out too much, plus I need to keep my legs covered for the production floor. I’m short so I hate capris. I normally just wear the same jeans and nice blouse with flats.

    No makeup other than mascara and eyeshadow occasionally.

    I save the stuff I love to wear — pretty shoes and skirts — for the weekend.

  19. This could almost be me. I am a female engineer working in an office that actually does have other women, but most of them are not engineers. Our accountants and scientists have a dressier office standard than the engineers and our field crew dresses more casually — nothing that would work for me. The other female engineer here dresses more casually than I think is appropriate (jeans and sneakers) unless she has significant client meetings. She also has more tenure, a higher position, and absolutely zero ambition to advance roles in the company. Men in the office wear some kind of leather shoes, khakis, and button downs. Or polos. The project managers (male) typically wear nicer versions of the same thing.

    I am still developing my office-wear. I wear dress pants or nice cords/cotton pants. I wear nice shoes, but tend away from pumps and toward boots and more solid or pracitcal options so that I seem both dressed well and able to get my hands dirty. Nothing that couldn’t be worn through the mud. Pumps might work for you, but solid shoes are part of how I brand myself as technical. I have a basic pair of black Clarks shoes that I got as my career-kickoff shoes after watching all the professional women at a conference wear something both appropriate and comfortable. I have expanded with some sturdy options from Fluevog and Fly London. I am developing an array of appropriate tops, mostly light sweaters and shirts a hair more formal than the t-shirts Kat suggests. I keep a black denim and velvet blazer in my office that I think strikes the right balance of not-too-dressy.

    Lessons I’ve learned so far:
    1) Gap makes some fairly good basic office pants. Pair with one of the tops mentioned above and a cardi for a khakis and button-down female-equivalent.
    2) There are different requirements if you have a machine shop or test lab or if you are visiting a client and might need to tour somewhere. Business casual wear that is appropriate in these situations meets safety requirements!
    3) The cold office trend has been the case for me. A layering t-shirt is perfectly fine if you know you’ll slip a cardi or blazer over it. I intentionally avoid wearing button-downs with blazers in most all cases because I think it looks too formal.
    4) Makeup should be light. This is very office-dependant and personal-style dependant, but my experience has been that lighter makeup helps prevent me from looking overdressed. A BB cream or tinted moisturiser and a gloss or lightly tinted lip color does the trick for me, but find what works for you.

    • Regarding cardigans, Target’s Merino brand has sturdy ones in many colors and often a few in cool patterns as well. They go on sale for $15, so watch out for them come the fall. H&M also tends to have good cardigan options.

  20. I usually just wear a dress shirt and jeans. Slightly manly but non fussy. The key is a well tailored dress shirt.

    • I guess since everybody else went into more detail
      1) I pull my hair into a pony tail, half pony tail or something just to push my hair back. Nothing overly elaborate.
      2) I only wear minimal makeup to see higher ups (little eyeliner and sheer highlighting all over eyeshadow
      3)Dark wash jeans
      4)Non iron shirt from Brooks brothers I think fitted. Sometimes I’ll throw a pastel pink or more springy purple in there but mostly different shades of blue.
      5) low mary janes (black or grey but I could see other fun colors) working. Or dark boots. Engineering guys don’t seem to care for true heels and infact mock us when we go out to happy hour and are stumbling or can’t run with the guys.
      6) minimal or non clunky jewelry.

      The key with engineering guys is to make it look like you didn’t try to wear too much but don’t wear sneakers or regular tshirts like they do.

  21. My office (in healthcare) has a business casual dress code that specifies “no jeans”. I’ve gotten a lot of distance basing my work wardrobe around tailored trousers that are not suit pants. I usually go for the cafe capri from J. Crew, but I’m short so the capri length works on me…. but lots of lines have similar tailored pants, find what works for your figure. I have a few basic colors (tan, navy) and a couple of brights. In the winter I pair them with sweaters or polished knit shirts with sweater blazers (the sweater blazer is a godsend for the casual office, thank you corporette for introducing me to this idea!), in the summer I usually pair them with sleeveless shells (I have linebacker shoulders… go for a short sleeve if it works better for you). Oxford or loafer flats are really on-trend right now and look casual without being sloppy… ditto ballet flats if you like a more feminine look. I would not do heels in an engineering environment.

