Too Sexy For Work?

Casual Fridays are one thing, but wearing clothes to your 9-to-5 that are better suited for Saturday night clubbing is another. Find out what’s behind the flesh-baring trend and whether you could be an offender.

A funny thing has been happening on the way to the office recently: A lot of young women have been shedding their clothes… or sexing up the clothes they do wear.

This dressing-down-and-daringly craze is certainly raising eyebrows. But maybe these ladies are taking their cues from working women on TV these days (think of the hot young investigators on CSI: Miami or the shapely hospital administrator on House, whose skirts provocatively hug her hips). A few years ago the US edition of FHM magazine even published a lingerie spread featuring women executives from the reality show The Apprentice.

Some career experts think this trend of dressing sexy for work has as much to do with showing independence and non-conformance as with choosing purposely provocative clothing.

‘It’s more of a generational issue, sort of an entitlement that says “I march to my own beat. I’m proud to be my own person”,’ says Tory Johnson, CEO and founder of Women for Hire, a recruitment services company. ‘They want to dress for who they are, not necessarily for their work environment.’

Twenty-somethings may feel this way at this moment in history because ‘they are being told by the media that they are in the power seat,’ says Caitlin Friedman, co-author of The Girl’s Guide to Being a Boss (A&C Black Publishers). ‘The celebrities who get lots of press coverage are in their 20s,’ she explains. ‘Huge Internet companies like YouTube are being created by young people.’

Then there is simply the clueless factor: With casual Fridays spreading to every day of the week, it’s hard to know what to wear anymore. ‘There’s a new frontier of what is casual,’ says Sarah Sardella, benefits manager at Monster.com, another recruitment agency. ‘It used to be that you were expected to wear nylons, a skirt of a certain length… but there are no clear-cut guidelines anymore. Blend that with the current flesh-baring fashions and you have young women wearing flip-flops, miniskirts and tank tops to work.’

There is indeed a hefty downside to dressing so alluringly at work, and it was starkly confirmed in a study published in Psychology Of Women Quarterly in 2005. Participants were shown videotapes of a businesswoman dressed neutrally (slacks, turtleneck, jacket, flats, minimal makeup) and more provocatively (more makeup, tousled hair, tight knee-length skirt, low-cut shirt with cardigan, high heels). When the sexy dresser was described as a senior executive, she was evaluated as being less intelligent and capable than the neutrally dressed executive. But when the woman was described as a receptionist, the ratings were the same across the board.

And yes, there is a double standard here, ‘Men don’t have a lot of choices in how they dress for work,’ points out Peter Glick, PhD, professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and the lead author on the study. ‘But because women do make deliberate choices, people make a lot of inferences from how they present themselves.’ And unfortunately, he adds, women are still often categorised into one of three slots: homemaker, career woman or sexy woman. If you seem to veer toward one category, it can damage your standing in another.

‘The problem,’ says Glick, ‘is that in media and on television, we’re seeing the sexualisation of professional women, but in the true-life workplace, it can be a real trap.’

What you have to keep in mind, says Sardella, is that in the work arena, ‘you’re creating a brand for yourself – the product is you – and your appearance plays into that.’ Her first rule: Neatness. Her second: Match your environment. ‘Pay attention to what others are wearing,’ she advises, ‘particularly those in positions of authority or respect.’ The one situation in which you should always err on the conservative side, Sardella adds, is your initial job interview – no matter how hip you think the company is.

Certain fields do offer more latitude. ‘In trend-focused businesses like advertising, graphic design, web design and public relations,’ says Friedman, ‘a more sexy or casual style can often be appropriate and a conservative suit might even be out of place… but there are limits.’

Friedman concludes, ‘You don’t need to have zero sex appeal or style.’ But if you want to ensure that the perception of you at work stays professional, you might want to save that slit-up-to-there skirt for your next killer date.

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