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Sharon Meers

Sharon Meers

Sharon Meers is co-author of Getting to 50/50: How working couples can have it all by sharing it all. A former managing director at Goldman Sachs, she now works in Silicon Valley.

Must women leaders dress like 'vanilla' to succeed?

"Vanilla. Wear nothing that makes anyone think twice." That was the advice a successful man gave me as I started my career.

I bristled at this idea but grudgingly tried to apply it. Like many young women, I was happy to be free of male fashion constraints (white shirt, dark suit) and man-on-man abuse for non-conformity ("Lavender-striped tie? Where'd you get that, your mother?").

But sartorial liberty has its risks. How polished should a woman look to convey competence? The standards vary widely. In the military, male commanders sport form-fitting outfits but female generals seem to tailor their uniforms only in the movies. What about open-toed shoes? Ruffles? Bold jewelry? Necklines? The choices - and perils - are boundless.

As a debt-ridden college grad, I gladly accepted hand-me-downs as I began my first Wall Street job. My favorite was an Albert Nippon hot-pink suit with a skirt so frumpy I hemmed it above the knee. The first time I wore it on the trading floor, I got a call from my boss who was on the road: "Nancy says you're wearing a wild outfit." I'd been turned in by the senior woman in the office. This just weeks after another woman, in HR, complained about my wearing trousers. A few years later, a communications coach suggested I cut off my hair because I looked too young. And then I was told to adopt the air of a banker with pin stripes and a bowler hat - which I found more difficult than any financial spreadsheet I had to build.

Given my personal experience with appearance angst, I tried to be gentle when it was my turn to be the enforcer. My firm initiated "casual Friday" just as, unfortunately, low-rider pants with short-cropped shirts came into vogue. "You see belly button every time they raise their hands," a female VP complained about the junior women on our team. So we invited all the women out to drinks, hoping to have a friendly chat about how to balance self-expression with office clothing norms. My young female employees looked at me with the same exasperation I felt at their age: "Who are you to tell me what to wear?"

So is it just senior women who are making things hard? Are we too paranoid that female progress in the workplace might be reversed by one frivolous dress?

Actually, both sexes have plenty to say about how a woman presents herself at work. I once stopped wearing make-up as a way to save time but got reactions I didn't expect. "You look look much better with eyeliner," a male colleague (and West Point alum) said in a tone that sounded like "Sargent, polish your boots." A few years ago, a male economist introduced a talented young colleague like this: "She dresses well, but she's actually smart."

Can't we skip the gymnastics, wear what we want and succeed on our merits? Of course we can, but the odds are better if our results speak louder than our clothing choices. And if we master the art of familiarity. Organizational behavior experts say that both sexes hold women to standards that interfere with career progress, requiring women be "nicer" and less openly ambitious. But studies suggest women can end-run social norms by simply being more "familiar": understanding the power of putting others at ease. When people you work with feel they "know you" - that you laugh at jokes, watch the same shows - they are more likely to give you latitude to be yourself.

I recall only one woman who mixed unconventional dressing with long-term career success: Ann, a tough-talking lawyer with skill and judgment worth millions, who matched stiletto heels (and occasional fishnet stockings) with a huge smile and the warmth of your favorite aunt.

A recent piece in Slate reviewed the case of Debrahlee Lorenzana, a Citibank employee who was warned that her clothes distracted co-workers - and then fired. Seeing the pictures, I get the point. But the standards can be arbitrary. A female manager just told me how her male colleagues asked her to intervene with a young woman -- the guys felt her leather skirt was inappropriate. "It was long and loose," the woman manager said, "I told the guys that leather's just a clothing material -- like cotton or wool. That they should get over it."

While honest people disagree, our book research told us that it's better for women if sex-appeal gets focused outside the office. But, yes, I know that's another topic. So, in the meantime, women make life easier for themselves by keeping the work look more Jackie O. and less J. Lo.

As for me, I've learned to love vanilla - with a few sprinkles like big earrings and well-tailor shirts. And I do keep hoping that purple will someday be the new navy.

WATCH: Fashion blogger and jewelry designer Wendy Brandes on Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and how fashion 'tortures' women leaders.

