The professional masquerade

Women working in corporate finance are expected to adhere to sexist and objectifying dress codes, says Amica Lane

, 24 January 2010

citygirls.gif“Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it — much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not the stolen goods.”

– Joan Riviere, ‘Womanliness As Masquerade’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Once upon a time, the articles of clothing one wore served a very practical purpose. To shield us from the cold, allow us to work or hunt with ease and likewise. Over the centuries of wearing garments; the threads began to integrate into our skin, especially for women, and became a mask; a way of extroverting our inner selves to the world through signified implications. At some point in our history, image became a fundamental essence of our identity.

The importance of image has been in play for thousands of years. In Ancient China, a woman’s bound feet signified she had wealth and status and the colour purple has implied royalty since Ancient Greece.

I started working in corporate finance straight out of university at the age of 21, and when it came to the corporate visage, I was brazenly clueless

Image has become a well-honed method to communicate messages to the observer, and to the present day, the practice remains mostly unchanged.

Social tribes use image as a way of identifying themselves. Twin sets and pearls signifies the middle-class country club mother; leather and fishnets, the rock ‘n’ roll girl; and a black skirt suit and high heels can signify the corporate professional. The objectifying notion of woman as a ‘seen’ object has not disappeared.

Women have struggled hard to make it into the work place amongst men. They have fought for education and votes, to be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. But, unfortunately, the work place can still be a hub of institutionalised sexism, which, in many cases, is carefully masqueraded as ‘professional image’.

I started working in corporate finance straight out of university at the age of 21, and when it came to the corporate visage, I was brazenly clueless. Even at school, the concept of uniform made no sense to me and I frequently violated the code on the basis that it seemed completely illogical. What difference could attire possibly make towards my education? It was trivial nonsense and I rebuked it from the get-go.

Corporate finance was never destined to be my niche.

A vivid memory of my early days involved meeting a high-powered female executive in the women’s bathroom. I knew her by reputation already; she was a maverick businesswoman with a razor-sharp intellect.

“Have you got any straighteners?” were her first panicked words to me, as she tore through the contents of her bag and emptied it onto the floor.

“Umm, no.” I replied, a bit dumbfounded. Why the hell would I be carrying straighteners around with me? This was supposed to be corporate finance, not Miss World.

“I have a HUGE meeting in five minutes, and I can’t go in looking like this!”

She grabbed a lock of curly hair in a fit of frustration and glared into the mirror as if her head was infested with snakes.

“Why?” I responded, still wondering what the hell was going on.

“Curly hair does not look professional. I look like I’ve just fallen out of bed.” She wailed, and disappeared off to Boots to amend the situation.

I had expected a lot of things walking into such a foreign hostile environment as finance, but that was definitely not one of them. Unfortunately it wasn’t going to be last.

I was told I looked like a whore and that my dress had caused complaints from male co-workers who insisted that I was ‘distracting’ them from work and they couldn’t focus with such an outfit in the office

I wondered, what did her hair have to do with her meeting? Was it neurosis? Was anybody really going to judge her on her hair? (Yes – they would have done) and the real thing that bothered me was, why is it relevant?

She has a sterling educational background, makes an obscene amount of money, and yet; when it comes down to it, her outward appearance still carries enough weight to delay the meeting in order to sort out her curls. During my tenure in finance, I saw men walk into meetings in sweaty tennis gear and a week’s worth of stubble without so much of a bat of the eyelid. I never saw a woman imitate this. And I soon found out why.

When I started, I was treated by my manager to an introductory lecture about dress code. She presumed this would be sufficient to educate me in ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ work attire.

“Look glamorous, with immaculate hair and makeup and plenty of flirty smiles! But don’t come to work dressed as if you’re going to a club. Look sexy, but not slutty. Professional.”

She may have well conducted the lecture in Finnish for all I understood. What was sexy over slutty? What did glamorous mean exactly? And what in the hell was a flirty smile?

And the big question that would proceed to get me into a lot of trouble: why did it matter?

Couldn’t I just wear normal clothes, do my job well, and go home? All these buzzwords such as glamour, immaculate and professional were completely off my radar of comprehension. I wanted to change the world and go to law school, damn it! Not strut around like a pageant contestant.

Regardless, I tried to follow protocol.

I wore a black dress the next day with flats, as I figured that was pretty unassuming. How wrong I was.

Hauled into her office, I was told I looked like a whore and that my dress had caused complaints from male co-workers who insisted that I was ‘distracting’ them from work and they couldn’t focus with such an outfit in the office.

