The psychology of office fashion: Cultural norms at work
October 28, 2016 12:00 AM
By Courtney Linder / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Late last year, the New York City Human Rights Commission issued a report on dress code standards that differed a bit from federal laws allowing employers to set grooming standards with gender-based differences.
While federal law permits differing standards -— such as suits and ties for men and skirts or dresses for women — the New York agency said that doesn’t work in the Big Apple because it’s discriminatory and can reinforce a culture of sex stereotyping.
“New York City employers are therefore prohibited from, for example, allowing only women to wear jewelry, requiring men to have short hair, or having different standards for men and women with respect to wearing makeup,” the report said. As for slacks or skirts, an employer can require all employees to choose one of those -— but it can’t limit the choice of skirts to women.
Dress codes have always been a fraught subject, both in the political sense as the world changes and in the reality that the right clothes can help candidates get hired or promoted. In terms of fashion, the office is an incubator for norms that tends to reflect the corporate culture.
Professional attire can become a hierarchical determinant, a cue for interactions with others, according to Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
“In the workplace, we’re trying to figure out if we should be deferring to someone,” Mr. Glick said. “Does this person have more status than I have? Or should I be exerting my own importance?”
Trends in professional dress are set by those in power, whom people wish to emulate, he said.
While the number of women and people of color in high-ranking corporate positions has increased, most corporate executives still tend to be white and male. According to a 2015 CNN Money analysis, just 14.2 percent of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by women.
That doesn’t mean women who want to advance must dress like men, but it means that they must dress to please men with hiring authority, according to Mr. Glick.
That can be more complicated than it seems. Mr. Glick, who has co-authored a study on psychological evaluations of women’s appearances in the workplace, said that fashion is compulsory in women presenting themselves as favorable, or “warm.” For women, fashion is not just a choice in clothing, he said, but a way to present their personality.
However, if an employee presents herself as too attractive, too warm, she risks becoming objectified and not taken seriously for promotions, he said.
It all simmers down to a compromise between perceived warmth and perceived competence through male eyes, he said.
According to 2011 research from Stanford Graduate School of Business, modeled on 132 business school graduates over 8 years, “masculine women” who are self-monitors — or able to turn off aggressiveness assertiveness and confidence at certain times — are promoted 1.5 times more often than “feminine women,” who exhibit stereotypically “female” traits such as supportiveness, submissiveness, and interpersonal sensitivity.
While men tend to have fewer clothing options — suits, polos, button-up shirts -— that offer less room for personal expression, the expectations often allow them to operate in the workplace with a pseudo uniform.
Fashion, according to Mr. Glick, can be a “real tax on women.”
This notion of difference in workplace fashion formed the legal basis for the December 2015 New York City Human Rights Commission report on dress code standards that pulled back hard on differentiating dress codes by gender.
Jeff Trexler, associate director of the Fashion Law Institute — a New York-based nonprofit trailblazer in fashion law — noted that the commission’s report is indicative of a widespread frustration.
“There is a growing sense that imposing different rules for people's outer appearance based what's underneath their clothes might discriminate on the basis of sex,” Mr. Trexler said.
In the future, New York City’s role as a global hub may lead more employers to adopt less gendered workplace fashion requirements, said Mr. Trexler.
More run-ins on the issue seem unavoidable. An increasingly diverse workforce may also mean an increasingly diverse sense of style and even hair style among employees, fashion choices that management isn’t comfortable embracing.
Last spring a 20-year-old employee of the Zara clothing chain ended up in tears over her box braids. After her boss told Cree Ballah that the Toronto store was looking for a “clean professional look,” she had to restyle her hair multiple times, reported CBC News.
Box braids weren’t considered the right “symbol” for the company’s image, according to fashion psychology specialist Dawnn Karen, in New York.
“Box braids symbolize poverty, hip-hop culture … so it may bring sales down,” Ms. Karen said.
What is held as “favorable” is a product of geographical norms, said Ms. Karen, who is a black woman and recently took a trip to the Middle East.
“If I wore my hair in an afro, I don’t think that people would take me seriously as a fashion psychologist,” she said. “But when I went to the Middle East, I wore dreadlocks and got all the respect in the world.”
Often, she said, women of color are pushed to whitewash their appearance, relaxing and straightening their hair in a lengthy and expensive process to match a company’s image.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a dress code cannot discriminate on the basis of race. But the federal government has determined that hair is a changeable characteristic not tied to skin color.
So, minorities are disproportionately affected by dress codes that err on the side of white norms, according to Mr. Glick.
“The dominant culture sets the norms,” he said. “Anything ‘different’ seems less professional."
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