Continuing the Conversation About Inclusive Professional Dress Expectations: Where Do Race, Age, Class, Ability, Body Type, and Culture Come In?

By Melena Postolowski posted 11-14-2017 08:16

I​ ​first​ ​entered​ ​the​ ​field​ ​of​ ​career​ ​coaching​ ​while​ ​I​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the​ ​process​ ​of​ ​completing​ ​my graduate​ ​degree​ ​in​ ​counseling​ ​psychology.​ ​At​ ​the​ ​same​ ​time​ ​that​ ​I​ ​was​ ​learning​ ​about​ ​the potential​ ​detriments​ ​of​ ​cultural​ ​assimilation​ ​in​ ​class,​ ​I​ ​was​ ​figuring​ ​out​ ​how​ ​to​ ​navigate conversations​ ​about​ ​professional​ ​dress​ ​with​ ​the​ ​clients​ ​I​ ​was​ ​working​ ​with​ ​on​ ​job​ ​search preparation.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​some​ ​obvious​ ​incongruence​ ​between​ ​what​ ​I​ ​was​ ​learning​ ​in​ ​the classroom​ ​versus​ ​what​ ​I​ ​was​ ​learning​ ​in​ ​my​ ​professional​ ​realm.​ ​This​ ​always​ ​caused​ ​internal tension​ ​for​ ​me. 

One​ ​of​ ​my​ ​most​ ​memorable​ ​experiences​ ​was​ ​working​ ​work​ ​a​ ​bright,​ ​kind,​ ​highly​ ​competent international​ ​student​ ​from​ ​India.​ ​This​ ​particular​ ​student​ ​was​ ​a​ ​career​ ​coach’s​ ​dream:​ ​she always​ ​showed​ ​up​ ​to​ ​appointments​ ​with​ ​the​ ​utmost​ ​preparedness​ ​and​ ​followed​ ​all suggestions​ ​surrounding​ ​networking,​ ​following​ ​up​, ​and​ ​tailoring​ ​her​ ​resume​ ​to​ ​each​ ​job​ ​she applied​ ​to.​ ​The​ ​candidate​ ​had​ ​substantial​ ​past​ ​work​ ​experience,​ ​including​ ​running​ ​her​ ​own business,​ ​and​ ​an​ ​incredible​ ​transferable​ ​skill​ ​set.​ ​However,​ ​she​ ​continued​ ​to​ ​struggle​ ​with finding​ ​a​ ​job. 

Before​ ​an​ ​approaching​ ​career​ ​fair,​ ​the​ ​student​ ​asked​ ​to​ ​meet​ ​to​ ​show​ ​me​ ​what​ ​she​ ​planned on​ ​wearing​ ​to​ ​the​ ​event.​ ​She​ ​arrived​ ​at​ ​my​ ​office​ ​in​ ​a​ ​beautiful,​ ​exquisite​ ​saree​ ​and​ ​I​ ​didn’t know​ ​what​ ​to​ ​say.​ ​The​ ​conversation​ ​ultimately​ ​resulted​ ​in​ ​encouraging​ ​the​ ​student’s freedom​ ​to​ ​choose​ ​for​ ​herself​ ​while​ ​acknowledging​ ​that​ ​recruiters​ ​at​ ​the​ ​event​ ​would​ ​be expecting​ ​candidates​ ​to​ ​wear​ ​western​-​style​ ​business​ ​suits.​ ​I​ ​went​ ​through​ ​all​ ​of​ ​the components​ ​of​ ​the​ ​outfit​ ​with​ ​her​ ​and​ ​helped​ ​identify​ ​local​ ​shops​ ​where​ ​she​ ​could​ ​find something​ ​affordable.​ ​Days​ ​later​ ​she​ ​showed​ ​up​ ​to​ ​my​ ​office​ ​in​ ​the​ ​most​ ​typical,​ ​grey two-piece​ ​suit​ ​and​ ​my​ ​heart​ ​broke.​ ​I​ ​told​ ​her​ ​she​ ​looked​ ​great​ ​and​ ​wished​ ​her​ ​the​ ​best​ ​at the​ ​fair.​ ​Sure​ ​enough,​ ​she​ ​got​ ​a​ ​job​ ​offer​ ​almost​ ​immediately​ ​after​ ​the​ ​event​ ​and​ ​is​ ​one​ ​of the​ ​handful​ ​of​ ​international​ ​students​ ​I​ ​have​ ​worked​ ​with​ ​who​ ​were​ ​successful​ ​in​ ​remaining​ ​in the​ ​United States​ ​after​ ​graduation.​ ​I​ ​can’t​ ​help​ ​but​ ​ask:​ ​​Was this candidate’s job search success solely based on the fact that she put on that gray suit?

