Women, Are We Feeding Sexism?

Over the last few days here in the UK, a storm has raged over sexism in the work place. On the programme “The Big Question” on Sunday, two women were discussing sexism in the board room. One had long blond hair, full make up, lots of cleavage on show, long tanned legs and very high heels. The other woman had very short cropped hair, no make-up or jewellery, and wore a jacket and tie. Both had apparently used a typical businessman’s attire as their reference, one determined to be the opposite and display her female assets to the hilt, the other determined to be as similar and appear as “masculine” as possible.

Part of me feels sad that we women are trying to compete on the same (unequal) running track as men. I want us to get off the track and go and play our own unique game and make up new rules that work for us. For example, now I am older I tend to wear the colours and styles that suit me rather than the company I happen to be working with.

Another part of me recognises that, on occasions, particularly when I am going to meet a potential corporate client for the first time, or speak at an engagement, I dress to fit the culture, and not undermine or distract from my message in any way. This for me means smart, feminine and conservatively dressed.

I know this will be controversial but if, as a woman, I am confused by women who in my view over-emphasise their femininity, what chance have men? While I have no time for sexism and agree that offenders should be reprimanded, I don’t really understand women who dress provocatively and then complain about men looking at them. I had a hard time not looking at how low the woman on the programme’s dress was cut and how short the skirt was. At best, if the men she works with are concentrating on looking at her only from the neck up, in order to stay out of trouble, they aren’t fully concentrating on what she is saying. Are some of us women trying to have the best of all worlds and using our looks to our advantage but complaining about men’s reactions when it doesn’t work in our favour?

Help me out here!

  • What are your own experiences and views?
  • Should women in the corporate world dress for themselves, or their environment?
  • What is the best way to remove this from the agenda totally?

13 Responses to Women, Are We Feeding Sexism?

  • Great discussion. Men never dress provocatively at work as it would not have the desired effect – women more likely to be attracted by the crisp, clean shirt!! Personally I see no reason to have everything on show as it is a distraction for all, yet I love clothes that make me feel feminine and look my best – in my head it is a more that I like to present myself well just as I like to present good work. It all comes down to taste and that is personal and reflective of age in many cases. We need more role models for younger girls that transcend the typical dolled-up celeb culture which seems to love the provocative dress code – controversial!

  • This really isn’t a question of gender. The only reaon we’re approaching it this way is because the workplace and life generally has been built upon patriarchal values. For instance would a man go to.work wearing a singlet with all his pecks and arm muscles showing? No. He wers a suit, which is what is appropriate for work. Hence, women just need to dress appropriately for work and save the revealung clothes for the weekend or clubbing etc.

  • I think its difficult for a very attractive woman not to look sexy in the workplace no matter how she dresses. If she has a very good figure its not easy to conceal this
    and why should she anyway. If men are distracted by her thats their problem not hers


  • Good post. I’d take it easy. The game is as old as the world.

    Few are really fooled on either side of the gender divide even if neither would readily admit it for multiple reasons. I am glad you have in your post broken that silence (and so many have in their comments too)

    Just as you noticed the contrast between both women, so would men. Just as you would still be able to assess (as well as humanly possible) the women’s other characteristics(intelligence, professional skills, empathy, etc..) – so would most men.

    Sexism, I’d see as an (almost) entirely different beast, whereby equally qualified women don’t get equal chances. I don’t think this is fed by any sort of clothing. I don’t think closing is a solution to it either.

    As for women’s best clothing, as far as I am concerned I’d go with Channel’s advice: ‘Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.’ As a man, I can say this feels right on spot and is (I hope) equally valid for men!

  • Hi Julie,

    Now do you want a PC answer or a real world one? I am fearing for my life and business as I type away as I could be misread or misunderstood!

    Whenever I facilitate a workshop I always give dress code guidance as casual. Some people’s view of casual is smart trousers and smart shirt/blouse. Other peoples version of casual is jeans and T shirt. Similarly what one person thinks is unacceptably provocative others think as acceptable.

    I have done business all around the world and have come to accept all manners of dress and style. I have learnt to “accept” whatever I see before me to the best of my ability.

