Tag Archives: Workplace

Choices you Face? | Choosing Between Femininity and Respect in the Workplace

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We all live in a world comprised of cultures with sets of rules, both written and unwritten, that dictate or at least attempt to dictate the manner in which we interact with one another. These interactions vary from informal to formal, familial to business-place, through virtual and technological media, face to face, within our own gender, and of course cross-gender. How we navigate this sea of interaction makes a tremendous impact on our day to day lives, and can definitely influence our professional success. Many variables play — and often interplay — their own significant roles in communication.

Many people dedicate careers to understanding, and helping their clients understand how to best parlay strategies into success. These fields include areas from public relations, marketing strategists, brand endorsement strategists, professional coaches and fashion stylists, to trained PhDs who study the slightest tendencies of our interactions. This has gained momentum because in a business world often driven by the bottom line, the numbers don’t lie. In an increasingly competitive workplace, professionals and employers seek every bit of leverage they can. It may indeed be more involved than going to see How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

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It may not be the 1950’s anymore… So, how much has changed now in the 21st century?

Though there is no doubt that values such as education and experience levels serve a professional well, we are also very highly linked to our physical appearance — shallow and vain as that may seem. In other words, if you have two equally deserving job candidates, the nod may be given to one based heavily on the perception an employer gathers from physical appearance — rather than experience or other qualitative characteristics.

Important to note is that one’s physical appearance includes, but certainly not only pertains to your looks/attractiveness. Thus, attention to detail when presenting oneself through such avenues as wardrobe choices, hair styles, tattoos, jewelry, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, and speech — to name a few — is extremely important.


Professionals: Click HERE to Join the conversation … we want to hear from you! How do you navigate this issue in your career? Where do you shop and how do you decide what / what not to wear? Comment below and/or
Tweet to @aran_hart – #FemininityVsRespect.


With women becoming more and more present and involved every day in leading professional roles, research suggests that they face an added obstacle when presenting themselves. It seems, women must often choose between femininity and respect. Whether it be toning down, or jazzing up their workplace appearance, this decision can be either a gainful advantage or debilitating roadblock in their career.

New York image consultant and founder of DAMstyle, David A. McKnight, says in his book The Zen of Executive Presence (2013) “people instinctively judge each other by physical appearance, and a business woman’s motives and qualifications can be misconstrued because of a poor wardrobe choice, whether it be overly provocative, intimidating, or unflattering.”

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David A. McKnight – author of The Zen of Executive Presence – says choosing between femininity and respect is a common challenge many women face.

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Keenan Corrigan, Executive Asst.

In order to take a further look at this topic, I spoke to young professional Keenan Corrigan. She graduated from Duke University and has worked at two very different companies. First, Keenan worked for 2 years at the Department of Defense as a civilian analyst. She currently works in Baltimore, MD for Outward Bound as a field instructor — leading trips for students backpacking, canoeing, kayaking — and at the Outward Bound administrative office as the Executive Assistant — where she performs office related work including development and strategic planning.

At the Department of Defense, with obvious ties to the military, Keenan worked in a chain of command system where there were virtually only men working above her. She always noticed that there weren’t many women in positions of power, but said it “wasn’t surprising because there were proportionally fewer women in the organization in general. I didn’t think of it as a prohibitive factor.”

Being a young female in a male dominated workplace, she dealt with regular flirtation and at times harassment that made her feel uncomfortable. Keenan recalls, “I would err on the conservative side when it came to how I would dress. So even things that would be presentable in other environments, I wouldn’t wear to work. I didn’t want to put off a certain image in that office, because it was hard enough being young and working with a lot of older people. But being a woman as well, I wanted to be professional, I wanted people to take me seriously, and I didn’t want my appearance to dictate that. I felt like I had to work a lot harder to make sure that people knew I was intelligent, and competent, and didn’t just look at me and write me off.”


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According to ThinkProgress.org – one in four women, one in three teens, and one in eight men experience sexual harassment at work. Approximately 70% of incidents are not reported.

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One instance involved a person of authority writing Keenan a provocative email after she wore what she called a “tasteful red dress that went below my knees, with sleeves and a high collar.” The individual described how he didn’t recognize her at first and thought he “had to go talk to that hot girl.” Keenan didn’t report the incident as she explained, “It wasn’t a battle I wanted to fight at that point in time. I didn’t want to aggravate the situation,  I wanted to focus on doing my job.”

She continued, “I didn’t want to dress frumpy, because I care about my appearance, but there was a fine line between feeling good about the way I looked and not projecting certain viewpoints onto other people. A lot of times I left the house feeling great about what I was wearing. Then I would get to work and think… I shouldn’t have worn this. I was constantly thinking about what I should wear, or not.”