By Sharon Meers

 |  July 2, 2010; 11:31 AM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Brains and confidence are great accessories. Being positive, smiling & dressing with a sense of joy, creativity and style is a just another way of showing the world some love :) I don't see any business or career advantage in being vanilla, unless that is just what makes you feel like you (I hope not, though). There's also a bit of power in appearing slightly sexy; I say work it and have fun. As long as you show you've made an effort, do your job well, and are confident, considerate, and respectful, and are true to yourself, then I think you should dress how you like. I thought Debrahlee was gorgeous. I love the exuberance and variety of how some women dress. I mean, life is short. Have fun with it, don't stop being a woman just because you work in an office.

Posted by: MaryFletcherJones | July 3, 2010 9:58 PM
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On Debralee Lorenzana. If I walked into a bank or similar place of business and got Debralee Lorenzana (a gorgeous woman) as my facilitator, dressed as she was in some of the 26 photos posted, I'd feel uncomfortable. Knowing full well that she might have graduated at the top of her class, I'd still wonder if she were capable of taking my concerns seriously. Because vanilla is classic, traditional, and has its place. It puts me first and is a foil for MY whatever clothing. That doesn't mean a woman can't look beautiful at work, or that she can't spice it up a bit. But skin tight clothing that showcases one's figure, transparent clothing, cleavage, butt, and thighs in the workplace (unless it's a brothel or some such place) is not spicing it up, that's letting it all hang out and it does not inspire confidence.

Posted by: Kelly14 | July 3, 2010 12:38 PM
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Also, if a female dresses provocatively as in short skirts, see through blouses or whatever, then she should expect to be treated as someone on the prowl since she clearly wants attention for her appearance over all other aspects of her life. In this, the times have not changed and there is no sexism to this, just common sense stuff that your mother would tell you.

Posted by: jharlin00 | July 2, 2010 11:50 PM
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These women have way too high opinions of themselves and what others think of them. Really. Men appreciate nice looking women but these same men do not have a problem with attractive women running the show if the women are competent. Nine out of ten times, these women who complain that their good looks impede their success are more likely to have huge egos and obnoxious personalities, two traits that guarantee failure up the ladder.

Posted by: jharlin00 | July 2, 2010 11:46 PM
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I think the lines for acceptable outfits for women in the work place have been so blurred, you can walk down the street and not be able to tell the difference between women who are going to work and women who took the day off or are even unemployed.

I see so many of my coworkers show up for work looking like they are going out on a date or forgot they were heading to work that day. They don't look bad, in fact they look really nice. They just don't look appropriate for work. Colorful sleeveless tops and tight pants are not appropriate attire along with most of outfits I see. Again, it doesn't bother me but if you want to be taken seriously at work, look like you are coming to the office because you have a job to do.

Posted by: lottaaction | July 2, 2010 11:35 PM
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I suggest trying to get into a manufacturing organization. Typically the dress code is VERY casual for just about everyone, including the senior managers. Typical is a polo shirt and jeans for people like engineers, supervisors, and managers, for both men and women. It gets rid of the silly nonsense of having to purchase multiple wardrobes, dividing between "work clothes" and other. That way you are able to keep more money for yourself and not enrich some fashion baron.

I think it is sad though when I see people fall into the trap of throwing away their money with expensive clothing that in no way, shape, or form improves their performance. It just enriches some clothing company.

My suggestion is to get into an industry where wearing relaxed clothing (meaning, jeans and a polo shirt) is the norm. To me, spending the money to be a fashionista is a complete waste.

Posted by: A1965bigdog | July 2, 2010 11:03 PM
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God, quit your whining. In a place where the men dress to conform, dress to conform. If you dress to be an individual, be sure that the individual you are dressing to be is the individual you want people to think you are. Here's a hint, cleavage, bare midriffs, and above-the-knees skirts are not casual attire in the workplace unless your workplace is a bar.

BTW, the unusual tie is a BS analogy. If you want a male analogue to wearing a blouse with your cans hanging out, it's wearing a shirt unbuttoned to your chest or wearing flamenco hot pants.

Posted by: tauman | July 2, 2010 11:02 PM
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I am getting so sick and tired of reading these woe-is-me type articles. Give it a rest for once. Yeah, its hard being beautiful and successful...we get it. Now go cry me a river before the backlash to this type of sentiment puts you back fifty years. Women have come a very long way and have no more excuses. Stop trying to manufacture drama and put your nose to the grindstone. Work hard and you will do just fine.

