Does my brain look small in this?

// 4 November 2008

brain in a jarVia The Daily Telegraph (also UPI), I learn that some 400 women employed by the accountancy firm Ernst & Young have attended a course “to learn how to dress appropriately for the office”.

Fleur Bothwick, head of diversity at the firm, said that while men could simply opt for a uniform of dark suit and tie, officewear was more fraught for women.

“You don’t want to be remembered as the woman with red lips, or leave people wondering, ‘How does she walk on those heels?’,” she told the magazine Personnel Today.

The voluntary sessions also advised women to “think of your colour palette – wear colours that bring out the best in your skin tone and hair colour” because, apparently, 70 per cent of first impressions are based on dress and presentation.

But possibly the scariest part of this article – if I have to choose just one – is this quote from Anne Freden, chair of the company’s women’s network

“The firm doesn’t view this as something that is nice to have, but as an integral part of the business strategy,” she said.

Because as everyone knows, the needs of business must take priority over absolutely everything else and appearance wins over ability every time.

So if anyone asks you why feminism is still necessary in the 21st century, here, at least, is one good reason: because women still suffer discrimination on the basis of our appearance and the clothes we wear. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to teeter off in my 4″ stilettos to top up the preservative in the jar where I leave my brain on my way to my desk in the morning.

Comments From You

Leigh // Posted 4 November 2008 at 12:42 pm

can someone please sue the company for sexual discrimination for sending them on a sexist training course? Please?

Gingerpig // Posted 4 November 2008 at 12:57 pm

I think the problem is that men are once again left out, left to fend for themselves in how to chose something suitable for the office. Why has no one ever cared what colours go with my skin tone in the office?

Everyone needs access to good quality advice, male and female, as careers are an important part of many people’s lives. Man = suit is a terrible way to exist, the very wearing of one eventually erodes many men’s ability to make sensible fashion choices when away from work. How many 40+ men have you seen on the beach wearing a short-sleeved shirt, it can be very sad.

Sarah // Posted 4 November 2008 at 1:26 pm

I did an internship at an investment bank a few years ago, there were various courses and presentations scheduled for us, most of which everyone was expected to attend. However there was one by an ‘image consultant’ on dress and presentation – just for the women interns. She lectured us about clothes and hairstyles and makeup and posture, and the vital importance of having perfectly plucked eyebrows and removing all trace of any other facial hair. Because, apparently, people might be ‘distracted’ by it. Or indeed by any other imperfections in our appearance.

Looking back, I wish I’d refused to go and pointed out the problems with the whole premise, however I was anxious to please at the time, so just went along with it. It was a rather bizarre and interesting experience though, like we were back in the ’50s for an hour or so.

Lynsey // Posted 4 November 2008 at 1:30 pm

What’s wrong with red lips?!

Soirore // Posted 4 November 2008 at 2:45 pm

And the comment about red lips was made by the firm’s *diversity officer*.

Appearance does account for how your business is perceived by customers but this is generally limited to neatness and professionalism. I really doubt that clients will notice if a particular colour flatters someone’s skintone.

Also, bear in mind that this is an accountancy firm; dress code is strictly set anyway.

House of Colour have done presentations elsewhere and the sessions have been for men and women so it is E&Y that have made them a women’s event. A real session on dressing professionally would be useful to both sexes but if you’re referring to colour palates it’s all personal. I was told at an assertiveness seminar not to wear purple because it is immature and submissive whereas I’d always associated it with regality.

Nina // Posted 4 November 2008 at 3:10 pm

Sorry, am I wrong in thinking that “voluntary sessions” means that 400 women chose to go on the course because they wanted to? In that case isn’t it more power to them for wanting to think about how they effect their environment when they dress?

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 4 November 2008 at 3:27 pm

‘Voluntary sessions’ how can they be voluntary when a woman’s job depends on her adhering to rigid male-centered definitions. Sexism at work again – because women are once again just men’s sexualised objects.

There should be only one governing principle and that is a smart and neat appearance. So, how would this work out – well obviously no jeans or trainers for both men and women. It does not mean women having to wear only certain colours because such colours will ‘naturally reflect their femininity and eye candiness to men.’

Are men at E & y routinely asked to ‘voluntarily’ attend a training session in order they can learn how not to wear inappropriate ties or wrong style suits.

One remaining important factor – is the fact many women do not earn the same salary as men and therefore having to use a large proportion of their salary in order to ‘adhere to male-centered views concerning female dress’ is discriminatory.

But hey we are all equal now are we not?

