I popped into a T.J. Maxx store today, hoping to score a fashion bargain or two. Shoppers like me who don’t like to reveal a lot of skin to the public have our work cut out for us: Finding attractive and stylish clothing that doesn’t also compromise our dignity is like panning for gold—in the Sahara Desert. When I saw this itty-bitty piece of fabric masquerading as a “skirt,” I just stared at it. I have Band-Aids at home bigger than this “garment.”
True, short skirts and barely-there women’s apparel are nothing new. Women have been baring their décolletage for centuries, and women’s legs became part of the public landscape decades ago. Ironically, during the past fifty years, as gender equality became highly valued in society, women’s fashions have often worked against women being taken seriously.
Last month, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg was much in the news for her new book, Lean In, in which she encourages women to focus more on their careers than on family life. She also blames men for not doing more to promote women to higher positions in the workplace. It was fascinating to watch her tell a CNN interviewer that often, the more powerful a woman becomes at work, the less she seems to be liked or admired—a stark distinction from men, whose likability index usually rises along with his title.
Sandberg assumes that sexism is so ingrained in the workplace that women in authority become targets of resentment. But what if something else is going on? If we are allowed to observe that males sometimes demonstrate stereotypical behavior that needs correcting, such as a tendency to lewdness or over-aggressiveness, true equality demands that we should also be allowed to observe that females also sometimes display stereotypical behavior that needs correcting, such as cattiness and hyper-competitiveness for male attention. Is it possible that this sort of insecure, “mean girl” behavior might account for some women becoming less likable as they rise in authority?
A March 6, 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee” by Peggy Drexler also noted the phenomenon of women in management positions who not only fail to mentor younger women, but sometimes actively undermine the efforts of those younger women to move up in the organization. But is this also the fault of men, as Drexler concluded, or are some women simply possessive of their turf? Everything that may go wrong for women cannot always be the man’s fault.
What does any of this have to do with short skirts? I have been struck by how often women who are either public representatives of professional organizations, office managers, or hold other positions of mid-level responsibility or higher dress very provocatively. Tight-fitting jackets and short skirts, blouses unbuttoned low enough to reveal a great deal of personal real estate, and sexy, spiky high heels are common in the professional world. While micro-mini skirts are not yet considered appropriate office attire, how long will it be until the standards lower even more? Women who dress to arouse make it less likely that they will be respected for their managerial astuteness. Women who dress in a competitively sexy way in the office will find it’s more difficult to gain the respect of colleagues and foster the kind of collective team spirit so fundamental to a healthy work environment. Perhaps, at least sometimes, a career achievement gap may have something to do with a fabric gap.
Women have more choices and freedom than ever before in their educational and career opportunities. They no longer need to marry for economic self-sufficiency. They are unwilling to be held back by their gender in the workplace. But if their office wardrobe is meant to distract rather than just attract, women may only have themselves to blame if they find their respect at the office begins to wither.
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