Should women de-feminise for the office?

There is an article published on the London Times website yesterday, by a woman commenting on the opinion of the dressmaker to Gordon Brown’s wife, a woman whose day job is at a hedge fund, that women should not be “afraid to be women” and wear a dress (like one of hers) to the office. The author, Helen Rumbelow, says that in fact, the workplace is a masculine environment and that in such environments, women are better off behaving, and dressing, like men.

Rumbelow noted that, among feminists in the 1970s, “aping men” was common with trousers and cropped hair, but:

That mood has reversed entirely in the past decade or two. Women are now constantly told they can have both - be glamorous, desirable and feminine and get to the top in macho professions. Forever we are hearing the mantra that women “bring something different” to the boardroom and should be celebrated for that difference. I think this could be a big mistake.

Her reply is that reminders of femininity actually impair women in traditionally masculine pursuits, whether they be academic or part of a career, and the same is true of race where race is associated with disadvantage:

There is now a large body of evidence that shows how damaging stereotypes are. Because black people are rarely lauded for their academic ability, simply making a black student more aware of his race is enough to lower his academic peformance. All it takes to lower a bright black child’s test scores is to first ask him to tick a box identifying his race. The same for women - because it is taken as a truism that girls are less good at “hard subjects” like maths and science, all it takes to lower a girl’s score on a maths exam is first to ask her to state her gender.

It is for this reason that social scientists think that girls do better at maths and science in all-girls schools - they are not constantly reminded of their difference. In mixed schools, uniforms may help because they suppress apparent differences and therefore negative stereotypes. The eminent expert in this field, Judith Rich Harris, said: “I would be very interested in the outcome of an experiment that put schoolgirls and boys into identical unisex uniforms.”

I would disagree with the characterisation of maths and science as “hard subjects”. They are seen in some quarters as masculine subjects, because they are analytical and do not involve imagination and empathy in the same way as English (particularly literature, and particularly the way it is taught nowadays). Maths is very easy for some people; a whole lot easier than understanding several substantial literary works inside out.

As with school subjects, there are certain stereotypes about how women function in business:

It is the case that women are generally considered less good at numbers, less aggressive in making deals and in general less suited to City success. From a social science point of view, all of Lintner’s talk about “embracing femininity” and dressing to emphasise womanliness would therefore conspire to hold her female clients back. It would give everyone - men and women - the unhelpful reminder of how poorly women are supposed to perform in business. Since the 1990s we have spent all this time “celebrating” and therefore exaggerating women’s difference at work, when we might have done better to keep quiet and find some ways of diminishing those differences. In jobs where women are “supposed” to do well, such as the arts, it doesn’t matter. But in jobs to which they are not seen as well suited, it might.

I am sure some will point out that the whole issue doesn’t affect me and that I’m just a man (and not one who’s particularly experienced in office culture) and that my opinion doesn’t count. However, I do see some problems with Rumbelow’s solution.

1. She’s got the feminists of the 1970s wrong

The feminists of the 1970s did not merely advocate women playing down their femininity to succeed in the workplace; they argued that femininity itself was a construct intended to put women “in their place”, and was an instrument of oppression which women should throw off for its own sake. Rumbelow would presumably be happy with women changing out of their trouser suits into a dress when they get home, or when they go out, something that the likes of Sheila Jeffreys would not be seen doing in a month of Sundays.

2. You can only disguise femininity so far

One of the first two commenters on Rumbelow’s piece opined that you cannot disguise women by putting them in masculine clothing, because it’s “all in the pheromones”. Before anyone gets a whiff of pheromone, however, there comes the issue of women’s faces being different, women’s voices being different, women’s hair being different (and not as easy to change as one’s clothes) and women’s figures being different. Women have bosoms, which are usually pretty obvious, which makes any attempt at “defeminising” by wearing a shirt and tie and a pair of trousers pointless.

3. Nobody needs reminding about their sex

People’s male or female identity is ingrained very early on in childhood; children know when they are toddlers, let alone children, which they are (even if they don’t know the words male or female), and research has shown that people do not generally forget it, even if they have advanced dementia. It causes discomfort to anyone, a child or an adult, to face attempts to shoehorn them into a role which goes against it. I recall a story I was told about a family friend who was trying to get her daughter, aged four or five, to wear trousers, which she did not want to do; she wanted to wear dresses (incidentally, the mother usually wore skirts). When given a pair of trousers as a present, she replied something to the effect of “thank you very much … but it’s trousers again”. When a school near Ipswich banned girls from wearing skirts to school, because some girls were wearing skirts too short and cycling in them, some girls complained that they wanted to wear skirts because they were more feminine. Some American county jails have been known to use pink underwear for male inmates, and publicise the fact, presumably as both a humiliation and a deterrent.

