Gender Inclusive Professional Dress Guidelines

By Melena Postolowski posted 10-10-2017 08:34

Diversity and inclusion have become a major focus at colleges and universities across the nation. Many schools have declared a dedication to promoting inclusive excellence—but what does this look like outside of well-written mission statements and values-based activities held on campus? The answer to that question is a lot longer than one blog, but I can begin very simply by focusing on one area of inclusivity as it relates to career resources and education being offered to students. This example can also cross over into best practices for employer partners.

Traditionally and typically in career services, professional dress is taught in a way that separates what is considered appropriate male and female dress. Students seeking career advice may feel limited by these binary explanations and perspectives, especially if they hold a non-binary gender identification. Updating professional dress materials to be gender inclusive will allow for more students to be engaged in the professional development process in addition to being in line with inclusive practices.

From an employer perspective, having gender inclusive dress policies and examples will offer a safer and more inclusive work environment in addition to opening up recruiting to a more diverse candidate pool. The trick to “recruiting for diversity” is not just in recruiting a variety of people, but also in retaining a diverse work force. Having policies and practices that welcome more individuals to apply to your company and allow employees to feel comfortable staying there solves both pieces of that puzzle.  

There is not necessarily one “right” way to look like a man or a woman: gender varies, is subjective, and is open to individual interpretation. Additionally, and especially true for younger generations, there is language to describe identities void of the limitation of only two options (although variance in gender has occurred throughout time in different cultures). If you are using educational materials that exhibit a limited view of gender expression, you are excluding diversity which may cause students to tune out almost immediately. They may be thinking “this person doesn’t see me, there’s no way they are going to be able to help me” because, as we know, feelings of acceptance and belonging have a large effect on student learning, engagement, retention and general well-being.

A positive relationship between student and staff is going to be key in supporting gender minorities and this supportive learning environment begins with awareness. Therefore, if you’re not even aware that gendered language or assumptions can be harmful why would you change? Additionally, you can have your own personal views about gender conformity without it affecting your ability to work with a diverse group of students—inclusive practices can exist regardless of personal beliefs. The same holds true to supervisor and supervisee relationships in the workplace. 

So how do you make professional dress materials gender inclusive? Subtle language changes can make a huge difference: these are simple, but take conscious effort if inclusive language is not something you have been encouraged to practice on a daily basis. The solution: do not depict separate guidelines for men and women, just offer guidelines for people and allow them to decide where they fit in and what clothing they are most likely to wear.  

Because pictures paint a better understanding than words in a lot of instances, check out the gender inclusive professional dress infographic I worked with a marketing team to create for Stetson University while acting as their associate director of career and professional development, which has now been made available through NACE’s “Grab & Go” resource page. 

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(Click on the image to make it larger.)

You’ll notice there is no gender binary depicted and no directive is separated out to pertain to one particular “category” of people. If you’re someone who wears a skirt, professional dress expectations require that it be knee length. Ties are optional for business casual expectations for people who choose to wear ties. Wear makeup or nail polish? Make sure it’s natural in style if working within a professional setting. Hopefully you can see my point.

There are a lot of other areas of diversity and inclusion that influence the way that we talk about professional dress: don’t worry, there will be a follow-up blog to this one to discuss other things like race, body type, age, and ability. For today, you can start small by re-framing the language you use surrounding professional dress expectations to make a large difference among the people you are educating and interacting with.

(Want to double check that your school/organization’s professional dress materials are inclusive? I have been recognized as the Southern Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2016 “Champion of Diversity” and have offered consultation to several institutions regarding their professional dress materials. Message me if you’re interested:



03-23-2018 10:59

Thank you for this phenomenal resource!!! Scouring the internet when I should have just come here first. Thanks again!

10-16-2017 19:02

Thank you for this and for your advocacy!

10-14-2017 16:03

This is really great!  I had never thought about our attire guidelines having so many implications for gender.  I love the new materials that you created.