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”.