Professionals: Click HERE to Join the conversation … we want to hear from you! How do you navigate this issue in your career? Where do you shop and how do you decide what / what not to wear? Comment below and/or
Tweet to @aran_hart – #FemininityVsRespect.


Now at the Outward Bound Baltimore office, many of Keenan’s co-workers in leadership roles are female. She says, “I think one of the reasons I love my job as much as I do is because of the strong women in leadership positions. They are wonderful role models and trail blazers.” She explained that even though the outdoor education industry is still a male dominated workplace, due to the type of people working there she feels much more comfortable. Keenan stated, “I think in this work culture I’m able to remain more focused without worrying frequently what others think of my appearance.” She paused when I asked her about her dress code at her current job and then answered, “You know, I don’t even know if there is one… but I know we are expected to make good judgement when choosing work clothes.


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Gabriele Goodman, PhD

Gabriele Goodman, who has earned both an MA and PhD in Organizational Psychology, has worked for over 10 years gaining expertise gender issues in the workplace. She has developed practice guidelines and strategic initiatives that help both women and men understand and identify how gender politics play out in organizational settings. As Goodman describes on her LinkedIn profile, “By providing insight and tools that help women became stronger forces in the workplace, [I] teach them how to reach their career goals.”

Goodman points out that, “It’s still such an unequal playing field. The thing about femininity [versus respect] is that women who can use their femininity strategically often do so in service of meeting their professional aspirations in an unequal gendered organization system. Depending on organizational culture, context, and social players involved, the strategic use of femininity may garner respect, but it is mainly used consciously as one possible tool in a big tool kit utilized only as a means to an end.”

She added that contrary to popular belief, these issues do not only exist across genders. Goodman says, “Yes, men do tend to sexualize situations to a much greater extent than women. But the biggest barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace are often other women. Many women feel threatened and think ‘I’m not as pretty as her,’ ‘I’m not as fast as her,’ and/or ‘I’m not as young as her.’ Comparisons of personal worth on often unconscious levels transpire, competition may surface, and the internalized message of ‘I’m fundamentally not good enough’ becomes externalized as a ‘me vs. she’ power play instead of a collaborative ‘we’ mobilizing effort.”

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Help a sister out! Research suggests it’s not always cross-gender… A woman’s biggest barrier in the workplace is often  other women.

The harsh reality is that beyond just feeling comfortable at work, research indicates physical appearance directly corresponds to the average salary a person will make in his or her career. In his article for Salary.com, Aaron Gouveia discusses 7 Ways Your Looks Affect Your Pay. Citing multiple sources from top University studies, outlined are the facts and numbers that support height, weight, hair color, physique, make-up, general attractiveness, and being “too pretty” all directly affect average salary.

For example, in regards to make-up, Gouveia writes, “Not only do people judge beauty based on how much make-up a woman is wearing, make-up adorned women also rank higher in competence and trustworthiness, according to a study funded by Procter & Gamble, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston University, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. A study in the American Economic Review said women who wear make-up can earn more than 30 percent more in pay than non make-up wearing workers.”


In some cases, appearance can jeopardize your job altogether. You can certainly be too attractive, or perceived as too provocative for the workplace.

In 2010, Debrahlee Lorenzana — an ex-employee at Citibank, was fired for being a distraction in the workplace. While the employer admitted that the employee was following the same dress code as everyone else, given her natural appearance in such attire, several co-workers described her presence as a distraction and negative influence. Lorenzana sued and her case was to be settled in private arbitration.


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Is this woman ‘too hot’ to work in a bank? Citi Bank believed she was…

The fired employee was following the rules, so to speak, but unable to maintain her job because she was considered by others as too attractive. This seems unfair, and yet another example of an obstacle someone must consider when expressing their femininity versus gaining and/or maintaining workplace respect.

Recently [July], a news story cited by BleacherReport.com indicated how this issue exists world-wide in many work arenas – no pun intended. Kazakhstan National Team volleyball player Sabina Altynbekova‘s appearance has “upset and distracted” her teammates and coaches.

[“The player’s teammates and coach complained that Altynbekova was simply too attractive and was distracting fans… The coach complained “It is impossible to work like this.”  Sabina also admitted that things are getting a little out of hand.” I was flattered at first but it’s all getting a little bit much,” she said. “I want to concentrate on playing volleyball and to be famous for that, not anything else.”]


Professionals: Click HERE to Join the conversation … we want to hear from you! How do you navigate this issue in your career? Where do you shop and how do you decide what / what not to wear? Comment below and/or
Tweet to @aran_hart – #FemininityVsRespect.