  22. Badger Enginerd :

    This situation is the story of my working life, especially when I did a co-op (extended internship) at a small manufacturing company. I found that female-equivalent to khaki pants with a nice sweater struck the right cord. On Fridays, I felt great in a cardigan and nice dress shirt untucked over a good pair of jeans. Absolutely NO DRESSES. Things may be different in your office, but a skirt was the ultimate sign that you couldn’t get down and dirty.

    That said, things are different now in my current office (large corporation, more women, but still surrounded by older male engineers). I now wear nicer trousers and I feel more comfortable in a dress, but I feel a greater need to exert authority (since I have to boss around men who are twice my age).

    • Totally agree with this about dresses/skirts. Oddly, they seemed more acceptable when I worked in the southeast US, if only because they were more expected. Since I’ve moved north, it’s pants all the way.

  23. Pretty much every day of my engineering career, I have worn: Dark dress pants (or dark wash trouser cut jeans), blouse or dressy tee, cardigan sweater, flats. It is presentable, comfortable and suitable for messing around in the lab.

  24. I’ve been in a similar boat. I’d wear either dark skinny jeans with a tall, flat practical boots (love Timberland’s waterproof stuff, or Frye depending on your budget/needs) or dark bootcut jeans with “grown-up” sneakers (dark, leather, or both). Sometimes knit ponte pants that are slim rather than skinny.

    My favorite trick, though, is casual blazers—the jacket version of the 5-pocket ponte pants. Banana Republic has a Pique one-button blazer that I have my eye on… It’s smart & even works with (well-fitting) t-shirts and Converse sneakers on Fridays, but the material keeps it from getting too formal.

  25. Kind of a response to this post, and kind of a threadjack:

    I just got this jacket today from J Crew:

    It is wonderful! Very comfortable and versatile – it is thick and heavy enough to be warm for the colder seasons, but still breathable. I think it would make a good business casual top for those events or days where you would feel a bit more comfortable wearing a blazer, but you don’t want to come across as too formal.

    I am a bit curious about the zipper, though. Do people think zipper-blazers (not sure if that’s a term . . .) are too casual for the office?

    • I don’t think so. The tweed keeps it traditional but the zipper gives it that extra “something”. I’m getting one for myself and an’t wait to wear it to work–big bank.

  26. I work in a government office on the law side, but with a huge technical/engineering staff. The guys dress like the guys in Reader S’ office (except that her guys sound a little more polished than mine). As I think about what the women wear, it’s mostly dark jeans or dress pants, plus casual tops/cardigans and flats/low heeled/comfortable shoes on a daily basis. The also step it up to the business casual that I wear every dayfor “Very Important Meetings”.

  27. My most recent job was in a similar environment and I found I had to keep two things in mind: 1) being casual enough without being sloppy and 2) not dressing too “girly” for my nearly all male office. My goal, honestly, was just to blend in and be seen for my skills/wit, not my gender. To look authoritative without being uptight.

    Here is what I did:
    1) My uniform was jeans (nothing too skinny, usually trouser/bootcut style), a buttondown, a fun belt and flats.
    2) In colder weather I would mix in knee-high flat boots and casual blazers (tweed, corduroy) with jeans.
    3) In the summer I’d occasionally wear khakis. But never shorts (even though my male bosses wore them frequently – I think it’s different for women – shorter lengths and all).
    4) I kept an eye on necklines and tank top straps. And made sure that when I wore cardigans, it was never a “secretary” look. (i.e. I’d wear over a buttondown or belted at the waist, but not as a twinset or over a dress)
    5) I never, ever wore: skirts, dresses, sandals, anything too pink, ruffles, etc.
    6) I kept jewelry to a minimum – diamond studs or simple gold drop earrings, a small gold charm necklace, a favorite ring.
    7) I started out wearing black dress pants (both skinny and wider leg), but honestly it was just too formal and too “mom” in my work environment.

    Totally a know your office thing! But this worked really well for me. I ended up buying a lot at J Crew and found their catalog and in-store styling looks to be helpful. They do a good job of mixing patterns and fun solids, but with traditional cuts – much the same way men do with their clothes.

