By guest blogger: Lisa Kaczmarczyk
It has been 7 weeks and still no one from the trenches has said anything in response to the news flurry about women executives and their fashion choices. If we want to keep women in computer science and we think clothing plays a part, we need to hear from less powerful women. Although some might scoff, my experience in high-tech says there might well be an important issue here. Dressing with a feminine fashion sense has often been dangerous for high-tech women struggling to be taken seriously.
In case you missed the conversation, it started with articles in The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. The stories claimed times are changing and Silicon Valley women can now wear traditionally feminine clothing. That may be true for successful women with significant control over their lives, but women just starting out are still limited by male-dictated dress codes.
For one thing, all of the interviewed women were successful executives or entrepreneurs who could dress as they pleased. Marissa Mayer, formerly of Google, is quoted as saying she once paid $60,000 for lunch with Oscar de la Renta. With that kind of money to throw around, and a position as CEO of Yahoo, it is unlikely she’ll think twice about how her clothing choices affect her career. Another former Google executive, Sukhinder Singh, says she never leaves the house without heels. However, she is a successful entrepreneur with her own video shopping site. Singh said that early in her career she would have chosen being taken seriously over wearing a skirt.
A puzzling response appeared in the Huffington Post (“Women and Fashion: What Your Shoes Really Say About You”). Kelley gushed about how she loves stilettos. “Until they wore out, my go-to faves were a pair of black leather ankle boots with dangerously high heels. … even if they weren’t [comfortable], I still would have worn them cause they looked so damn good.” Why in the 21st Century are professional women still happy to wear shoes that hurt and often contribute to long term foot damage? When was the last time you heard a man say he would voluntarily wear painful clothing?
Kelley then quoted two colleagues. “…Feminists can be taken seriously as fashionistas…many feminists are incredibly fashionable.” Kelley’s source, Shira Tarrant, makes a valid point. But Tarrant is a well published, tenured professor in Women’s Studies, not a woman trying to build a career in Silicon Valley. A Communications lecturer said: “I don’t think I dress for men. I think I dress to attract people who will “get” me”. It is true that women (and men) dress to send a welcome message to likeminded others. Young high-tech women who dress in traditionally feminine clothing will probably be taken less seriously by their male peers.
I decided to mine my network of high-tech women for greater insight. One woman, who started her first industry position this summer, told me:
“My main concern was not sticking out too much. As the only woman in my group I am bound to stick out in some ways but I didn't want to add to it with my choice of clothing. The last thing I wanted was any sort of special treatment, I would rather be known for my accomplishments. I wear … just like the men.”
Two other women initially agreed to speak with me when I said I was writing an article about young women in high-tech, but changed their mind when they learned I was writing about fashion. They didn’t want to talk about it, even off the record.
I really want to believe the high-tech culture is opening up for women so they can feel professionally safe about dressing as they please. Unfortunately, it will take more than a few women executives to prove that women, who still make up a small percentage of the industry, can ignore male-dominated dress codes. When young women just starting their careers can wear what they want as much as their male peers can we will know the culture in Silicon Valley has really changed.
-Lisa Kaczmarczyk is an author, researcher, program evaluation and assessment consultant. Her book “Computers and Society – Computing For Good” was published in 2011. She percolates regularly about the world of computing on her Interdisciplinary Computing Blog.