This​ ​experience,​ ​and​ ​my​ ​experience​ ​working​ ​with​ ​a​ ​variety​ ​of​ ​other​ ​students​ ​from​ ​different walks​ ​of​ ​life,​ ​really​ ​made​ ​me​ ​think​ ​about​ ​the​ ​concept​ ​of​ ​“professional​ ​dress.”​ ​Where​ ​do
these​ ​ideals​ ​come​ ​from?​ ​Who​ ​are​ ​we​ ​helping​ ​by​ ​maintaining​ ​these​ ​ideals?​ ​Who​ ​are​ ​we hurting? 

The​ ​student’s​ ​goal​ ​was​ ​to​ ​find​ ​employment​ ​in​ ​the​ ​United States ​and​ ​by​ ​those​ ​means,​ ​she​ ​was successful.​ ​I​ ​just​ ​wonder​ ​if​ ​her​ ​heart​ ​broke​ ​as​ ​much​ ​as​ ​mine​ ​did​ ​when​ ​she​ ​had​ ​to​ ​hang​ ​up the​ ​saree.

I​ ​began​ ​discussing​ ​the​ ​topic​ ​of​ ​professional​ ​dress​ ​as​ ​it​ ​relates​ ​to​ ​diversity​ ​and​ ​inclusion.​ ​I wanted​ ​something​ ​to​ ​change​ ​in​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​we​ ​approach​ ​these​ ​conversations​ ​so​ ​I​ ​started by​ ​removing​ ​the​ ​gender​ ​binary​ ​that​ ​is​ ​so​ ​often​ ​associated​ ​with​ ​this​ ​concept,​ ​which​ ​I​ ​wrote about​ ​in​ ​my​ ​last​ ​blog​ ​post.

I​ ​presented​ ​on​ ​how​ ​to​ ​better​ ​include​ ​the​ ​gender​ ​spectrum​ ​within​ ​professional​ ​dress materials​ ​at​ ​the​ ​2016​ ​FloridaACE​ ​Annual​ ​Conference​ ​and​ ​was​ ​blown​ ​away​ ​by​ ​my audience’s​ ​response.​ ​After​ ​the​ ​formal​ ​presentation,​ ​everyone​ ​in​ ​the​ ​room​ ​came​ ​together​ ​to discuss​ ​other​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​which​ ​diversity​ ​and​ ​inclusion​ ​are​ ​affected​ ​by​ ​professional​ ​dress standards​ ​and​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a​ ​call​ ​for​ ​a​ ​2.0​ ​version​ ​of​ ​the​ ​presentation.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​the​ ​opportunity​ ​to present​ ​again​ ​during​ ​the​ ​FloridaACE​ ​Drive-in​ ​Conference​ ​in​ ​the​ ​fall​ ​of​ ​2016​ ​and​ ​included​ ​a variety​ ​of​ ​other​ ​recommendations​ ​based​ ​on​ ​the​ ​requests​ ​I​ ​received​ ​from​ ​my​ ​industry​ ​peers over​ ​the​ ​summer. 

Some​ ​of​ ​these​ ​additional​ ​diversity-related​ ​considerations​ ​are​ ​as​ ​follows:

● Within​ ​your​ ​professional​ ​dress​ ​educational​ ​materials,​ ​do​ ​you​ ​have​ ​variety​ ​in racial​ ​representation?​ ​It​ ​is​ ​important​ ​to​ ​feature​ ​models​ ​that​ ​represent​ ​a​ ​wide spectrum​ ​of​ ​diversity,​ ​not​ ​just​ ​one​ ​particular​ ​type​ ​of​ ​student/employee.​ ​Also,​ ​do you​ ​make​ ​reference​ ​to​ ​“natural”​ ​hairstyles?​ ​This​ ​concept​ ​means​ ​different things​ ​to​ ​different​ ​people​ ​(for​ ​example,​ ​between​ ​a​ ​Caucasian​ ​person​ ​and​ ​a person​ ​of​ ​color)​ ​so​ ​I​ ​would​ ​recommend​ ​avoiding​ ​this​ ​language.​ ​If​ ​the​ ​point​ ​is​ ​to have​ ​neat​ ​hair​ ​that​ ​is​ ​out​ ​of​ ​one’s​ ​face,​ ​then​ ​just​ ​focus​ ​on​ ​that.​ ​Hair​ ​can​ ​be​ ​up, down,​ ​or​ ​out​ ​and​ ​still​ ​be​ ​considered​ ​professional.

