hen Facebook finally held its IPO in May 2012, founder Mark Zuckerberg showed up in a t-shirt, jeans and a zip-up hoodie, shaping what is now referred to as a ‘cultural milestone’. But would the same have happened if Zuckerberg was a woman? Although hoodies and jeans are universally accepted for men within the technology sector, there are cases coming to light where women are accused of being inappropriate when doing the same, one woman being told she wasn’t dressed ‘professionally’ enough when interviewing for a dressed-down start up. This testimony highlights a secret issue for women; the gendered politics of office wear still prevails.
The Issue: Hoodies & Sexism
It’s surprising to think that socially-progressive companies in technology have these issues. The subject first came to light in Aimee Groth’s article, ‘The Subtle Sexism of Hoodies’. Groth noted how Zuckerberg had set a cultural and literal standard for men in Silicon Valley, down to his ‘iconic’ clothing combination, subsequently making Zuckerberg the ‘pin-up’ for the casual office environment and cementing the rules of what men can wear. Groth noted how the dress codes of Silicon Valley filter down through each ‘tribe’ that a colleague is part of; the visual identity, walk, talk and mannerisms of a group of people, through association with their company. But with the exception of Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, there remains, as Groth stated, very few female ‘tribe members’ to lead as an example for the other women in Silicon Valley.
How ‘Slob Chic’ Holds Women Back
‘Slob-chic’ as it was hailed by FORTUNE editor Kristen Bellstrom, is not exclusive to technology companies. In her own response, Bellstrom published a collection of responses to the aforementioned issue in her article ‘Are the hoodies of Silicon Valley keeping women down?’ Unsurprisingly, it turns out the ripple effect had gone further than anticipated, with readers recalling accounts from within technology companies, one disclosing how she was asked “if I am ok, because I look tired” when she wore a hoodie “like the rest of the guys”, whilst a Bay Area colleague emailed to say how she was interrupted during her relaying of a dense and complicated policy matter, simply to be told she “looked really nice today”. But the issue was expanding beyond tech, our own input highlighting how women are judged more harshly as women have “a far ‘wider’ (read: confusing) array of options (read: potential career landmines) available to them” and one reader from a Dallas-based investment firm noted how this issue had affected women for decades, especially “as we moved up the ranks from secretaries and receptionists to mid- and senior-level executives.”
So where do we go from here? Two key points spring to mind; education and empowerment. In considering empowerment, putting more women in top leadership roles, to stand as examples to other women, is the most progressive idea, particularly considering that female CIO’s have currently remained at an appalling 14% within technology companies since 2004, despite having better performance in the long term. Although Marissa Mayer is a key example for women in technology, it doesn’t even out the numbers nor does it offer the ‘tribal leader’ diversity that men take for granted. The second factor lies in educating these companies on the discrimination they indirectly impose on women through dress codes. The first point being eradication through education; establishing the female equivalent of a suit, or in this case, jeans and a hoodie. Considering that a man can find either one of these anywhere in the world, companies should make more of an effort to clarify the details of their dress code and explicitly state what they deem appropriate for women. Men have a clear idea of what to wear to work, handed down by decades of experience and dozens of managers.
Additionally, the standards of ‘perfection’ that are expected from women must be recognised for the unfair, sexist biases that they are. Although male employees may not be concerned with the ‘frivolous’ decisions such as what to wear, women aren’t granted the same luxury. Caring about your appearance in a casual working environment doesn’t make women ‘frivolous’. The sooner that is recognised as a personal – and private – choice rather than a character flaw, the better.
In our effort to contribute to the debate, we have founded Silkarmour around both these ideas. In creating a career-hub and online retail platform, both sides of the coin can be examined. We can track what women actually want from their career advice and bring it straight to the women who need it. If we can tackle this issue for conservative corporates, then maybe a ripple effect will take hold in other sectors too. We hope that with more choices in a casual working environment, women in technology can feel more at ease with the workwear issue and progress within their company to even out that measly 14% gender ratio.