Skirts, sexism, and the workplace: A response piece

On Friday, I came across this absolute gem of an article on The Age Online. Excuse me for not reposting the entire piece, but I have faith in your ability to click on a link.

In summary, the article (written by Paula Joye, who I honestly thought had a bit more sense) discussed the findings of a study that “showed 300 people pictures of women dressed in navy blue skirt suits and pant suits…Within three seconds, the majority perceived that the women wearing skirts were more confident, successful and powerful than their trouser clad sisters. The results concluded that the option women have to wear such attire creates a competitive advantage within the workplace…Professor Karen Pine, who co-led the research, said that the results contradicted previous studies that suggested women should dress more like men to succeed in business.”


“Women still have to maintain an identity that balances professionalism with attractiveness. The skirt suit may achieve that balance without appearing provocative”… said Professor Pine.

My first job – as assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of a fashion magazine – came with a dress code. I was allowed to wear pants (never jeans) but only on days that my boss was not receiving clients. If we had external visitors then I had to wear a dress or a skirt. My boss was a woman – very intelligent and powerful.  Her wardrobe requirements had nothing to do with sexism. At the time, I was hugely resentful but she taught me an important lesson about impressions and the art of smoke and mirrors. You aren’t necessarily what you wear but what others imagine you to be while wearing it.”

Okay. Hold up. Women have to balance professionalism with attractiveness? And this is done through wearing a skirt. But this somehow ISN’T sexist, and it IS a good thing.

Oh, and also, Paula? The notion that you can justify having to wear a skirt during your first job because your boss “was an intelligent and powerful woman” DOES have something to do with sexism. Unless the boys are also forced to wear skirts on the days that you’re “receiving clients” then it’s sexism, honey. Plain and simple.

“The real message in this study is that perhaps we’ve actually evolved. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It’s no longer 1955 when women had no choice other than to wear a skirt to work in order to make a man coffee. Now we run companies, make our own cups of tea and have the choice to wear whatever we wish in the workplace. The women who blazed this trail had to fight hard and wear a lot of ugly trousers for us to be able to enjoy these progressions.”

This isn’t evolution, Paula dear. Evolution would be when women’s attractiveness DOESN’T EVEN ENTER THE EQUATION FOR HOW SUCCESSFUL SHE IS. This very same study that you claim is “good news” is actually suggesting that we don’t really have a choice in what we wear, and that in order to succeed, we should wear skirts in order to be considered more attractive. You’ve just contradicted yourself.

“It has nothing to do with the being viewed as a sexual object – far from it,” says Penny, 38, a lawyer. “It’s about putting a highlighter pen through your femininity. Many clients want to work with women as a preference because of our empathy, multi-tasking and ethics. A skirt suit is just an outward reminder that they’ve backed the right horse.”

PAULA. STOP GENERALISING. Not ALL women are more empathetic, or better at multi tasking. Men can also multi task, and are good at “ethics” (as a side track, WHAT exactly is this vague term supposed to mean? That women are better at identifying what is right and wrong?). These forms of generalising are complete and utter rubbish, as multiple studies will tell you. Have you ever heard of biological determinism? Because you’re doing it, sister.

“Let’s not turn these findings into a loss for the feminist cause… At last, women who wear skirts aren’t perceived as ditsy, sexually provocative or assistants. We no longer need to wear pants to be viewed as successful – we have a choice. Can’t we celebrate the fact we no longer have to turn down the volume on our femininity to compete?

Suddenly we have an advantage that men can’t cash in on (and don’t think for a second that they wouldn’t if they could). It’s the day that blokes start getting promoted for wearing skirts that we should be worried about.”

Oh, hardy har har. Boys wearing skirts. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

NO. It’s not funny.

Your entire argument is convoluted, and contradicts itself many times. You claim that your (female) boss made you wear a skirt on days you wear expecting clients, and yet this wasn’t sexist. You also claim that we are evolved enough to appreciate that a woman can wear a skirt OR pants, but then also claim that if a woman wants to be successful, she should wear a skirt. And that we should use our femininity to our advantage, because it’s something men “can’t do”. You want to know why men can’t do it? Because their brains are valued more than how shapely their legs are, Paula. That’s what we SHOULD be aiming for here.

Now, excuse me whilst I go change into a skirt so my boss knows that he has “backed the right horse”.

13 thoughts on “Skirts, sexism, and the workplace: A response piece

  1. There is no point that you’ve argued that I don’t agree with!
    The notion that wearing a skirt means we can succeed in business, is ridiculous.

    Personally I think Men should be allowed to wear a skirt if they so chose, wouldn’t that be true equality?

    And in my job we are not allowed to wear skirts. They aren’t very practical in a hardware store you know. So does that mean my boss is ACTIVELY trying to keep me from succeeding in business by banning the wearing of skirts? SHOCK! They then must think we aren’t the right horses to back! OH NO!

