The hard truth about appearance

The hard truth about appearance

However you dress, your colleagues, clients and customers will judge you.

How do you look? How do you feel about how you look? Have you dressed for success in the workplace? Or for comfort? Are you dressing in a feminine or masculine way?

In my last book, The Glass Wall: Success Strategies for Women at Work – and Businesses that Mean Business, Lightspeed GMI asked the workforce of the UK, US and Russia some questions about how they showed up at work. On a scale of one to 10, how feminine or masculine is your style at work? Of course, everyone has both feminine and masculine attributes. The study found that women placed themselves across the spectrum; although the majority showed up as feminine in style, about a third said they were more masculine. Most men put themselves on the masculine side of the spectrum, with just one in 10 saying their style was feminine.

When we discussed this in our Glass Wall talks, we often found that across advertising, marketing and media sales the split for women is more 50/50, while for men it was nearly always the same as our survey. 

Digging more deeply into the meaning of this, we found that part of the reason is "cross-dressing". A hundred years ago, the women who found their way into the workforce were not allowed to wear trousers. In one talk, we met a woman who remembered the first time women were allowed to wear trousers in the navy back in the 1970s. Now, it’s common and unexceptional.

But not so for men to do the reverse. I know only one man who routinely wears a dress to a business meeting. 

What does this mean? Why is the thought of men wearing dresses still apparently so radical in 2019? Is it just because there’s less availability in the shops, as one recent talk attendee suggested?

I think this issue is one of the "glass walls" of the workplace: a point of real difference between the genders that is little understood and yet has massive implications.

When a woman wears a pink dress, she might do so because it’s a sunny day and it's a smart outfit. When she wears a pink dress, she signals more femininity (whatever that means) to her colleagues who are men, even if she does not intend to do so – simply because they cannot show up in a pink dress, even if they’d like to, in most offices without eliciting a very strong reaction. Yet, the next day, the woman might wear a black trouser suit and not feel remotely different. But the signals she gives are not the same.

Now, it is worth recognising that not everyone is able to dress as themselves all the time – because senior management might find fault – and that the term "smartness" is subject to the same prejudices within the workplace, determined by whoever is in power.

However you dress, however you show up, one thing is certain: your appearance says more than you might think about how your colleagues, clients and customers will judge you.

If you are in any doubt about this, try the picture of a dog in Harvard Business Review’s innovation issue earlier this year (pictured, top). Photographer Grace Chon has taken a series of shots of dogs before and after their Japanese-style grooming. Irrespective of the advice in the story, which is that you need to allow some uncertainty and confusion to create a true culture of innovation, the pictures speak volumes about the dogs in question. It’s almost impossible to avoid making instant character judgments because of the state of their fur. Even though you know it is the same dog. And you know that the dog doesn’t change behaviour because of how its fur looks. Still you judge. Their appearance signals creativity (pre-grooming) or control (post-grooming), messiness or discipline, even aggressiveness or friendliness. 

I’m sometimes taken to task when I talk about appearance and I’m not an expert after all (although thanks to Campaign for allowing me to talk about my own style). I believe you need to show up as your authentic self. I also know that people will make snap decisions about you based on what you wear. This is not a gender issue; it’s an issue of the conditioning that we have all experienced so much that it seems like second nature. You will be judged on what you wear. The choice of outfit is absolutely yours, but it should be a conscious one. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

Picture: Grace Chon/Instagram

Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free