  28. I HAAAAATTEEE khakis. What about the “perfect khakis” from Old Navy in non-khaki. they have tons of fun colors and aren’t quite so dowdy as tan pants. I’d think dark jeans and a cardigan would do it too, or a graphic t with a knit blazer on top.

  29. I’m an engineering manager in a medium consultancy firm in a midwestern city. I am one of five technical women in a 100 person firm. What you can get away with really depends on location and the firm culture. My goal is to NOT look like one of the administrative staff. My guys (including the executive management) pretty much wear the standard engineering uniform (as described in the original post) and I try to dress about one to two steps above them. Unless there is some sort of themed event (like tomorrow’s Super Bowl party), I will typically wear slacks/cords (occasionally a skirt) and a conservative blouse/sweater, with heels on weekdays; and dark-wash jeans and a blouse/sweater with appropriate height dress shoes on Fridays. I always wear coordinated jewelry and a full face of makeup, and carry myself with confidence and authority. Perception is everything. If you speak and walk with confidence, then people will still take you seriously in jeans.

  30. I work in a mid sized engineering firm, but I do business development. I’m petite, but approaching 40, so I don’t think I need to worry about being taken as young. I am however the only person of color and no offence, I don’t want to be take as the receptionist (which isn’t easy as my desk has now been moved to the front desk since I primarily telecommute). I work in a super casual city too.

    I like to look like I’m always ready for a meeting. I think I’m scarred because once at another job I wore lighter blue jeans and a pilling black sweater with sneakers! To my horror, my boss then asked me if I’d like to join him for a business lunch. I felt so under dressed!

    Now I keep jeans dark, shirts ironed and always have basic jewelry and makeup plus I wear heels as I’m short. I do like cardigans too for the cold.

  31. I have the same problem… I’m an engineer on a construction site and I constantly feel over or under dressed. I have been trying to err on the side of overdressed – especially since I’ve gotten hosed a few times looking terrible on days when higher ups drop in. Tough with a 5 month old, though!

    Loving the suggestions!

  32. WorkingMom :

    Tardy to the party here… but I see a lot of suggestions to keep a sweater/jacket/blazer in your office.

    Along those same lines, I would LOVE to keep a sweater of some kind in my office strictly for cold days when I need another layer. However, whatever sweater I try to keep here, inevitably seems to clash with what I’m wearing. For a while I tried a gray hoodie (back when we were super casual), then I tried a brown chunky sweater – which looked awful any time I wasn’t wearing jeans with brown colors.

    Has anyone come across the ideal style/color of the sweater/cardigan/shawl/jacket to keep in your office that can go with just about everything?

    FWIW, my typical office attire is dress slacks and blouses with cardigans, dressed up jeans, and the occasional dress or skirt with tights and boots. Would love any suggestions!!

    • Leslie Knope :

      @ Working Mom…

      My work wardrobe sounds about like yours, and I went with the “deliberately nonmatching” look. My office cardigan is thick, boxy, and bright turquoise. Since it’s such a wardrobe oddball, I’m never tempted to bring it home to live in my normal rotation of clothes.

  33. Hi guys. That What To Wear When You Are Laid Off And Looking was me, back when:). I’ve made significant progress, if I say so myself. Here is my post on Business Casual For Work Events. I also work in a tech world, maybe I will try to answer this question too:).

  34. Another engineer :

    Late to the thread, but wanted to add my $0.02. I work in a very similar environment,and also struggled with the question of what to wear for the first few years. Now I wear nice, dark denim trousers or black pants with a nice top (usually knit, rarely button-up, but that’s my preference) or sweater. And dansko clogs. (Sounds silly, but, all the secretaries wear shoes that go clunk clunk clunk down the hall, and, I really wanted quiet shoes. Danskos are very common amongst my female engineer friends). I’m known for generally looking nice, but, don’t feel overdressed; I think that’s a nice balance. I’ve only recently started very occasionally wearing a skirt to work on Fridays in the summer; I still feel a little awkward about pointing out that I’m a girl by doing that, but, it’s what I like to wear and, here’s the key point: I’m very comfortable in my job, and know I’m respected, and at this point feel like I can wear whatever I want! But it took me 10 years to get there=)

  35. I will absolutely read through this entire list of responses, but I will share what my office environment is like also. We’re local government planning/building/engineering offices, so we have a LOT of interface with the public. However, we also have plenty of field time too.

