I'm Too Sexy for My Job
Are office dress codes plunging?
By Lisa Baker
Not long ago, Casual Friday was
A gift from the high-tech sector, khakis-and-Polos day hit a happy note
with formerly buttoned-down office workers looking for a break from starched
While many companies launched the one-day-a-week recess from formality,
others protested, calling it sloppy and unprofessional.
There has been no shortage of debate about appropriate business wear
in recent years. Portland police have waded into the issue of facial hair
and tattoos. Even the NBA, in an effort to stifle comparisons between
its players’ attire and gang member fashions, has introduced a dress
code — of sorts — by insisting on tucked shirts, headgear,
sunglasses indoors, and banning chains and medallions worn over clothing.
While there have been plenty of these kinds of discussions, the business
world has been curiously silent about women’s work attire, preferring
to simply direct its female employees to “dress appropriately and
What they mean, corporate watchers say, is business professional, not
While most businesses won’t say it out loud, some women’s
office apparel over the past five years has strayed beyond all “casual”
definitions and slipped into something a little more uncomfortable for
many in corporate life.
Skirts are shorter, necklines cut deeper, tops tighter, heels taller,
waist bands lower.
Lisa Kutcher, assistant professor at the University of Oregon’s
Lundquist Business College and faculty advisor for the campus Women in
Business Club, says young women graduating from college have spent little,
if any, time in a corporate setting and have been taking their clothing
cues on what to wear from the corporate America they see displayed on
television and in magazines.
“When ‘The Apprentice’ came out, people thought, ‘Hey,
I can wear that,’” Kutcher says. “But what we hear from
businesses as a general consensus is that these styles are too revealing.”
In magazines, clothing ads for Banana Republic and J. Crew intended for
the workplace are in Kutcher’s opinion “too tight, too revealing.
A lot of clothing companies that have gotten into business clothes are
places where we used to shop for going-out clothes. Fifteen years ago,
if you wanted a suit, you went to department store where the clothes are
While young applicants might simply be making a rookie mistake, those
more experienced in the work field are more likely making a statement
with their attire, Kutcher says. “I think there are some who would
say, ‘It’s okay to be a woman.’”
Nevertheless, she says recruiters visiting campuses have complained that
applicants are pushing the boundaries and even crossing the line.
The uncertainty about what not to wear has prompted some businesses that
had embraced casual wear in the workplace to button back down. “For
instance,” Kutcher says, “a lot of accountants have gone back
to traditional wear. Too many people were confused about what business
casual was. Now they’re going back to what they know: the black
Janna Brown, a senior vice president of Portland’s Durham and Bates
Insurance who’s worked at the company for more than 20 years, says
she doesn’t see blatant cases of provocative dress in her industry.
There is, however, what Brown calls “gaposis,” where a fitted
blouse doesn’t actually fit, leaving a gap at the bust where the
buttons are having a hard time doing their job.
She says women who dress provocatively will have a difficult time being
taken seriously in the workplace — by men and women. “When
you see that kind of thing, you think, ‘She’s here to get
married. She’s here trolling, not looking to do a job.’”
Brown has a theory about why some women dress the way they do on the
job. “It goes back to hunter-gatherer days when the men would go
hunting and come back with a partridge and the women were hoping the hunter
would pick them when he gets back, so they want to be noticed,”
she says, laughing. “Even so, you’d think they would dress
to their body types rather than just to the fashion. I don’t understand
the great big butts in little pants. Seems to me when the hunter comes
back, he says, ‘She go to end of line.’”
All joking aside, Brown says it used to be easier — for men and
for women — to dress for success. “I think in the past there
was an executive ‘uniform,’ whether it was a suit or something
else that was career appropriate, and we learned from it who to have respect
for. If someone is dressed casually, I’d think ‘sloppy dress,
Brown says she tells career women that they should be thinking about
“the image you want to portray. In your mind’s eye, think
about what you’re wearing. Even though you may look good in it,
is it the image you want the other person to have if they have only 30
seconds to get an impression of you?”
And studies show, impressions mean a lot.
Researchers at Tulane University found that women who wear short skirts
may be more likely to be passed over for promotions and pay increases.
A study publicized last year by USA Toda found that women who admitted
wearing suggestive clothing to work or engaging in flirtatious behavior
while on the job ended up earning less in salary — most fell in
the $50,000-$75,000 range — than those who said they never did.
The non-sexy workers earned between $75,000 to $100,000 per year, according
to the research.
