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Dressing for Distraction

Dressing for Distraction

Is the gender gap partially a fabric gap?


I popped into a T.J. Maxx store today, hoping to score a fashion bargain or two. Shoppers like me who don’t like to reveal much skin to the public have our work cut out for us. Finding attractive and stylish clothing that doesn’t also compromise our dignity is like panning for gold in the Sahara Desert. When I saw a rack of itty-bitty pieces of fabric masquerading as “skirts,” I just stared at them. I have Band-Aids at home bigger than these garments.

I have Band-Aids at home bigger than these garments.

True, short skirts and barely-there women’s apparel are nothing new. Women have been baring their décolletage for centuries, and women’s legs became part of the public landscape decades ago. Ironically, during the past 50 years, as gender equality became highly valued in society, women’s fashions have continued to work against women being taken seriously.

Last spring, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg was much in the news for her new book, Lean In, in which she encourages women to focus more on their careers than on family life. She also blames men for not doing more to promote women to higher positions in the workplace. It was fascinating to watch her tell a CNN interviewer that often, the more powerful a woman becomes at work, the less she seems to be liked or admired—a stark distinction from men, whose likability index usually rises along with his title.

Sandberg assumes that sexism is so ingrained in the workplace that women in authority become targets of resentment. But what if something else is going on? If we are allowed to observe that males sometimes demonstrate stereotypical behavior that needs correcting, such as a tendency to lewdness or over-aggressiveness, true equality demands that we should also be allowed to observe that females also sometimes display stereotypical behavior that needs correcting, such as cattiness and hyper-competitiveness for male attention. Is it possible that this sort of insecure, “mean girl” behavior might account for some women becoming less likable as they rise in authority?

A March 6, 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee” by Peggy Drexler also noted the phenomenon of women in management positions who not only fail to mentor younger women, but sometimes actively undermine the efforts of those younger women to move up in the organization. But is this also the fault of men, as Drexler concluded, or are some women simply possessive of their turf? Everything that may go wrong for women cannot always be the man’s fault.

What does any of this have to do with short skirts? I am struck by how often women who are either public representatives of professional organizations, office managers, television journalists, or hold positions of mid-level responsibility or higher dress very provocatively. Tight-fitting jackets and short skirts, revealing blouses and spiky high heels are common in the professional world. At a professional women’s luncheon I attended, the mistress of ceremonies bared so much skin that I was actually disgusted. Her choice of clothing did a tremendous disservice to the cause of having women be taken seriously. And while the micro-mini skirts I saw at T.J. Maxx are not yet considered appropriate office attire, how long will it be until women’s demands to express themselves as they like lower the bar even to this level?  

Women cannot have it both ways. If they choose to dress to arouse men, they make it less likely that they will be respected for their managerial astuteness, and no amount of “mentoring” by older, more experienced women in their fields will fix that. Women who dress in a competitively racy way in the office will find it’s more difficult to gain the respect of colleagues and foster the kind of collective team spirit so fundamental to a healthy work environment. Perhaps, at least sometimes, a career achievement gap may have something to do with a fabric gap.

Women have more choices and freedom than ever before in their educational and career opportunities. They no longer need to marry for economic self-sufficiency. They protest vociferously if they find evidence that they are being denied promotions due to their gender. Certainly, workplace discrimination still exists, though it is both obviously wrong as well as illegal. However, women continue to grow their ranks among CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the nation. Mary Barra has just been named General Motors’ first female CEO. Women are CEOs or VPs at Xerox, PepsiCo, JPMorgan Chase, Intel, Oracle, DuPont, IBM, Yahoo and many other corporations. Other women aspiring to achieve similar corporate titles may indeed need to work harder than men to prove themselves. If so, why wouldn’t they ensure that they are dressed for success and not to distract?

The Jewish concept of tzniut, which is usually translated in a clunky way as “modesty” but which really means a de-emphasis on the physical self and a greater focus on the person inside, is a gift for both women and men. It is a gift for women because it frees us from the stress of feeling we need to compete with other women about how attractive we can be. It liberates us – as women had claimed to want to be liberated – from being viewed primarily as objects, and encourages us to be viewed as whole people whose minds and ideas are even more important than our physical attributes.

It is also a gift for men who are very visually driven, and who are now in the no-win situation of working with women who simultaneously demand respect for their professionalism but who dress so provocatively that it is almost a form of sexual harassment.

Women can dress attractively and elegantly without compromising their dignity. Isn’t that what so much of feminism was supposed to be about?

