Dress for Success

There are a whole host of clichés that get thrown at you when you are trying to steel yourself for a job interview. Many of them have very little to do with actual qualifications and have more to do with appearance. “Make a positive first impression!” “Dress for success!” “Better to be overdressed than underdressed!” “Dress for the job you want and not the job you have!” Anyone who has ever asked for advice on this matter could surely add to this list.

What these fountains of wisdom don’t always speak about is how women are often judged more on their appearance than men are. This is a well-established truth in our society, and most do acknowledge it, but its pervasive extent is what I am most interested in revealing here.

Consider this advice column from a marketing officer who also conducts interviews with the aim of hiring people. He gives generally good advice by telling job seekers to make sure that their clothes are tailored to fit them as closely as possible and warning them against facial piercings and other marks that could repel a conservative interviewer. He also says to avoid busy or ostentatious colors. Again, this is not bad advice. A man who wants to work in high finance would likely not get very far by showing up for an interview wearing a bright orange suit with a paisley shirt.

But when this marketing officer discusses how women should dress, he uses the color red to make his point. Don’t, as a woman, he says, wear red to an interview. Why? Partly because it deviates from the standard that says bold colors like that should be reserved for accents such as scarves and not suits. He then goes on to relate the experience of interviewing a woman who came in for an interview with him wearing all red. He says that he was “distracted” by what she wore and worried that she might be “too aggressive” to work for his company. Fearing perhaps that these statements could sound derogatory, he felt the need to point out that she nonetheless “looked beautiful” and had “great energy.” Can you imagine a man applying this same thought process to another man he was interviewing? What would this interviewer say? “His suit was so bold it distracted me and I was afraid that his red tie said he would be too aggressive. I didn’t hire him even though he looked so handsome and seemed like a real go-getter.” I can’t say that no one has ever said these words in the whole history of interviewing and hiring, but it seems unlikely.

I write this not to frighten you away from taking the bold step to interview for a better job or to render you hopeless. I just want to make sure that you, as a female job-seeker, know that unconscious biases toward women for how they dress are so ingrained that a marketing expert who truly wants to give out helpful advice to women on what they should wear doesn’t even seem to realize the subtly sexist way he approaches the subject.

Keep in mind that you may very well be interviewed by a man for your next position. And remember that he may think the same way that this man does. So know that he will see you through a sexist filter no matter how consciously enlightened or truly devoted to equality he is when it comes to hiring. That’s just human nature. For now. At the same time, he’s not wrong: Save the red dress for your night on the town.