If we are to try to reduce the effect of gender stereotypes on achievement in schools, a better way than simply requiring everyone to wear a unisex uniform is to allow the students or pupils to wear whatever (appropriate) clothing they find comfortable, thus avoiding either cramping their styles or imposing a particular interpretation of their gender on them, in the form of an uncomfortable uniform.

4. People still judge women as women

This is the most important problem, because people respond differently to the actions of a woman than those of a man, regardless of whether they leave their femininity at home in the morning. In 1999, Carly Fiorina became chief executive of Hewlett Packard, and told a press conference that “the glass ceiling doesn’t exist”. In 2005, she was sacked, and blamed attitudes towards her on gender, complaining that when men fired people, they were hailed as decisive, while the same action by a woman was called vindictive; stories circulated about her always travelling with a hairdresser and that her office had a pink decor, and that she was routinely referred to in chatrooms as a bimbo or bitch.

Others say that she was sacked for being bad at her job. However, she would not be the only powerful woman in history to be judged differently than a man would. Take Margaret Thatcher, for example. She surrounded herself with men, and men on the political right remarked on her use of feminine charm and even, in one case, on her beauty. The left, however, regarded her as cold and uncompassionate. As education minister in the Conservative government of the early 1970s, she abolished free milk for schoolchildren, which resulted in her acquiring the nickname “Margaret Thatcher the Milk Snatcher”. The Marxist folk singer, Ewan MacColl, wrote a song about her entitled The Grocer, in which he described her thus:

Her hair was the best that money could buy,
her eyes were china blue;
I swear they wouldn't look out of place
on a frozen cockatoo.
She'd a nose like the blade of a metal saw,
a voice like a tungsten drill,
She used it to bore the natives
when she'd a couple of hours to kill.

People expect women to be soft and warm; when they defy this expectation, people (men and women) resent them, even if they would not resent a man who took such a position. For example, the John Major government, which succeeded Thatcher and is notorious for closing hospitals, introducing a tax on domestic fuel and standing by while massacres and mass rapes went on in the former Yugoslavia, refusing even to allow refugees into the UK, is not remembered with such hatred as icy, unmaternal, milk-snatching Maggie. Nick Cohen has noted that Major-era politicians are remembered as kindly old liberal Tories despite this appalling record. (Hillary Clinton was also attacked as unfeminine, but this was more a political smear focussed on her style than a reaction to anything she actually did as a politician.)

Thatcher is not the only right-wing politician to have been accused of being unfeminine. A blogger I read often said the following about Sarah Palin, accusing her of having no loyalty to other women:

I think men, more specifically the Patriarchy, should reclaim Sarah Palin as one of their own. I have decided she just isn’t a woman. If she were actually female, she might have one molecule of respect for other women. I always said women sell each other out and that is why there is a patriarchy to begin with, but when it comes to hitting rock bottom, women usually come back together. Sarah Palin has hit rock bottom and she is still hanging with the menz.

So, doing away with dresses for the office is not going to make male executives feel neutral about their female colleagues and employees. Of course, if femininity means clothes which draw attention to the body, such as the dresses being sold by the designer mentioned in Helen Rumbelow’s article, I would be only too happy not to see it in the office or any other workplace, where it is an inappropriate distraction. (I recall having some middle-aged woman in a skirt less than halfway down her thighs and a top which did not cover her adequately either trying to sell me a computer at the Linux Expo last year, and struggling to keep looking at her face and avoid looking down. Men would get sent home for revealing anything like as much, and rightly so.) I suspect that doing away with skirts is not necessary; they simply need to be sober and concealing, as office dress always has been for men.

Of course, there is a certain trend of right-wing female opinion that states that women do not need anti-discrimination laws or any other allowances to get ahead in male-dominated professions; all it takes is talent and willpower. Whether Rumbelow herself believes this or not, I don’t know, but I more expect to read it in the Times (or the Daily Mail) than, say, the Guardian. Challenging taboos about asking how much colleagues earn, encouraging women to come forward for promotion, as men do, challenging intimidating, anti-female workplace customs such as putting topless pin-ups on the wall (particularly common in workshops, less so in offices) and rebutting any objections about humourlessness and political correctness, and making use of, and strengthening, legal mechanisms against discrimination, would surely be more effective than encouraging women not to dress like women for the office. After all, there are plenty of stereotypes about “manly” women (boiler suits etc.), and “ball-breaker” is a scarcely more complimentary label than “bimbo”, and not much more helpful in one’s career.

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