So let me preface this post by saying -- Yes girl, you SHOULD be able to wear what you want. But let’s be real, you can’t. The fact is, if you don’t work for yourself, there are certain rules and customs that you have to follow. Those in job hiring and admission committee positions are from a time where there was a strict policy on what was professional dress and what wasn’t. And until they retire (which they probably won’t be doing anytime soon) or until you get in that position, those dress codes will remain intact.
Now there are some industries in STEM, such as Tech, where the dress code is a little more slack. But other than that, you have got to be on point.
I have two very real examples of why it matters what you wear. The Director of my former graduate program would always tell us…
If you look in the mirror before going to work or coming to class and say, “Damn, I look sexy”. Immediately go back to your closet and find something else to wear.
Of course all of us would roll our eyes and just think this was another middle aged woman trying to tell us what to do and how to look. But the reality of it is, she was right. You are not at work or school to look sexy. Do that on your own time. Now this isn’t to say that you should not look good, and well groomed. Sexy and being well groomed are totally different things.
I remember sitting in my Director's office having a conversation with her and she telling me this story that will forever stick with me. Before she was the Director of our program, she worked for a major public health government agency. She was just an advisor there but she made sure to always look good and dress for where she wanted to be. Did you get that? If not, the next time you go to work or school and look at the person that holds a high position that you want one day, I want you to look at what they have on. Then you’ll get my point. AND, another tidbit of advice from her, Never dress down on Casual Fridays. Yes, the company has given you this day to wear something ‘casual’ from your everyday work wear...Don’t Do It! Once again if you notice, the higher ups in the company are still in their business suits and dresses.
Important decisions are made in meetings on Friday to be implemented on Monday. #nocasualfriday
But I digress…
She was working hard, being excellent in everything she did, and looked the part. One day, the agency got word that they needed to fill a Director position ASAP and it had to be someone within the agency. She was minding her business walking down the hall when the Director of the overarching section of the agency she was working in asked if he could see her in his office. He explained to her that every time he saw her she always looked like she was about business. He didn’t really know who she was at first so he asked around to see. After learning who she was, he looked at her work and was thoroughly impressed. Do you know what happened next? He offered her the Director position! This black woman, from southern Louisiana, who went exclusively to HBCUs, no Ivy Leagues, no major family connections, was being offered a Director's position based on how she dressed for work. Granted, her work ethic was out of this world -- but this man knew nothing about that until after he noticed how she was dressed. Still not convinced that what you wear matters? Here’s example #2.
I was interviewing potential candidates for the incoming class of my former graduate program. I was paired with another former graduate of the program. He held a Master's and PhD, and he is the Director of a branch in a government agency. Although he holds these degrees and has a perceived important job, he is still very down to earth and extremely funny. One of our interviewees was a lovely girl who was just wonderful on paper. Her GPA was on point, she had lots of research experience, and was very active in her community. Once we finished the interview I turned to him and stated that I thought she would be a perfect fit for the program. He look at me and said, “Yeah, but didn’t she look a little ‘homey’ to you?” Now did I notice that she was dressed a little plain, that her shirt could have used a little bit more ironing, her hair a little more combing, and her shoes were a little on the clunky side? Yes. I noticed all these things but once we started the interview that all sort of disappeared once I started to realize how excellent she was. Unfortunately, for him her physical presentation did not disappear and he actually took points off of her interview score for it.
Now I know you’re saying, ‘Serena, this is not fair’ or, ‘These are just examples of men being men and rewarding women on their looks’. And you know what you’re absolutely right. It’s not fair...but life is not fair. And yes, these are just men being men, but, these men hold authority that could have a major affect on your life. Let’s face it, the world, especially STEM, is mainly run by men. And, unfortunately we have to play the game that they have in place in order to have a seat at the table. Now once, we have a seat, then we can implement change. But you can’t implement change until you get there. Now, this is not a pass to go and do thot behavior with the men at your workplace or school...you know better than that.
So, I took you down this journey of memory lane to show you that what you wear indeed matters. In the workplace and at at school.
I wouldn't leave you hanging without giving you a few examples of some items that you can incorporate in your wardrobe to help you on your success journey.
I know you want to show off those new stilettos that you recently purchased, but please don’t. As a rule of thumb: if it has a platform and is over 3 ½ inches, don’t wear it to work or school. However, you can get around the 3 ½ inch rule by having a shoe that does not have a platform and has a skinny heel. Also, you can still keep it fun. Add some color and print to your shoes to show your style.
You already know: not too tight, not too short, and not too revealing. If you wouldn’t wear it to church or out with your granny you should probably rethink it. And again, it’s ok to play with color. Make it fun.
Now this is a touchy area. Especially when it comes to hair. I myself am natural and 90% of the time wear my hair in its natural state at work and when I was in school. However, I always made sure that it looked kept. Can you rock your fro? Of course! But be mindful of it’s presentation and your environment. And if your employer or school does not favor the hair that God gave you, then you should be seeking other employment or having a serious conversation with your Dean.
As far as accessories and makeup, simple is best. But, you can add your own style by adding signature pieces. I myself am not a big earring person and I usually stick to nice pearls or gold studs. But I do love statement necklaces, a nice watch, and a few rings.
For makeup, the conventional idea is not too heavy and bold. And I agree when it comes to going on an interview. However, once I land the job or receive my acceptance letter, your girl rocks a bold lip almost everyday. But, the remainder of my makeup is simple. Do what works for you and your style but remember to keep it professional.
I hope these examples and tips have helped you to start thinking about how you present yourself in professional settings. First impressions are everything; and, unfortunately people tend to judge us on how we look before they even hear a word out of our mouths.
As always I want to hear from you? Have you received or been declined an opportunity because of the way you dressed? What do you think about conventional professional rules on dressing? Let me know in the comments section or our private success community!