    In general our office is very casual. My immediate supervisor generally wears khakis & a button down shirt with or without sweater and black or brown shoes. He’s one of the more public figures. He’s just started recently wearing jeans on Fridays. Next office over is a woman who does more field work. The inspectors & more fulltime field workers wear what you’d expect: fleece jackets, flannels, jeans & work boots. Over in the engineering side, the director generally wears dresses or skirts, or dress pants. The other engineers (male & female) usually wear khakis or dressier pants, and simple tops.

    I have recently lost about 40 pounds, and so my style, and the types of clothes that I CAN wear has really changed.

    In general, though, I feel very comfortable wearing dark, well-fitting bootcut or skinny jeans (with flats or riding boots), and classic, tailored tops. Today, for example, I’m wearing my Loft jeans, a red cami under a teal-colored fine-gauge cotton/wool sweater, and Clarks slip on shoes with dark socks. This is pretty typical for me.

    When I have more public meetings, I wear dress slacks, dresses or skirts, but I generally make sure that field time and public meetings don’t happen on the same day!

    Part of it also depends on the weather. I live in a climate that can see 70 degrees one day, and 20 degrees and snow the next. When I wear dresses or skirts in cold weather, I always wear opaque or subtle-patterned tights (or leggings with boots).

    Nice to know that there are so many females in our profession facing the same problem, though…

  36. Yes! This is an awesome discussion.

    Just spent 6 years getting a PhD in a research-oriented engineering department with approx 1/23 faculty members female. Dressing nicer meant some real danger of being mistaken for admin staff (most of the females on our floor). As I got close to finishing, I started to think hard about how to look professional and polished without freaking out my classmates or faculty (no cleavage ever!!!). Then I did the job market thing, and am at present a researcher doing some teaching in computer science at an ivy league college (my current class has 3/23 girls). I am not much older than my students (many are master’s students), so it is important to signal authority (but approachability) with my wardrobe.

    I try to look clean, neat and put together without looking like I am trying to be any kind of sexy. I wear black tailored pants (usually in a heavy cotton knit) most days, and usually a cardigan with a modest neckline underneath (I try to get some colors in this group, since I think they appear friendly). I often wear a simple necklace of some kind, almost always wear my (big sexy) hair up in a neat-ish bun. At most I wear a concealed 3/4-1 inch heel (and mostly avoid tennis shoes in favor of leather flats or boots). My main interview necklace was a cobalt-blue set of large glass beads: memorable and admired by men and women for the color, and unusual enough that it didn’t just register as girl-y. I also wore a black jacket for interviews that was only elbow length, allowing very free movement: it seemed to fit the right balance of practical (something engineers love) and professional.

  37. Lol. Amazing discussion. I never heard of overdressed. But it is very true for women in business. Especially in man dominated environments. I have experienced it, and I felt it too.

    But thanks for the article. I learned both from your article and these comments. It is awesome to unintentionally come across such great articles.

  38. cheap office desk :

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  39. I have worked in a variety of workplaces from higher education to corporate finance to manufacturing offices. The workplaces have varied as to the diversity, i.e. male or female dominated, gender ratio, racial/cultural ratio, etc. I tend to overdress the first week of employment, i.e. suit with or without a jacket. I always dress up for an interview, with manufacturing I skip the suit jacket and go with just slacks and a professional blouse. In industries where there are more women, I may wear a professional dress for an interview. In industries where there are more men, I wear slacks to set the tone of being equal. Then, I follow the company culture. When, for example, I worked in the manufacturing environment (male dominate) where the president wore jeans and a t-shirt with the exception of client visits where he wore a suit, the rest of us followed his example. There were only two women in that office including me. When I worked in higher education where the environment tends to be more liberal and female dominate, I wore dress slacks and blouses in the winter and summer/professional dresses (non-revealing/not too short, etc) with dressy sandals. While dressing appropriate is important, I have found that maintaining a professional demeanor and producing great work speaks volumes and commands respect regardless of gender and age. I am in my early thirties and have worked alongside peers that more than twice my age (during my twenties) and with peers that are my age (recently and now). I have worked in both leadership roles and entry level roles. If in doubt of the dress code, I follow the example of my peers and the leadership at any given organization or company. So, my closet is full of varied styles including my casual personal style.

