In the women's wear section of the shopping mall in my neighbourhood sits a corner conveniently titled, "Career-Wear For Women." I look around optimistically, hoping that there exists an equivalent for men—for what would equality be otherwise—but there is no "Career-Wear For Men" section anywhere. I sigh and make an exit (not as an act of feminist boycott, though, they just didn't have any cute clothes).
If I were to pull up a list of all my weird Google searches, it would include, "Can I wear skirts at work?" That was about a couple years ago, when I did in fact start wearing clothes other than formal Indian to work. Sure, I find that Google search and the nervousness behind it ridiculous today, but hey, when you are a woman in tech, being taken seriously is a challenge as it is—to wonder if uncovered calves can make things any worse for you is only natural.
It is problematic that we are being led to think that there is even a slight connection between our careers and our personal style.
I don't just see career-wear sections in shopping malls, I see niche "work-wear" fashion startups cropping up to "help you dress for office." I see my women friends reading articles on what lipstick colours are "appropriate" for work. I see fashion bloggers piling on to this sentiment. And hey, it is perfectly fair for a style-conscious individual to want to follow this sort of dictum on popular fashion. But it is problematic that we are being led to think that there is even a slight connection between our careers and our personal style. The entire narrative that our culture is writing ties women's choice of clothes and makeup and shoes to their chances of professional success. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Women, pause for a moment and check if you're falling into this trap. It comes packaged under titles such as "work-wear" and "power dressing." And like most other outcomes of what I like to call a definist culture (my sad little wordplay for a society that is obsessed with defining people and their lives), it serves only one purpose: To put barriers around you.
I am calling for a shift in narrative from one that talks about Michelle Obama's fashion sense to one that talks about her accomplishments. This new narrative will teach young girls how to become successful professionals without burdening them with fashion tips. For better or for worse, this narrative will let women see that if their opinions are going unheard, if they are getting less challenging work than their male counterparts, if they are not getting promoted, if their career is suffering—none of it is because of what they are wearing. Along the same lines, if they are speaking their mind during meetings, if they know how to build positive work relationships, if they are going beyond their job description to help their organisations build value, then they are successful professionals—and not a shred of their success can be attributed to their hairdo or the colour of their top or the "naturalness" of their makeup.
Not a shred of [women's] success can be attributed to their hairdo or the colour of their top or the "naturalness" of their makeup.
I must clarify that I am fully aware that an office environment is not the same as a beachside resort, so it is indeed important to respect the rules of your workplace (showing up in denim shorts for a client meeting at an investment bank may not be the best idea). It only takes some common sense to gauge the general tone of your work culture—how formal or informal it is—but if that isn't enough of a cue, take a look at your male colleagues. If enough of them are turning up in bermudas and flipflops, then your shoulder-cuts or ripped jeans shouldn't hold you back in your career—and if they do, then that's the change that we need to make happen.