Dear LiL: I feel pressure to reject “girly” things to be taken more seriously at work but the truth is – this is who I am! How do I stay true to myself while trying to fit into such a conservative profession? Signed ~ Frustrated Fashionista
Dear Frustrated Fashionista:
If you read this question and the first thought you had was “does this really matter?” or “don’t we have bigger fish to fry?”, I challenge you to really think about why you thought that. What is it about that word “girly” that causes some of us, maybe most of us, to cringe, want to run away and disassociate from it, even if, in our heart of hearts, we are a little (or a lot) “girly”? I think this is such an important question because it really asks us whether we, as women, should change certain aspects of our personality to succeed at work as society tells us that stereotypical femininity could negatively affect how we are perceived professionally. Do we really have to change how we dress or how we express ourselves in order to achieve that success? And, more importantly, would that change be for the better? Before getting deeper into this thorny topic, I want to recognize and emphasize that many women are inherently not “girly”, regardless of the definition applied but, they may have other “uniquely female”, or even stereotypical male qualities that in a female are not as appreciated by our society, that they may feel pressure to change. And so, this question, I think, applies to us all. It really is a question of whether women should continue to morph and mold themselves (sometimes several times a day!) to fit a societal or a workplace expectation, that has nothing to do with quality of work, skill or actual contribution to the bottom line, but more to do with the comfort of others (senior partners, colleagues, clients) with certain aspects of their “femaleness”.
Let’s return to girly (also spelled “girlie” in some dictionaries, even when used as an adjective, which is how we use it here). The Oxford Dictionary defines the word as “characteristic of or befitting a girl; also effeminate; involving girls or women and girlish or female concerns”. The Collins Online Dictionary defines it as “things that are suitable for women or girls rather than men or boys”. The Collins Dictionary gives us some “helpful” examples of how the word is used in a sentence, such as “she swapped her plain suit for an absurdly girly dress”. Note the use of “absurdly” which, apparently, naturally goes hand in hand with “girly” and “dress”. And this one: “I am a very girly person, while Polly is one of the lads”.
Now, let’s put this in the context of the practice of law, a profession that for centuries was open only to men (and a very specific type of man), continues to be dominated by men, and that, to this day, for the most part adheres to a dress code inspired by the suit and tie in dark colours worn traditionally by men. Maybe you have watched the iconic movie Legally Blonde and have seen how over the top “girliness” can be a serious obstacle to career advancement. Yes, I know it’s a Hollywood movie and not real life, but which one of us would feel comfortable waltzing into a boardroom in an all pink suit, a la Elle. Most would not, even now.
If you are a woman entering this profession, and need to be taken seriously and as “one of the lads” (the very lads your promotion may depend on), it seems natural and, frankly, smart, to tone down the “girliness”. Retire that pink blouse, the “ridiculous shoes”, the accessories. Stick to basic black, grey and navy and try to blend in as much as possible with your male colleagues. These were real tips given to me when I first started my legal career. That, and to always wear stockings, as if the bare leg would cause a collective nervous breakdown in the office. For several years I adhered to this. A small price to pay for an interesting, meaningful and lucrative career I loved. But, as with all imposters, my true colours (literally) began to show a few years in. I love clothes. I love pink (and various other colours). I love “absurd” heels and interesting accessories. I am not saying I would ever wear these to court – they do not have a place there – but I want to wear them to the office and now do. It took years for me to be comfortable doing so. Why is that? The cynical me would say that it is because I immediately understood that stereotypical femaleness or girliness (can we take the word back and make it fierce?) equated to “otherness”. It meant “outsider” and I wanted to fit in and be a “serious lawyer”. Society told me how to do that and I followed the rules. I once had a senior female lawyer tell me to change my hair colour (from blonde) if I wanted to be taken seriously. So, no, this was not all in my head.
I honestly think that we should be allowed to be ourselves in life and at work. I think the conversation is much bigger than whether a pink heel can be worn in a serious law office. It is about allowing those on the outside in. It is about diversity. It is about making it okay, and, in fact, celebrating, being different from the traditional white, male, heteronormative lawyer archetype. Viewed through that lens, the pink heel becomes a symbol of freedom and inclusion for all who have been traditionally excluded from this profession.
So, I say stick to your guns. Do incredible work, become indispensable. And then, wear what you want, proudly, as long as it is not preventing you from doing your work and is respectful. Fashion is not silly, and it can be many things, including a political statement.