  40. Ruby Stubson :

    My workplace also dictates “business casual” as the form of attire. What that means in practice is: you can pretty much wear whatever you like so long as you don’t look like a slob. For instance, I wear jeans ~90% of the time. The only time you’re expected to dress up is when you’re meeting the big bosses and/or when you’re giving a large-ish presentation. Otherwise, a clean pair of jeans and a nice shirt/blouse is 100% the way to go.

  41. I recently was promoted and I will be attending a Loss Prevention meeting, next week. The dress code is business casual, but I don’t want to dress to old for my age (19) Help please!

  42. Clarity Quest :

    I know this post is almost 1 year old – but I just saw it so sorry for late reply. I started my career as an engineer and I felt as a woman I had to dress slightly more professionally than the guys to be taken seriously. Dress denim with a tweed blazer always worked and I wore nice dress tees under the blazer in case the blazer was too stuffy in certain situations. For client meetings, a nice pair of dress pants, simple button down, cardigan and nice flats worked well, but frankly I hardly ever wore heels unless a big executive was coming in b/c the building I worked in was huge and involved lots of walking from manufacturing floors to the labs and then the offices. I bought much of my wardrobe from Lands End, J Crew and finds at TJ Maxx in those days. It’s a tough balance but I think it’s always smarter to err on the dressier side. Worked for Marissa Mayer surrounded by hoodied developers.

  43. I’m so excited about this thread, because I had this question when I was right out of college, and NOBODY could answer it for me. Also, it brought all you fellow engineers out of the woodwork, instead of the usual lawyer-folk. I knew you were out there…

    I think this is the sort of thing that each person has to figure out for themselves, based on body type and the details of the office environment. It took me at least five years. I’m in civil engineering, which is oddly traditional, yet may require wearing steel toes and a hardhat at any given moment. Men can just wear khakis and a button-down with a tie, which instantly makes them appear brainy and professional. Unfortunatley, there’s no female equivalent to a tie.

    I never wear jeans professionally, because the casual ones make me look like a child and the formal ones look like they should be saved for a night out. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it doesn’t work for me at all. What does? Dockers (much as I hated their recent “be the man” marketing) or any khakis without “denim-style” stitching. Happily, they’re cheap, and they just fall into the background stylistically.

    For tops, I am busty and look highly questionable in buttondowns. This is unfortunate, because they’re a nice solution for many. My go-to has been patterned/printed stretch-polyester blouses, especially ones with three-quarter sleeves. They can be a bit tricky to find, but I’ve managed to accumulate enough of them over time. I don’t look overly feminine if I avoid ruffles and sparkles. If done right, the top adds the note of formality that men get from their ties. Because the top is interesting, I don’t need as much jewelry, which is helpful as it’s often not appropriate for the surroundings. The best pieces I own for layering short-sleeved tops are two really traditional round-neck, short wool cardigans in black and gray. I think they’re Ralph Lauren.

    For shoes, I wear Ecco or Hush Puppies or other brands of casual loafer. I have a pair in black and a pair in brown, and they go with everything. I got a pair of black leather Red Wings for the field, so I can also stealthily wear steel-toes without wrecking the aesthetics of my outfit.

    I grew out my bob so hard-hats wouldn’t give me hat-hair. However, a longer-length professional hairstyle that’s easy to maintain is still on my list of unsolved problems. I wear extremely minimal makeup. I look better than I would without it, but otherwise nobody would guess it’s there.

    I love my contacts, but look several IQ points smarter in glasses. I have a nice pair of horn-rimmed ones that scream “architect.” It’s not a bad message.

    At the end of the day, I’ve succeeded when my outfit can handle both a client visit from someone in the banking sector AND two hours of unexpected tromping around in the mud.

  44. Hi,

    I have an interview coming up and I got a nice fitting pin-stripe 2-button skirt suit at Ann Taylor with a good looking white button down shirt. I will presenting to the team of 10 people in a conference room for about an hour.

    In this regard, I am wondering whether I should take off my blazer before presenting. Also, same is the question as to what the protocol is for 1:1 interviews that follow right after the presentation.

    The company culture is pretty casual but they expect you to look formal for the interview. Your advice will really help. I would also like to know your opinion on waering a half sleeve shirt instead of full-sleeve.

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