    Personally I hate bland and vanilla in the business world. Forgive the stereotypical statement but once you have seen one accountant and/or solicitor you have seen them all. The only difference is how expensive is the cut of their business suits!

    We need more characters to stand out in business as we are all individuals. This will inevitably involve dress style. If this means dressing “provocatively” to create a statement or advantage then why not (men and women).

    Because a women chooses to dress provocatively in no way should change anyone’s view on her technical or professional capability. Neither should it impact on her ability to convey a message.

    In my humble opinion one should wear what makes one feel comfortable.

    Will we ever totally remove sexism from life?

    I feel that we have made great strides to introduce equality across the sexes in life in the last twenty years but I believe we will never nor should we totally remove from “view” what makes women and men different. Note for the record I am very much against blatant “sexism”.

    One reason why I think this aim to eradicate sexism is impossible lies deep within our internal chemistry that has been with us since we first walked the earth. Our hormones which makes us different are designed to be very emotionally powerful – without which as a race we loose the ability to recreate.

    We could of course all dress in grey uniforms and wear masks to remove any in built human distractions but who wants to live in a grey and drab world. Even the Chinese have ditched that dress code!

    And finally should women who dress provocatively complain when it does not work in their favour. I simply don’t have an answer.Or maybe it’s better to leave Pandora’s box closed on that one!

    • Thanks for taking the real world option for your response Peter. I felt the same kind of fear, which could prompt a whole new discussion about honesty, realism, political correctness etc. I agree wholeheartedly with the plea for more colour and individualism. If I ever meet you, I am really hoping you are in some outrageous, psychedelic number! 🙂

  • This post reminded me of a heated discussion that occurred when I had Senior Psychology Seminar back in my undergraduate days. Two females brought up a discussion on how unfair it was that they dressed very provocatively to go out to a bar and were treated as sex objects. While I understood their argument that no one should be treated as a sexual object, I also did not understand their desire to dress so provocatively when they knew this would be the response — especially in this type environment. In the workplace, I feel that an individual should have a right to dress individualistic, but that it still represents a sense of professionalism — and that can be for both genders.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Dale. I agree about professionalism for both genders.

      I almost feel like I’m betraying women saying “if you don’t want to be treated like sex objects, don’t dress like sex objects.” I have never aired these views out loud before but feel its important with all the recent publicity about men being sexist at work that we women also look at how we might be contributing.

  • Very good post! Some companies have a “dress code” for men and women. I am aware of oine case at my company where someone was someone was sent home.

    • Interesting point about the dress code. Companies probably see that as helpful but I’m not sure. For me its all about ownership and responsibility.

      If we dress provocatively for a particular environment whether that means women in very short skirts or people with visible piercings and tatoo’s in a corporate culture are we justified in complaining when we don’t like the response we provoke?

  • Your blog was very thought provoking Julie, where do we learn the rules?
    Men have been in management and leadership roles for many years, the uniform is pretty easy, tie (most of the time,) clean pressed shirt, and a suit or smart trousers that have seen an iron. Where should women look to learn the dresscode rules? From my experience, it’s hard to gauge the correct tone and I do wonder if those that adopt the short skirt and low tops do it with forethought or intention at all. (Maybe they do, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt). I think it’s possible to look feminine in the workplace without resorting to looking as if you are about to go clubbing – or copying exactly the male dress code that can appear like trying too hard to be a man. I don’t agree that the only way of over emphasising your femininity is by having too much on show, I know some very professional and glamourous female leaders who dress well and it enhances their professionalism and would certainly not be recognised as trying to get a particular reaction out of men in the workplace. If we see a man wearing a very well tailored suit with a crisp shirt do we instantly assume that he is trying to gain some advantage in the workplace? Well maybe he is, but maybe care and attention about appearance at work should not be related to sexism.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful contribution as usual Angela. I think it is probably down to carefully considering the message we are wanting to convey with how we dress (and behave) then taking a long hard look at whether what we are wearing (and how we are behaving) is supporting or undermining that message.

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