  2. I think you are being a little unfair. In the first wave of women in the workplace we were required to wear skirts as a symbol of being submissive – our roles then were confined to secretarial and other junior ones. In the second wave, we fought for the right to wear pants to symbolize that we were equal to men and could be considered for the same roles. Now, we want to enjoy our femininity and look as smart as possible by wearing skirts – without having to give up the decent jobs and incomes.

    The original research, which was conducted among both women and men, showed that people consider skirt suits to make the wearers look smarter, more professional, more confident and more successful. Faced with that combination there is no way I would want to harm my professional image by wearing pants in the workplace!

    • You wouldn’t want to harm your professional image by wearing pants in the workplace, and yet that situation doesn’t strike you as a little unfair?

      My main point here is that in the workplace, women should be able to wear skirts or pants, flat shoes or high heels, and it damn well shouldn’t matter. Because if men can walk around all day wearing suits, and be judged according to how ‘professional’ they are in this one standard outfit, then women should be treated in the same manner. This study simply draws more attention to the idea that women are quite clearly judged on what they are wearing, rather than how smart, professional or confident they actually are.

      • You argue that men can walk round all day in ‘one standard outfit’ – a pant suit – and thus be judged by the professionalism of their conduct, rather than what they are wearing. I agree, and I think we should have the same right. Given the findings of the research into the link between women’s workplace attire and how others perceive us, I believe the one standard outfit for professional women should be a skirt suit.

        Maybe 20 years ago feminists wanted to wear pants to work to signal that they wanted to be considered on an equal footing to men. But now, continuing to dress that way is actually positioning us as inferiors, and not equals.

        I saw the media coverage of the survey when it was released a few months ago and shared it with the (largely female) sales team that I manage. The result? They asked me to introduce a skirts-only dress code for women on the team (men have always been required to wear pant suits). The result? Sales and morale are both up.

        • As a 24 year old law graduate, I too have been told that a skirt suit is ‘more professional’ and that a pant suit is a ‘no-no’ at interviews. But why? Really? Isn’t is about time that we change this perception? It’s not going to happen overnight but it damn well isn’t going to happen if we keep conforming.

          COME ON. I have a skirt suit with matching pants and I look great in both. But when I wear the pants, I think I look (and feel!) fantastic. The skirt? Sure it’s looks pretty, and it’s not like I need to hide my legs, but I think I look more confident and grown up in a pair of pants.

          I’m not a feminist by any stretch. I’m also not a lesbian. In fact, I embrace my femininity. I love wearing makeup, and dresses, and styling my hair. I love looking like a female. But I have a hard time digesting the fact that there are some ‘skirts only’ policies in some firms.

          From my understanding, a skirt implies servitude and not getting your hands dirty. It is also simply impractical for lifting heavy objects (try lifting a heavy archive box in heels and a skirt!) or climbing a ladder (yes, at times I do need to). Skirt restrict movement in a way that pants don’t. So are we supposed to get men to do these tasks for us? I also walk slower in skirts than in pants. And before you ask, I’m petite and my suits have been tailored beautifully, so it’s not a problem of the skirt being too short or too tight, or me being too fat.

          And what about our poor overweight colleagues who just look plain terrible in skirts???? I mean no offence, but let’s be candid here. I don’t imagine that’s good for their personal morale.

          I just don’t understand while we continue to perpetuate such an archaic perception of the professionalism of women depending on what they are wearing.

          • Thanks for your comment:) (and no problems about the typos, I do that all the time!)

            I agree completely regarding the skirts – they’re impractical, and the notion that we have to wear them because they are more professional is outdated. And yes, you’re spot on in saying that it is an archaic notion – however, it’s one of many points in which women are judged more on their appearance than their actual work, unfortunately.

            Just as a quick side note – being a feminist does not been that you do not enjoy wearing makeup, or dresses, or styling your hair. I do all of these things, and I’m a feminist. And also, being a feminist also does not mean that you are a lesbian.

            I’ve written a few blog posts on this here and here if you’re interested.

  3. Women should not be forced to wear skirts or trousers. While skirts are more feminine and prevent gender confusion (since some men now wear long hair with their trousers but usually avoid skirts), women with hairy or spotty legs should not be forced to expose them in skirts. We all know long skirts are impractical for our hectic lifestyles. At the same time,women with boyish figures are better off in skirts and should not be forced to wear trousers. You can always wear knickers under your skirt to prevent indecent exposure. Modesty is the key factor;both mini skirts and sagging or tight-fitting trousers are improper especially for the workplace.

  4. Attractiveness always plays a role. Rich or poor, man or woman, young or old. It’s just how we’re hardwired as animals. I agree looks shouldnt matter so long as the job gets done, but it does. Lookmat the history of politics and compare before and after the advent of mass TV. Also what people find attractive is partly hardwired but mostly social. It’s just the way it is.

  5. And why couldn’t or rather shouldn’t wear skirts professionally or otherwise? They cover what they need to and are quite comfortable.

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