Posted by: hughesbob19 | July 2, 2010 10:43 PM
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No matter how you twitch or turn it women are a squire in a round hole. I have seen too many women who were the boss of a bunch of guys just being made fun of behind their backs (she is realllllly beautiful, she has no idea what a guy is all about, she has the hots for soandso, etc.). I never hear any one say: she knows her business, she knows what to do, she is very effective, etc. Never. We really should look at realities here. Women and men should only get together in a bar or the bedroom. That's what smiling god had in mind.

Posted by: ridagana | July 2, 2010 10:33 PM
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Women at work should dress for work, not for dating. "Show the wares", as Francesca Scottoline puts it, on a date, or at the beach, not in the office or warehouse. Dress modestly for work. It's a mistake to think men supervisors like exposed cleavage, during work hours or at mealtimes.

Posted by: jv26 | July 2, 2010 10:14 PM
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Jealous older women take down flashy young women in the workplace. I've seen it a milion times.

Posted by: LouisTheRogue | July 2, 2010 10:02 PM
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If it weren't for the fact that most of the jobs have already gone overseas, I would recommend getting a professional job in manufacturing. If you are an engineer you can typically were jeans and a polo shirt, be very comfortable, and be considered to be dressed professionally, both male and female, and not be concerned with the nonsense of purchasing "work clothes" in order to enrich some fashion baron. You dress comfortably, and you go and do your job. What a concept!!!

Posted by: A1965bigdog | July 2, 2010 7:51 PM
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I work in an industry where professional dress is extremely important. I still find it disappointing that we no longer question these rules and customs as if they are gospel just because it's the way it's always been done. Ideally, what you're wearing shouldn't matter one way or another. It's unfortunate that it does. The fact that "that's the way it is" should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that it's NOT THE WAY IT SHOULD BE.

Posted by: ksanders32 | July 2, 2010 7:12 PM
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Men don't wear blouses that are cut down the center to show cleavage. Women do. Men don't wear skirts that are short or are slit up the sides to show leg. Women do. Men don't generally wear things to work to try and look "sexy." Women do. Women need to learn how to be professional without trying to exploit their sexuality to get ahead. Men have done it for centuries.

Posted by: gce1356 | July 2, 2010 6:47 PM
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My wife is beautiful and stacked. I now have a daughter and I wouldn't want for my 'princess' to grow up and be placed into the 'sexy' box instead of the 'talented' box.

So, I, as her father will sit down with my daughter throughout her life and help her to understand that what she chooses to wear has to be based on the audience in attendance and not on how she's feeling on that particular day. If that means going to work with 3 outfits in her car (gym, work, and after-work) so be it.

Her mother did it. She can too.

Posted by: ProfessorWrightBSU | July 2, 2010 5:02 PM
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A man and his Son were taking their donkey to the local market. On the way, they passed a countryman who said, "You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?"

The old Man, hearing this, quietly told his Son get on the donkey, and walked along merrily by his side.

Presently they came to a group of old men in earnest debate.

"There!" said one of them, "it proves what I was saying. What respect is shown to old age in these days? Do you see that idle young rogue riding, while his old father has to walk? Get down, you scapegrace! and let the old Man rest his weary limbs."

Upon this the Father made his Son dismount, and got up himself.

But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

The good-natured Man immediately took up his Son to ride behind him.

By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: "Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey, making him carry both you and your son? Why, you two fellows are better able to carry the poor beast than he you!"

"Anything to please you," said the old Man.

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders.

They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge. By this time, the Donkey had gotten his feet loose from the bindings, and not liking all the noise, kicked himself loose from the pole, and tumbled into the river below.

When this happened, the old Man turned around and made his way home with his Son — convinced that, by trying to please everybody, he had succeeded in pleasing nobody, and had lost his donkey as well.


Moral of The Man, His Son, and Their Donkey: If you try to please everyone, you will please no one, not even yourself.

People will constantly give you advice on what "they" think you should do. The problem is... everyone has a different opinion about what should be done!

If you try to follow everybody's advice regarding the same problem, you will never win.

