This one goes out to my friend Kayleigh, who had this happen to her and informed me that I should blog about it. Because talking about theatre and my family was getting old, anyway, and it’s time to get angry again.
Kayleigh got dressed up nicely for work the other day. You know, she put on a skirt instead of slacks, some heels, a nice blouse, wore a little jewelry and some makeup. No occasion, just felt like maybe she would feel more professional and ready to face the day. It was unseasonably warm out, so she didn’t have to worry about her legs getting too cold. Also, and primarily, she was out of clean pants.
A male coworker of about her age (early twenties, went to Boston College as she did) comes over to her and says, “Look at you, all dressed up. Are you trying to impress a guy?”
I don’t even know how to get into this one, so let’s dive right in. First of all, the sheer inappropriateness of assuming that a coworker of any sex is doing anything to attract someone romantically or sexually. That doesn’t belong in the workplace, period. Second, the specific assumption that when women wear “feminine” clothing or dress up, that they must be doing it for a male gaze. Third, for my friend this brought up questions of whether his problem was her being feminine in the workplace (would dressing to a similar level of formality but in more masculine clothes, like a pantsuit, have elicited a similar response?).
Are skirts “less professional” than pants?
Was professionality even the question here?
If your male coworker wears a button-down shirt and tie to work, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that your first assumption for the reason is not going to be that he wants to impress his female coworker.
Ok, sure, let’s look at a hypothetical. Let’s say your male friend usually wears rumpled clothing, doesn’t seem to care much about shaving, sometimes wears sneakers to work, and generally seems to not be bothered with his appearance at work, and so far has not been reprimanded for being unprofessional. One day he comes in with gel in his hair, a face as smooth as silk, a freshly-pressed shirt and an impeccably tied tie. Obviously something has happened or changed in his mind to motivate him to make that change.
But be honest. Devoid of any other context, how likely are you to assume he’s doing it for a woman as opposed to for himself or for his job or because his parents are in town or because he hasn’t done laundry in ages and figured he should look the part of the last unsoiled garments he has?
I guess we do this to everyone to some extent. The guy in the above example might plausibly get some ribbing about a hot date that night, although I do think that he’d be less likely than a female coworker to get ribbed about doing it specifically to impress someone at work. Maybe that’s just my biases talking.
In this case, not that it makes a huge difference, my friend Kayleigh is usually very put-together. She takes care of her hair and her skin, dresses nicely as a rule, and wears makeup. There was no dramatic switch-up; she was wearing a skirt on a warm day. And when you come down to it, what pisses me off is this: That some random guy she doesn’t know very well, who knows nothing about whether or not she’s attracted to men, the context of her job, the stress and rigor of her department, thought he was entitled to call her out on her personal life and make assumptions about the reasons behind her choice of wardrobe, and to do so in a way that plays into some pretty demeaning stereotypes and that instantly deflated her good feelings about herself and her level of professionality.
And that’s not okay.