Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Dressing Like a Woman


When I was in college, there was a program you can participate in that matched you up with someone in the industry you had an interest in. Being a physics major but not knowing what people with a physics background did in the real world, I asked to meet an engineer. I don’t remember her name or which company, but I remember one of her advices clearly:

“When you get dressed, you have to remember to not look like a secretary,”

and I acknowledged that she was wearing a smart pair of pants with a shirt that didn’t look like a blouse.

This advice stuck with me, because I was very conscious of my identity as a woman when I was one of 3 women in a physics class, or I soon became the only woman in a mathematical methods class for engineers I took over the summer, after the first week, when for whatever reason, other female students had dropped out.

Because Reed had a counter-culture of sorts (e.g., for every student you encountered on campus with a tie, there would be more male students wearing a long skirt because they claimed it was more comfortable, and don’t get me started about students going to class on unicycles), I actually felt good wearing a big fluffy skirt and lipstick. It was a way to remind me that I didn’t have to change who I was to study physics.

I did understand how my attire would change the way they treated me. I got mistaken for a student while teaching (so I wore glasses with big frames and carried a clipboard of loose papers vs. a bound notebook). I got mistaken for a receptionist by a vendor submitting a proposal when I was the head of my company (it was only awkward for them when the VP came into the room and said, “Oh, I see you met our president already.” Yup, we got a good deal on that transaction). From then on, I made sure to give my business card (with my title on it), and if they choose to stereotype me over reading the title on my business card, they couldn’t just bring their social conditioning.

I did invest in some pant suits. I liked tops that looked like real shirts vs. blouses, anyway, and I liked my hair short. Since I didn’t feel at that point that I was giving up any part of my identity, it was easy for me to equate business attire = non-fluffy skirts. It wasn’t until I was comfortable in my executive role (at which point people knew me as an executive) that I stopped caring. My hair got long.

Fast forward to 2015. I met an entrepreneur, who was also an engineer, wife and a mother, who knew to wear less makeup (if at all), switch out her contact lens for her glasses, and wear pants. Looking the part mattered.

Then the following week, I went to an event organized by Astia, which advocates for women entrepreneurs, supports and advises them. While there were a few men in the meeting rooms, most were women talking techie, finance, projecting ferocious competence with their upright posture, and engaging questions that come from their track record. But the first thing I noticed in the room was not the varieties of monotone pant suit one can buy, but dresses, colors, accessories, and hair.

I’m comfortable looking in part. But on the second day of the event, it was a relief to not have to look the part, but simply “be” the part: feeling safe, appreciative of other women (and men who support them), and competent in what happened to be a dress with wine red blouse on top.

Photo: Maine at dusk, pretty in pink

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This entry was posted on September 27, 2015 by in Culture, Entrepreneurship and tagged , , , , .
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