Many statements will be in direct conflict with one another. Choose the route that you think is best and stick with it. It's okay to listen to the advice of others, but don't switch tactics just because they say you should. Do what feels right for yourself.

Posted by: shadowmagician | July 2, 2010 4:40 PM
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I don't know what Generals Ms Meers is dealing with. When in a dress uniform (either Service Dress or Formal Dress), general officers (and even one considerably junior to generals) of either sex will get them tailored. Do such uniforms compliment the average female figure the same way they do men? No. But they're tailored. The most commonly used uniforms (usually camoflage of some style) are intentionally left untailored. They're work uniforms after all, intended to be used like the clothing your mechanic wears. When was the last time you saw Larry at the local Jiffy Lube tailor his work clothes?

Posted by: huguenotklj | July 2, 2010 3:50 PM
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Men that wear flashy suits or non-traditional colors are frowned upon so why should it be any different for women?

It seems to me that (some) women want all the privileges with none of the restrictions. If you want to dress sexy stay at home.

Posted by: A-Contrario | July 2, 2010 3:44 PM
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99% of men conceal their physiques in work dress, even on casual Fridays. This is true even in "macho" industries, such as construction. I worked at a construction company where one VP who had been a wrestler at Annapolis (USNA) wore fitted shirts even Monday-Thursday. He looked like the oldest bouncer on Front Street, and it did not help his professional standing with anyone.
The problem appears to be that female "work" clothes are VERY different from female "date" clothes, and BOTH are expensive! If I go on a "date" (with my wife) my pants, socks, shoes, and underwear are the same as I wear to work most of the time. No so for the lady. Different: hair style, make-up, undergarments, outer garments, shoes, (no) stockings. I agree, it's not fair.

Posted by: sampjack | July 2, 2010 3:43 PM
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Men have been doing it for a long, long time--dressing to avoid trouble in the workplace. Because our uniform goes back so far--about a hundred years, it's accepted as standard, both by the men who wear it and by everyone else. One comment mentions tank tops, another a lavender striped tie, as examples of things a man just doesn't wear. A man wouldn't have to go that far to attract comment or disfavor. What we all, male and female, have to contend with is the fact that the workplace if for work, and the wrong clothing can detract from that. Simple.

Posted by: rhayhoe | July 2, 2010 3:29 PM
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My job doesn't pay well enough for me to have to wear a suit to work, but I don't get the complaints from women who do earn salaries that allow them to pay for suits and dry-cleaning. I'd love to be able to wear a uniform of nicely tailored pinstriped suits if I could afford it. It's one thing if you're not paid well enough, as a junior staffer or administrator, but have to dress nicely to "decorate" an upscale office. But if you're a well-paid professional then you can stand to dress like one. After all, the men in these professions aren't showing up in Hawaiian shirts or college sweats either. Of all the complaints women have in the workplace, this is one I have trouble identifying with.

Posted by: csdiego | July 2, 2010 3:25 PM
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I worked in an office that had several really spectacular looking ladies of face and figure, and they dressed down, I guess you would say, both for comfort and to be "appropriate". However there was a fair amount of evening entertainment that was connected to the job and these ladies also had dates and/or went to dinner with their co workers. This is in New York City and the ladies liked to look their best for any of these events..They would come to the office with the "little black dress" and their stellettos in a garment bag and slip into them at the end of the day.. Problem solved. This was an industry where most of the office staff were men so this means of dress kept folks at "arms length"...

Posted by: james_m_reilly1 | July 2, 2010 3:12 PM
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There are far too many zingers that I could throw in here its rediculous. I mean, when its this easy it sucks the fun out of it. With that said, as a professional in Washington I expect my coworkers to be sufficiently competent that they would dismiss an article like this because they are already well aware of how they should dress and carry themselves. For the remedial professionals, well... I guess this is your lucky day. Read up!

Posted by: Romeral58 | July 2, 2010 2:49 PM
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For the record: I'd be thankful to have a boss that looks like Debrahlee Lorenzana.

Posted by: tuzoner | July 2, 2010 2:43 PM
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While there remain unfair gender issues in society, expecting all workers to dress reasonably is not one of them. I don't see many men wearing tank tops to their accounting jobs.

Posted by: 1965Fan | July 2, 2010 2:35 PM
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