December 21, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 36

(26) Angela Miriam, April 23, 2014 2:11 PM

Tzniut Misunderstood

I enjoyed this article and feel that the author makes some cogent points about the realities of the workplace. I worked in middle management and as a consultant for some years and observed the competing messages which she describes. Women who dressed smartly but not provocatively garnered far more respect than those who wore revealing clothes. We wore high heels, makeup and well-cut suits and looked professional. We were treated with respect. After all, when you are at work, you are not at a nightclub, so those who protest that they should be able to dress as they please with impunity, are missing the point.

Clothes have tremendous symbolic significance and it is rather an adolescent approach to insist that everyone else accommodate one's personal style and desires. We need to deal with the realities of life and that means being mature enough not to feel the need to advertise our physical attributes on every occasion.

I dress modestly and cover my hair - that is my choice based on my spiritual values and sense of personal dignity - but I don't for a moment expect others to follow my example. Nonetheless, I do suggest that context is important and we all do well to remember that. It has nothing to do with disempowerment - on the contrary it is about using our power advisedly and not squandering it as an attention-seeking device. When we choose to be seen as human beings and not simply objects of desire, that, to my mind, is what true liberation is about.

(25) Anonymous, January 2, 2014 3:34 PM

Women & Dressing

Phew! This piece sure evoked a lot of commentary and passion. How come you don't find articles and issues like these about men? Just goes to prove what Chazal knew long ago. A Woman is a Woman is a Woman. We should be taught to understand our power.

(24) Rachel, December 30, 2013 8:18 PM

There's overlap but not complete conformity between tnius and professional

1. Women in the professional world may wear seasonally appropriate clothing including short-sleeved jackets in summer; trouser suits in winter.
2. I was criticized at work for only wearing skirts (by someone who was unaware of my frum dress code.) It was suggested to me that women look more professional if they dress nearly identically to men, i.e. in a trouser suit rather than a skirt suit.
3. Someone told me that she felt sorry for me because I obviously had "body"/self-esteem issues because I am mostly covered!
4. Professional women are expected to be physically fit, and to wear clothing that shows it. (I am reasonably fit and wouldn't mind showing my upper arms, for example, but it's not tznius.)
5. Some of the comments on here make no sense. Objecting to sheitels and makeup? FYI, if one wishes to look professional, it's going to be difficult with a kerchief and no makeup. I am an attorney and most courts require that all individuals remove their hats upon entering.
6. Ditto the comment about high heels. If a woman is wearing a modest-length skirt, then I don't understand your problem. Many women like to wear heels to get some parity with male colleagues. I'm already tall, so I don't wear very high heels, but I especially sympathize with younger women who don't want to look like little girls in court, in meetings and presentations, etc.
8. I have never heard of a judge complaining about judicial robes. They have a 1000 year history, and men and women wear basically the same thing. The only issue some women have to figure out is the neckline; it's fine with a high-collared shirt but looks odd with any other type. Most women judges I've encountered wear scarves.
9. While conservative offices expect men to wear trousers and collared shirts, maybe a jacket & tie, in some fields, e.g. entertainment, it's fine for men to wear tight jeans, tight shirts, etc.

(23) Anonymous, December 29, 2013 3:50 PM

Who are we to criticize?

The article left me with some weird, negative feeling and the main reason is: who are we to criticize women's dressing codes? Who are we to say what type of clothing is morally right or wrong?
I disagree with the author because I know how damaging comments like hers are. The author sees a little-tiny snap shot of a woman dressed on a mini-skirt or showing her arms and from that she creates a big story enough to crucify all women that do not dress like the author.
So if I see an older Indian woman showing her bare belly, should I assume that she has zero modesty? No.
The author does not consider: cultural differences, educational differences, social differences, psychological differences, personal situations, social pressure, etc., etc., etc.
Criticism and social pressure are wrong independently if they are hidden behind a flag of morality and religion. If we really care about women and all the disperse sparks of G-d, we should have a spirit of acceptance of diversity, differences and non-criticism. We should look into the person’s heart and mind before opening our mouth to criticize or set up standards of morally right length of skirts or amount of skin shown.

Miriam, September 1, 2014 12:04 AM

Missing the point

Dear Anonymous - I think you might have missed the point the author was trying to make. She was not suggesting that everyone should dress as she does, simply that dressing provocatively in the workplace sends the wrong messages. I was a corporate executive for some years and it was clear to me that those women who showed a lot of leg or cleavage were not taken seriously. They did, however, get propositioned regularly and then complained about it. We need to be aware of the signals we are sending, instead of requiring the world to conform to our highly individualistic desires.

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