Kutcher says she hears much of the same thing from Oregon business people
who make hiring and promotional decisions — they don’t take
women seriously if they dress provocatively.
Barbara Baker, executive vice president of culture enhancement for Umpqua
Bank, says the dress issue rarely comes up at the Roseburg-based bank,
where most applicants know to wear conservative clothing to work.
“But when I worked in high tech, we sent people home for spaghetti
straps, see-through fabric and cleavage. The problem is almost never in
the interview, it’s the next day when they show up in skin-tight
jeans,” Baker says. “No, I don’t care if they’re
designer skin tight jeans.”
Umpqua prevents potential problems by providing its new employees with
a wardrobe allowance that can be paid back from future earnings. “A
young lady who just got out of school doesn’t have five nice outfits,
so we give them up to $500 so they can start off with a wardrobe. We try
to make it easy to dress appropriately.”
Personnel consultants say the business’ image is at stake, too.
A business advisor for AllBusiness.com puts it this way on the website:
“What type of impression would your company give to customers should
you have an employee at the front desk with a tongue ring and a T-shirt
that says, ‘Who’s your daddy?’”
Judy Clark, spokeswoman for HR Answers in Tualatin, which counsels businesses
on ways to prevent conflicts with employees over dress, recommends a dress
code that “advances the image of the organization … It’s
going to be different for each organization. A very hip, avant-garde business
may allow very contemporary attire while those at a bank would not. To
a degree, our attire, our business uniform, is our acting clothing. If
it isn’t consistent with the job we do, credibility becomes a bigger
hill to climb.”
Worse, she says, women who dress provocatively at work may unintentionally
be “inviting people to nudge at the limits” of sexual harassment
policy that could “migrate to something inappropriate or illegal.”
Victor Kisch, a partner and co-chairman of the labor and employment group
at Stoel Rives LLP, says that although provocative clothing is not a green
light to harass, he advises his corporate clients to adopt a dress code
and counsel employees who violate it.
Kisch points out that sexual harassment is a consent issue and that inappropriate
dress, coupled with flirtatious behavior, can be sending a signal that
a co-worker’s attentions are welcome when they’re not. “You
put that together and you make it more likely that you will be misinterpreted,”
But confronting employees about dress issues can be dicey.
Brown says male supervisors and co-workers might feel that a woman in
the office is dressed inappropriately but will not say anything for fear
of being sued. “You won’t hear anything from guys. They’ve
learned to keep their mouths shut. If they say something about it to anyone,
it won’t be at the office.”
Kisch says supervisors whose job it is to correct clothing catastrophes
are finding it complicated. “If your supervisor starts talking to
you about your skirt, well, there’s a whole bunch of layers to that
onion. The employee might feel it’s a personal attack. They think
they look pretty darn good.”
While he encourages companies to find a female to counsel the worker,
even that is “fraught with risk” because it often results
in anger and morale problems.
Wendy Lane, founder of Lane PR in Portland, says the concept of professional
business wear has become an alien concept for many applicants. “Things
have absolutely changed over the years. There is very little sense of
professionalism. We’re in a field similar to accountants and lawyers.
It requires a conservative professional look. If someone comes to me not
understanding that in an interview situation, well, there are so many
(applicants) out there, it’s easy to say no.”
Brown says her industry, too, like many professional offices, is conservative.
“We are beyond business casual. We are suits and ties. We aren’t
trendy. Trendy is for hair dressers.”
Some corporate observers say the answer is to attack the problem while
applicants are still in college or high school.
Lane does just that, speaking to business undergraduates about professional
standards in attire and how it affects the level of respect a new applicant
receives. “I think students are looking for direction,” Lane
says. “They aren’t sarcastic or dissing it; they really want
Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Career Center attempts to fill
the void by publishing clothing guidelines for its students aiming to
move into the business world. Among the tips is this one about skirts:
“Showing a lot of thigh makes you look naive at best, foolish at
worst. A skirt that ends at the knee when you’re standing looks
chic and professional. Don’t purchase a skirt or decide on a hem
length until you sit in the skirt facing a mirror. That’s what your
interviewer will see.” About tops: “A fine gauge, good quality
knit shell is appropriate underneath your suit jacket. Don’t show
The most succinct advice comes from Duke University: “Don’t
confuse nightclub attire with business attire. If you would wear it to
a club, you probably shouldn’t wear it in a business environment.”
Unless, of course, your business is actually a club.