Soirore // Posted 4 November 2008 at 3:59 pm

Yes but Nina voluntary training or seminars in the workplace doesn’t always mean voluntary.

Plus the sessions were set up for women and not men. The problem is how the employer is judging its employees; women need help not to look slutty and men are absolutely fine and must be confident in how they look. Both of these assumptions need to be challenged.

Puddingcat // Posted 4 November 2008 at 4:02 pm

I used to work for EY and can confirm that appearance was seen as enormously important, although not in the way you mention. My department was largely office-based and therefore “business casual” – meaning no sportswear, bare midriffs or strapless tops, denim jeans, baggy T shirts, etc.

It was noticeable in my 5 years there that the people who were promoted were those of size 10 or less, who could run for the bus in 4″ heels and who lived in Karen Millen. The three of us who left within 2 months all did so because we were tired of being passed over for promotion in favour of less experienced, more glamorous women; we were all averagely sized and didn’t follow fashion slavishly.

Meanwhile, men were apparently promoted based on their ability to drink 10 pints and turn up for work in the morning. I’m not sure which is worse.

NorthernJess // Posted 4 November 2008 at 4:02 pm

Nah, Nina, it was because you got a free goody bag…

Seriously, if investment banks are spending company money inviting these ‘image consultants’ (we’re not going to tell you how to spend your money, just heavily imply it…) rather than on training staff in what their job actually is then no wonder the financial crisis is as bad as the newspapers say it is!

Ellie // Posted 4 November 2008 at 4:59 pm

So, not meaning to be an arse, but if the women at this firm were bothered by being pressured to go on a course like this couldn’t they have got their union involved? Is there not some law against sexual discrimination in the workplace? Even if they would have a weak case for the women’s side of things surely the discrimination against men not being offered this course is illegeal in some way?

Any employment lawyers out there?

Anne Onne // Posted 4 November 2008 at 6:14 pm

And then we get women being shamed and criticised for wanting to look younger/dress fashionably/wear makeup!

I think Palin’s crew spent a LOT of money on her outfits, but judging the flack women in the public eye get for what they wear and how they look, I can’t say that it’s not understandable. She should probably have spent less money on it (but I guess I think fashion overrated) but image is something people hold over women in a way they never do over men. We just don’t hear about what suit designers men should go to, or what design, type of fabric etc. Men can get away with cheaper clothes, and less items than women. That’s not even starting to list the amount of money we women are expected to spend on toiletries and make-up and shoes and handbags and jewellery and other accessories to ‘keep up’ and ‘look presentable’.

I do believe being presentable is adviseable, but that should be simply very basic hygeine, clean clothes if the job is not likely to soil them, and that’s really it. Different jobs have different expectations and requirements, and I can understand employees at a wealthy company who will interact with clients would be expected to present a good image, but it’s unfair to expect people to splash out on ridiculously expensive clothes. If you must have them dress like models, female employees deserve to be given an allowance specifically to pay for the clothes you insist they wear, rather earning less than their male colleagues but being expected to shell out much more on clothes for work.

Though I’d rather there wasn’t this double standard at all!

There are plenty of jobs for which function is most important over how an outfit looks, and in the end function should be more important.

Puddingcat // Posted 4 November 2008 at 6:45 pm

@Ellie, 4.59pm: I didn’t know anyone at EY who was a member of a union; a fact that came out whern the final salary pension scheme was closed down…

Regarding employment lawyers, EY employ some very good ones. Finding an independent one, and affording the fees compared with the amount the partners could afford to spend on defending their policies (and note that the “voluntary” nature of the course would make it very difficult to complain about) would be trickier than most people are willing to deal with.

EY and the other big accountancy firms have a very high staff turnover (around 20% pa, iirc) . They recruit graduates, train them up to be qualified accountants (etc) and then the newly qualified people leave to fnd a job elsewhere. When “I’ll leave if [x] isn’t changed” is met with a shrug, it’s hard to make a difference.

Amity // Posted 4 November 2008 at 6:54 pm

Advice on dressing professionally and neatly? Yes. Makeup tips to complement your skin tone and how to make yourself more attractive at work (e.g. to the clients and those who make the decisions — men)? Not on.

james // Posted 4 November 2008 at 7:09 pm

The article makes it seem like they’re trying to get them to dress more soberly, and not in a stereotypically vampish manner. My work (which I won’t name) has similar problems. Some new joiners don’t have much experience of work, and seem to have got their idea of appropriate work dress from some of the more exotic American soap operas.

