By Howard Ross, Founder and Chief Learning officer

I got back to work a couple of weeks ago after spending five weeks at our farm in western Virginia and so have had to start “dressing for work” again. Now, most of you who know me know that, if it were up to me, ties would only be seen in garment museums and jeans and a shirt would replace the business suit as the norm on a daily basis. But beyond my personal taste in clothing (or lack of taste as it may be) I have become fascinated with the notion of “professional attire.”

What is it that has us feel like we can’t wear “normal” clothes to work? I can understand if there is a special event, gala, party or whatever that occasionally people want to dress up for, but most people I know are more productive when they are more comfortable. And yet this seems to have nothing to do with the standards we create. In fact, the standards themselves are all over the place these days. Last fall I did a series of workshops in Silicon Valley and then immediately the next day had to fly to the Midwest and work with one of my clients in the financial industry. “Professional attire” looked very different in those two places.

Companies have “Casual Fridays,” in which people are allowed to “dress down,” but then have to dress back up for Monday through Thursday. I wish somebody could explain that one to me. If it works on Friday than why not have it all week? And if it doesn’t work, than why have it at all?

Clothing, of course, communicates many things: Taste, style, modernity, values, etc. It also can be a status differentiator that communicates worth within organizations and reinforces the “us versus them” dynamics that can be sometimes problematic (e.g. “The Suits” versus “others”).

Almost all of this is cultural habit; patterns that have been around for years and tend to evolve slower than modern people’s desires, as you can tell by the reality of how many people don’t wear the same clothes in their private time as they do at work. But as much as I might find this whole dynamic perplexing and even silly, it is nothing compared to what women have to endure. Dressing for work, as a woman, is another level of complexity. Think of all of the rules that “normal” professional women’s dress calls for: “Don’t wear the same thing too often!” (While I, and almost any other man, can wear a blue shirt, khakis and a navy blazer every day for the rest of our lives if we want.) “Be attractive, but not TOO attractive (if you know what I mean…wink, wink)!” “Be seasonal!” I have seen books of rules about the length of skirts and the length of earrings; the amount of makeup one should wear (“Enough, but not too much”) and then, of course, there is the whole necessity, either spoken or implied, that women’s bodies should be as close to resembling a Barbie Doll as possible, giving us, over the course of history, corsets, girdles (made with whale bone at some point!), pantyhose and now Spanx, and heaven only knows what else.

And then, to me the most absurd of all: high heel shoes. It’s not that we don’t know the impracticality of high heels. It is part of our cultural knowledge. Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina gets a laugh after the presidential debate for not only starring in the recent Republican Presidential Debate, but also “doing it in high heels!” echoing a famous line about the great dancer Ginger Rogers:

Even though high heels were originally designed for men so that their boots fit better into stirrups, and then later adopted by Louis XIV and other French Aristocrats as a way of showing that they, literally, occupied a higher place in society, they have for the past 250 years been almost the exclusive purview of women, the higher, the more “sexy,” the better. No accident that they tend to accentuate certain parts of the body that men often find attractive.

The amazing thing to me is that as often as I have heard women complaining about how sore their feet are throughout the day, they still wear the shoes, obviously not designed with comfort in mind. It is a great example of the power of memes in our lives: those culture expectations and symbols that become the “norm,” and that become “the way things are around here.” In fact, in talking with some of my female colleagues, many of them say that they would be afraid of not being taken seriously in many environments if they were wearing flats.

I don’t care what anyone wears, as long as they don’t dress in an offensive way (as in the case of the students who were recently suspended by a Virginia school for wearing Confederate Flag tee shirts). I believe, as apparently many of the most successful companies in the world in places like Silicon Valley do, that how well people perform at work is more important than how well they would look on a fashion runway. If somebody wants to wear a suit and tie, or shoes that hurt their feet all day, by their choice, I’m all for it. But the problem is that cultural memes often don’t live as choice. They live as the expected behaviors that people abandon only at the risk of, in this case, looking like they “don’t fit in.” And when one gender shoulders the weight of far more of those memes than the other, it becomes a source of every day privilege and entitlement. And institutionalized sexism.

So what to do? As companies we can create dress codes that allow people to have a wide berth to choose how to dress for themselves with impunity. As men we can begin to ask ourselves whether our viewing pleasure is worth the discomfort of women. As women, feel free to ask yourselves, “Do I really have to hurt myself every day in order to be accepted.”

And to Cook Ross clients out there, as far as I’m concerned, Cook Ross women can wear flats!!

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @HowardJRoss.


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