That should have been a warning sign to economic forecasters. My dress was apparently enough to send Oxbridge-educated men into such a frenzy, the whole capitalist system was at a serious risk of tail spinning into a meat grinder. Maybe they had a point – the economic situation is probably the fault of women everywhere who dress inappropriately. But instead of telling these men to apply their imagination to earning that triple digit bonus at Christmas, I was merely expected to accommodate.

Although it is a strict requirement to dress a certain way, high-powered businesswoman would certainly face criticism if they voiced these concerns to a male colleague. ‘Well, I’m sorry I’m late for the presentation, I had to do my hair’

So the next day, I went into work wearing no makeup, trousers and a suit jacket.

Once again, I was called into my manager’s office.

“You can’t dress like this. You have no makeup on. You’re supposed to be the face of the company.”

“If the face of a multi-billion dollar hedge fund is a 21-year-old blonde from Hounslow, then the company has a bigger problem than the Lehman situation,” I replied, and was served promptly with a written warning.

“Sexy, not slutty,” became the mantra. “Sexy enough for the men to feel happy, but not too sexy as so to intimidate the other women.”

My manager was the enforcer, but ultimately she was voicing the customs of the system, which in itself was corrupt and wrong.

Custom, especially in finance, states that employees must follow certain criteria when it comes to uniform. There is a level of conformity expected in such environments, but it becomes a question of misogyny in the workforce when the imbalance occurs.

Women are expected to look a certain way; made up, groomed and well-dressed ‘sexy’ professionals, whereas men are not. Clean-shaven and a simple suit is enough to appear professional and smart.

If women were allowed more freedom in terms of appearance, they could spend more time in the boardroom and less time in the bathroom worrying about their hair.

Although it is a strict requirement to dress a certain way, high-powered businesswoman would certainly face criticism if they voiced these concerns to a male colleague.

“Well, I’m sorry I’m late for the presentation, I had to do my hair.” Not to mention look after the kids, keep the husband entertained, work an 80-hour week in a high-powered job and look like a supermodel at all times.

It’s no secret that women still suffer from terrible inequality in the workplace, from the wage gap to being passed over for promotions in favour of male colleagues. And I doubt it’s even bare-boned misogyny at fault.

With the intense pressure on the professional woman, it’s no wonder that savvy businessmen will give the promotion and the salary to the more committed and concentrated employee, which is likelier to be the man who merely has to have a shower, get dressed and turn up. In order for women to have the same career opportunities as men, equality has to be enforced.

Mixed messages should be eliminated and the definition of ‘professional’ needs to be readdressed. Words like ‘glamour’ and ‘sexy’ have no place within office lexicon unless equally applied to all workers. If a company values glamorous and sexy employees as part of it’s ethos; then men need to be penalised under the same standards as women.

A perfect example of sexism in workplace image can be found in this recent Marie Clare article, ‘How does your makeup affect your career’, where employment experts analyse different “makeup looks”.

Wearing minimal makeup elicited the following comment a professional image consultant:

“Oh dear, you still look like rather a reserved person when perhaps that isn’t the case. Looking so plain means you will need to work harder to convince the interviewer of your true capabilities.”

Whereas wearing too much makeup elicited this response from recruitment consultant Julia Ross:

“You’re ready for a night out, not an office environment! This look may not suit a wide variety of employers, and may distract due to the inappropriate hairstyle.”

The happy medium, according to these career experts, is the ‘sexy not slutty’ approach which was approved with:

“I really like this look – the makeup under the eyes is perhaps too heavy, but I immediately get the sense you are capable, assertive and confidant. I feel you would pay attention to detail. Looking so polished suggests you can get the job done.”

The only clear message deducted from these misogynistic soundbites, is that when it comes to your career, image can play as important a part as your CV.

In conclusion, the misogynistic attitude towards female image in the workplace is a serious obstacle in the fight to ascertain gender equality. Whilst the archaic practice of making a triviality (such as makeup and wardrobe) a serious job requirement, larger issues such as the wage gap and promotions will continue to suffer as a result. Women are just as capable as achieving success as men, but whilst the shackles of institutionalised objectification remain so firmly embroiled within companies, this will never happen.

By standing together and calling out such blatant overtones of sexism, we have the power to change this. But in our unified silence and accommodation, we continue to suffer professionally. The office is not a fashion show, a magazine layout or a swimsuit calendar. The office is a place to use the brain, not the eye shadow.

I sincerely hope that one day, CEOs and executives will come to understand that when it comes down to it, it’s what’s on the inside that truly counts.

Image copyright Ari Versluis & Ellie Uyttenbroek, used with kind permission, from Exactitudes.com, a 14-year project to systematically document dress codes of various social groups

Amica Lane has declared herself a nemesis of the system and renounced corporate delinquency to become a playwright in London which has transpired to be a far more successful venture. She likes John Malkovich, ugly dogs and tea

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