It is harder for women than men – all I need to worry about is shoes, suit, shirt and tie. I don’t think giving gentle hints is that bad. And trying to talk them away from cleavage, 5′ heels, loads of make-up and perfume, and a bad suitable for clubbing, isn’t really a attack on feminism. It’s a bit like guy wearing a black shirt, or brown shoes with a navy suit, or a comedy tie. There are some things that just aren’t done.

Tei Tetua // Posted 4 November 2008 at 8:20 pm

There’s so much that can be said about gender and clothing, in almost any context. Are women being discriminated against if they’re being told what to wear, versus men whose lack of freedom is simply assumed from the beginning by everyone? When women have freedom that men don’t have, the “problem” is that women have the freedom to look unprofessional, in the view of very conservative bosses. That’s conservative in the sense of expecting everyone to be conformists in their personal appearance, and perhaps also in expecting conventional gender roles.

Of course we object to the “conventional gender roles”, but do we cling to them in the sense that we want men to remain in their plain uniforms while women can display some originality?

As that head-of-diversity person (that sounds like a title out of “1984”) said, “while men could simply opt for a uniform of dark suit and tie, officewear was more fraught for women”. Men don’t get to “opt” for anything, it’s defined for them! And the difficulty is what, if anything, is defined for women, as in “What’s wrong with red lips?” Well, a lot would be wrong with them, for a man. This whole thing is awkward from every angle.

Anne Onne // Posted 4 November 2008 at 9:27 pm

Tei Tua: That is also an interesting angle to look at it from. I remember my dad was relieved the day the dress code policy was relaxed so that men didn’t have to wear ties, because he found the damn things really really uncomfortable.

Men not having much choice (certainly not as much as women) in what they wear is an issue, especially for the men who realise the boundaries this places on their lives. But men don’t seem to be agitating for changes to this, partly because I suspect the machismo pressure of society makes it difficult for men to stand up for the right to wear heels or a skirt.

However, the reason we focus more on women is that on the whole, the appearance expected of women is more time consuming, more expensive, and expected to say a lot more about women’s sexuality or self-worth than men’s clothes are thought to say about them. It’s also got a probably greater impact on their health (imagine how many women sprain their ankles on heels, feel discomfort because of tights, and what the hell is in makeup?) and on their sense of self-esteem. Women are judged on how much skin they show, how fitted their clothes are, and how much makeup they wear in a way that men just aren’t.

Of course, feminists recognise that the patriarchy hurts men, too, and that the limitations on men’s clothes is not good for men. But in the end, society isn’t run by feminists or women, for the most part, it’s run by men. If men want more freedom to wear different clothes or makeup, they have to play a vital role in fighting for that right. And that right is not mutually exclusive with the right women should have to not wear make-up/high heels/expensive clothes or deal with the sexy vs frumpy choice.

Which isn’t to say men have it well, but they are still relatively better off than women in many ways.

Qubit // Posted 5 November 2008 at 1:04 am

The question I guess is the course telling women to dress smart, not wear too obvious make up and try to look natural and professional.

Or is it telling women they have to wear makeup because if they don’t have perfect skin it will be distracting. That they have to dress to flatter their figure and look attractive etc.

You don’t need a course to tell you to dress smart but natural, a dress code would suffice. This implies far more comprehensive advice which could be seen as limiting.

Rhona // Posted 5 November 2008 at 11:56 am

This actually reminds me of a ‘women in business’ networking event I went to during the summer.

There was me, thinking it was going to be a gathering of professional businesswomen, brought together in a supportive environment to facilitate business growth and what did it entail? An hour’s lecture from a rep from that ridiculous ‘Colour Me Beautiful’ franchise.

I was so shocked I’m afraid to say that I didn’t actually walk out (I spent most of the time with my jaw agape half-listening to somebody wittering on about draping scarves to ‘effectively’ hide a saggy neck – wtf, I’m 29!), but I did write a VERY strongly worded letter to the government-funded body who organised such a farce.

Quite frankly, I am a PERSON in business – the ‘woman’ part is a happy accident! This sort of nonsense is a creeping hangover of the ‘secretary mentality’* that unfortunately still exists in the UK’s corporate culture and until it either dies or is forcibly killed off, women are never going to be fully appreciated for their abilities.

*The ‘secretary mentality’ in action: for anybody who has ever worked in an open-environment office – do you recognise the situation when a courier or visitor always asks a female member of staff to sign for a package or enquire after somebody’s whereabouts, even when the majority of the other staff members in the vicinity are male? Ever noticed how often the responsibility of taking minutes at a meeting falls to a female attendee, even though there may be several more junior male employees there?

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