Forget the Glass Ceiling, We Have Hemlines to Consider

A Mad Men-esque guide geared towards summer associates at law firms is making waves for advising ladies to wear skirts to appeal to men, makeup to look healthy and competent, and heels to appear more powerful. Ugh. But maybe it's a tad unrealistic to tell women otherwise.

An interview New York University professor Anna Akbari titled "Summer Associates: Please Don't Dress Like Fashion Victims," ran on Above the Law recently; the writer admits the piece is heavily focused on women's fashion choices because "ladies just have a lot more to deal with when it comes to dressing for work in a professional setting."

While most men are able to slip into a suit and head out into the world looking dapper as can be, women have to worry about their hair, their makeup, their Spanx, their heel height, their bra, their accessories, and most importantly, the social mores of their office.

It would be naive to pretend that most of that isn't true. But is it possible to be brutally honest without perpetuating sexist stereotypes? Not for Akbari, apparently, who doesn't waste a second lamenting double standards and doles out advice that's pretty shocking to hear from a Manhattan-based female professor in 2012. Some examples:

"If you're going to wear a suit, a skirt suit registers better than a pant suit. In male-dominated fields like law, skirts and dresses are particularly rewarded, as they are more appealing to men. In interview situations in particular, women should always wear a skirt or dress, as it is heavily favored over pants by interviewers (many of whom are men)."

"If you're wearing pants, opt for something more feminine on top (that means a collarless blouse or sweater). If you're wearing a more flowing skirt on the bottom, a collared shirt is fine, but consider belting it to make it more feminine"

"Studies have proven that women in makeup are rewarded in the workplace and perceived as more competent. At a minimum, use mascara and lip gloss - and a little healthy glow on your cheeks can give a nice boost, as well."

"What about flats? Avoid flats, except in emergencies. They do nothing for your stature or outfit, and they are some of the least powerful footwear you can wear."

It's easy to get riled up after reading Akbari's advice. We should wear skirts and dresses because they're more "appealing" to men? Women who wear makeup and heels are perceived to be more competent and powerful? "A little healthy glow" is an interview priority?

But the legal associates we spoke with told us that, like it or not, many of these stereotypes ring true — and women who don't dress the part might not land the job. "The best thing to do is use it to your advantage," one 26-year-old full-time associate said.

However, that doesn't mean Akbari's advice is totally legit, or that Above the Law should have published such an antiquated viewpoint without at least acknowledging how fucked up it is that women are expected to appear "feminine" and "powerful" at the same time while men basically just have to shave and show up. And that particular word choice is odd, since the associates we spoke with said it's more about looking professional, sophisticated, groomed and competent than it is about looking like a lady; Akbari didn't have to drop the word "feminine" four times or play up the differences between "powerful" male interviewers and lowly lady associates who only have a chance of getting the job if they wear mascara and pumps.

We asked some associates for interview fashion tips that are realistic yet don't sound like they were ripped out of the pages of Cosmo. "I was once told by a female interviewer to make sure that I wear my hair in a low pony tail during my interview and not to wear it down, since she noticed I was distracted by it down," one said. Another told us it's a good bet to button your suit jacket, even if you wouldn't normally do so, and that heels aren't necessary but "a safe bet, especially if you're a smaller person, since it's an easy way to look more adult." What about makeup? "Everyone looks more put together when they're groomed," one said. "I don't think that's sexist; we're not talking about bright red lipstick or fake lashes. It's just the truth."

What about the dreaded skirt suit? A lawyer at an entertainment law firm in California said she thought Akbari's advice was "ridiculous" and that she didn't think skirts were necessary in the slightest, but everyone else we spoke with said skirt suits were the safest way to go. One recent Manhattan-based law school grad said her career counselor told her to wear a skirt suit to interviews, even though she feels more comfortable in pants suits. "They said it looks more professional as a woman and sends a better vibe to the corporate law firms," she explained.

Do skirt suits "send a better vibe" to corporate interviewers because they make women look more feminine? Maybe. And although it sucks to play that game — and make no mistake, it often is a game and it does suck, no more so than at the beginning of your career — is it worth being a sartorial trailblazer if you can't get through the front door? Get the job. Be good at your job. Then maybe start thumbing your nose at some of the deeper-seeded bullshit, if that's what you want to do. It's not just a matter of picking your battles; it's also knowing when, exactly, to pick them.

Corporette, a fashion and lifestyle blog for businesswomen, deals with the skirt suit question well. "We know, we know: feminism, equality, misogyny, etc. We're not saying it's cool. We're saying it's a crazy world out there and you should go with the most conservative option available if you want the job — which for women is a skirt suit." When a commenter argued that she didn't think that was the case — "When I was interviewing for a BigLaw job I only wore pantsuits and was something like 11 offers out of 12 interviews. Now I interview law school candidates all the time and I can't say I even notice if they are wearing a skirt or a pantsuit" — the blog explained its reasoning:

I'd say that slingbacks and pantsuits are on the same level: no one born after 1950 will have a problem with them. However… you're not always being interviewed by people who were born after 1950. Regarding pantsuits, we heard a story through a friend (can't remember if it was his judge or a friend's judge) of a blind judge who would make his clerks tell him when women lawyers were wearing pantsuits. And THAT is why we will always wear a skirt suit for a first impression.

That's real talk. The judge may be sexist, but to communicate the reality of what's going on out there, and give advice, certainly isn't. It's fine to acknowledge that women are held to different standards and give them tips on how to deal, but it's hurtful to effectively enforce those stereotypes by being so breezy about it. So instead of teaching young women that they should wear skirts to "appeal" to male interviewers and makeup so they'll be "rewarded" in the workplace, let's discuss the best ways to present ourselves as the competent, intelligent, kickass woman we are. And if that means eschewing flats, so be it. But do it for yourself and your career, and not because you want some dude behind a mahogany desk to notice you. Your interview and resumé should take care of that part.

Photo via Austin Adams/Shutterstock.