"Sexy" outfits bad for women's careers? The hell you say!

A new study breaks the bad news that women suffer under double standards.

Published December 2, 2005 9:44PM (EST)

Today, ABC News and Psychology of Women Quarterly bring us this stunning bulletin: Wearing hot pants to the office maybe isn't such a good idea.

Subjects in a recent Lawrence University study felt hostile toward a woman in a management position if she was "provocatively dressed," and also assumed she was unintelligent. By contrast, when participants were told the provocatively dressed woman was a receptionist, they were fine with it. (I pessimistically wonder whether the study's subjects felt hostile toward female managers even when they were dressed conservatively, but ABC does not divulge.)

On its face, this finding is such a nonshocker that I was surprised it made the news. And most women probably don't want to wear skimpy clothes in professional environments, anyway. But it's depressing to learn that we continue to have such contradictory expectations of women. We're still stuck with the same old damned if you do, yada yada: Advertising and social cues pressure women to live up to a particular ideal of hotness, but doing so hurts our professional credibility in most industries. And, sure, it's possible to look nice in a tasteful, nonthreatening way for work, but it's so frustrating that women are expected to do the people-pleasing calculation of striking that balance.

Neither the article nor the study seems to address the subjectiveness of terms like "sexy" and "provocative," though. Stereotypical male sexiness and female sexiness are so different that you couldn't even replicate the Lawrence University study to test people's perceptions of men in the workplace. A man in a powerful position is generally regarded as inherently sexy, and that sexiness is not viewed as provocative or in conflict with his professional responsibilities. I guess a parallel study could examine how participants viewed a male CEO dressed as a different kind of sex symbol -- like if he showed up to work in a UPS deliveryman outfit, or went shirtless -- but it's just not the same thing. A man would have to go a lot farther into the realm of workplace-inappropriate to catch the kind of flak a woman would get for a skirt that was too tight.

Image consultant Ginger Burr managed to put a positive spin on things for ABC's story, though. "For women, people will immediately assume: 'Oh, if she can't put a skirt and a blouse together, then how is she going to handle my finances?'" Burr said. "For men, they're more likely to say: 'Well, he's a bad dresser, but he's a whiz with numbers.'

"There is a double standard for men and women, and it may always be that way. Women need to empower themselves and learn what impressions they are giving off with what they wear."

Thanks, Ginger! I feel more empowered already!

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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