Goodman’s findings support how influential  attractiveness can be, whether positively or negatively. She explains, “If you’re deemed ‘too pretty’ it can be a liability, but definitely having good looks generally helps. Beware of the catch-22 though: If you’re seen as ‘too attractive,’ you may not be taken seriously by both men and women alike.  Men want to sexualize you and other women can feel threatened by you. So the bimbo affect comes into play. Although this is a huge generalization, it appears that once women can prove their business acumen to their male counterparts through their work ethic, their emotional intelligence, their ability to think creativity, etc., the fact that they are good looking may fade into the background. However, female co-workers might have a harder time changing original assumptions made and continue to pigeonhole these threatening ‘femme fatals’ into a classification system whereby they are seen as allies, enemies, outliers, or outsiders.”

Goodman continues, “Conversely though, if you aren’t seem as ‘pretty enough,’ a judgment call made by both genders in seconds and usually registering first and foremost on an unconscious, strictly biological level (I’m speaking in vast generalizations here and am assuming heterosexuality as the primary orientation), you may be seen as non-threatening by other women, and an ‘after-thought‘ by other men. Of course in both cases, this is a temporary state and likely opinions will shift based on that individual women’s mental and emotional capabilities. However, being ‘good looking‘ still opens more doors than it closes.”

Goodman adds there is far more to it than physical appearance, stating, “That being said, if you don’t have confidence – which is measured by both verbal and nonverbal communication styles – you could be extremely attractive, but in the end it becomes a moot point.”


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As public figures and two of the most recognizable women in the United States, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama face constant scrutiny of their appearance. Both have been very successful in using their strong communication skills and wardrobe in their favor — though many would argue Clinton still faces negative attacks that may influence her run at the White House in 2016.

Goodman explains that men benefit from being taught to use stronger communication styles. “In terms of verbal styles: men are better at asking for what they want than women. Men preface things as statements — women preface things as questions, asking for permission. Men tend to overrate their abilities — women tend to underrate their abilities. With nonverbal styles: women tend to sit with their legs crossed, hands in their lap — men tend to sit with their legs open, chest open. All of these seemingly subtle cues have a huge impact on both self – and other – perceptions.”

Of course, context has to be considered in examining any of these general findings. Where you work and with whom you work determines how you interact. Goodman states, “It does depend on the industry. For example, in medical fields, in male-dominated fields, and in other high risk professions that often deal with life and death issues, a culture ethos often exists whereby both genders have a greater tendency to engage in sexual banter and bathroom humor without getting stymied by worries of being PC or being blamed for sexual harassment. There’s less censoring and more humor used in part because it gets both men and women through the extreme stress — and often tragedy — of their jobs. The traditional 9-5 Corporate America workplace is much more constricted by formal organizational rules and codes of conduct. There are many more ‘official’ social rules of engagement to consider. ”


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It goes beyond your threads… Communication and body language characteristics are proven to play a major role in regards to your perceived appearance.

So then, relating back to the main question: Is it in fact a constant choice for women between femininity and respect? Goodman doesn’t believe so. “No, women don’t need to choose between femininity and respect. It depends on the definition of both. We have to question: Number one, what is the operative definition of femininity and respect? Number two, who is crafting, instituting, and regulating these definitions? Number three, what are the implicit and explicit cultural norms around how these definitions are actually manifested in the workplace? And number four, what are the ways that both genders uphold/maintain or resist these definitions? In order to understand the debate proposed here (to be feminine or to be respected), these aforementioned questions need to be addressed. I don’t think it’s a black/white, either/or scenario, but perhaps a both/and prospect.”

She continues, “It’s sad that it’s viewed as an either or choice. I think women should be taught how (and allowed to) ask for what they want, how to be confident, how to be assertive, and how to be competitive in a healthy way, the way men are. If this were the case, the workplace may not only become more egalitarian, but offer both genders a platform for  creativity, increased productivity, heightened social intelligence, and overall improved well-being and happiness.”


This topic will undoubtedly continue to be part of our human experience. So much of the analysis is subjective, and certainly how factors such as appropriate communication styles and appropriate attire impact given situations is tied strongly to the context. Whether it be the industry, the individuals involved, the perceptions of those involved, and of course culture and gender, many pieces are in play to consider.

Research supports the cliché that first impressions are important. Yes, how you present yourself, how you dress, and what your physical appearance is carries a lot of weight. But moving forward you still have to be able to bring your job’s skills to the table. If you’re at an accounting firm, you have to be a good accountant. The advantage for someone with good physical appearance is they will probably receive more opportunities to show their talents.

And in an incredibly competitive job market, there is no telling how many chances anyone will be given. It could make all the difference…


Professionals: Click HERE to Join the conversation … we want to hear from you! How do you navigate this issue in your career? Where do you shop and how do you decide what / what not to wear? Comment below and/or Tweet to @aran_hart – #FemininityVsRespect.


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