In my last corporate position before I created my own company, I was determined to make a statement with my fashion choices in a male-dominated tech company. I let my long, big hair flow freely. I wore brightly colored dresses or red-jacketed pants suits. I was clearly rebelling against "the system."
I didn't want to dress to please men. Nor did I want to wear black or blue chunky suits. So I chose to be a bit outrageous without looking sexy. Fortunately, I was acknowledged for my good work. Yet I wonder if my unconventional look played into the strength of the glass ceiling I hit.
I didn't consider the impact of my clothes on my credibility or on my ability to influence others. What's worse, I didn't consider the impact my fashion choices had on the women on the career ladder below me who longed for a role model to inspire their rise up the rungs.
Whether you like it or not, a woman is judged by her wardrobe. From Hillary Clinton's hair and pantsuits to Marissa Mayer's sweaters and boots, people equate a woman's look with her ability to lead. These days, men, too, are thinking twice about their fashion choices.
I am not asking whether this is right or wrong. I'm asking, "If this is the truth you must live with, how do you choose what to wear to work?"
This issue was recently explored in the New York Times as it applies to women in Silicon Valley. The article suggests that women in technology on the west coast are "bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion."
"Women in the tech world aren't confined to wearing a standard black suit, so they can have more fun with their day clothes," designer Stacey Bendet Eisner said in the Times article. "They also want an element of sophistication to their clothes because they want to be taken seriously."
It sounds like these women are mixing sophistication with touches of personal statement while staying away from looking sexy.
The chief executive of Samasource, Leila Janah, told the Times, "I remember briefly attempting the Adidas and jeans and sweatshirt over T-shirt look, but I realized I was trying to dress like a young tech geek, and that just wasn't me."
I surmise that today's objectives are to like your look, feel confident when you walk in a room and stand out with your choice of shoes, jewelry and traces of color.
Don't forget to include your haircut. Long or short, straight or curly can undermine your impact as well.
"Fashion talks," says Shira Tarrant and Marjorie Jolles. You aren't just working to let the men know you are confident, successful and serious about your work. The other people who are paying attention are women, including your peers, employees and mentees. Will they respect you and seek you out more or less by what you wear? Your choices of clothing could affect their futures.
Fashion sends signals, good, bad or surprising. What we wear tells the world who we are. What we choose represents how well we think about ourselves, how successful we have become and what trimmings we enjoy.
With this in mind, here are four tips to consider when choosing what to wear at work:
1. Take your cues from the environment, leaders and customers. The Times article highlighted differences in dress in Manhattan from Silicon Valley. Once I had to pack to teach classes in Los Angeles, New York, Madison and New Orleans. I brought four wardrobes with me. This fall I have to pack for Copenhagen, Mumbai, Moscow and San Juan, Costa Rica. I need to honor what is appropriate and expected locally for a woman of my credentials and success.
2. Show off your success, not your sex. I always dress one step up from what my clients wear to work, including my purse, shoes and scarf. I like wearing skirted suits and dresses, but when I'm teaching all day, pants are more comfortable. My clothes show off my body, but they don't show skin anywhere I wouldn't want people to stare. I want people to hear my words, not stare at my body or clothing.
3. Wear what fits. I am short and as I age, I've become denser. I have learned to look at how clothing fits from the back to the front, from my shoulders to my toes. If it doesn't fit anymore, it becomes someone else's treasure. When you try your clothes on, raise your arms in front of a mirror. Does that flatter you or not? Also sit in a chair to see how you look. Don't forget to look at your hair from all angles as well.
4. Clean out your closet every three years. My image consultant said that women look in their closets and say, "Look at all the money in here." How can you throw things out of value? If it no longer fits, if it has gone out of fashion, or you haven't worn it in two years, give it away. Better to have a few good looking outfits than a closet full of things you shouldn't wear any more.