● Age​ ​may​ ​be​ ​less​ ​relevant​ ​for​ ​more​ ​traditional​ ​campuses,​ ​but​ ​there​ ​are​ ​plenty​ ​of blended​ ​campuses​ ​in​ ​which​ ​age​ ​diversity​ ​would​ ​be​ ​important​ ​to​ ​think​ ​about. Ensuring​ ​your​ ​veterans,​ ​for​ ​example,​ ​are​ ​feeling​ ​included​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​your​ ​more traditional​ ​graduate​ ​is​ ​something​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​in​ ​mind.​ ​Also,​ ​on​ ​the​ ​flip​ ​side—​you can’t​ ​just​ ​have​ ​pictures​ ​of​ ​“adults”​ ​at​ ​work​ ​because​ ​younger​ ​students​ ​will​ ​not identify​ ​with​ ​that.​ ​Similarly,​ ​most​ ​workplaces​ ​now​ ​have​ ​a​ ​wide​ ​range​ ​of​ ​age representation​ ​among​ ​their​ ​employees​, ​so​ ​this​ ​point​ ​remains​ ​relevant. 

● In​ ​regards​ ​to​ ​socioeconomic​ ​class,​ ​are​ ​you​ ​offering​ ​tips​ ​on​ ​finding​ ​affordable professional​ ​dress​ ​options​ ​within​ ​your​ ​community?​ ​Some​ ​schools​ ​offer consignment​ ​clothing​ ​that​ ​students​ ​can​ ​borrow​ ​for​ ​an​ ​interview​ ​as​ ​well. Employers​​—​can​ ​you​ ​think​ ​of​ ​any​ ​“perks”​ ​you​ ​could​ ​offer​ ​employees​ ​to​ ​help offset​ ​the​ ​cost​ ​of​ ​professional​ ​clothing​ ​if​ ​that​ ​is​ ​the​ ​cultural​ ​expectation​ ​in​ ​your workplace?

● Are​ ​you​ ​representing​ ​people​ ​with​ ​physical​ ​differences?​ ​Do​ ​candidates​ ​in wheelchairs​ ​have​ ​an​ ​example​ ​to​ ​look​ ​to?​ ​In​ ​regards​ ​to​ ​body​ ​type,​ ​do​ ​all​ ​of​ ​your images​ ​resemble​ ​GQ​ ​models?​ ​If​ ​so…​ ​you​ ​may​ ​want​ ​to​ ​rethink​ ​that.

● Have​ ​you​ ​ever​ ​thought​ ​of​ ​including​ ​professional​ ​dress​ ​images​ ​with​ ​someone wearing​ ​a​ ​hijab?​ ​How​ ​about​ ​a​ ​yarmulke?​ ​If​ ​not,​ ​it​ ​may​ ​be​ ​worth​ ​reflecting​ ​on why​ ​this​ ​decision​ ​was​ ​made.

● How​ ​do​ ​you​ ​talk​ ​about​ ​tattoos​ ​and​ ​piercings?​ ​If​ ​you​ ​automatically​ ​have​ ​a​ ​“zero tolerance”​ ​stance​ ​you​ ​may​ ​be​ ​ostracizing​ ​the​ ​student​ ​you​ ​are​ ​working with/candidate​ ​you​ ​are​ ​interviewing:​ ​approximately​ ​50 percent​ ​of​ ​adults​ ​ages​ ​18​ ​to​ ​24 have​ ​at​ ​least​ ​one​ ​tattoo​ ​and​ ​this​ ​age​ ​range​ ​is​ ​the​ ​largest​ ​makeup​ ​of​ ​the​ ​current work force.​ ​It​ ​is​ ​understandable​ ​that​ ​many​ ​industries​ ​will​ ​still​ ​have​ ​the expectation​ ​that​ ​there​ ​are​ ​not​ ​visible​ ​piercings​ ​or​ ​tattoos​ ​in​ ​the​ ​workplace,​ ​but you​ ​can​ ​talk​ ​about​ ​this​ ​from​ ​an​ ​educational​ ​standpoint​ ​and​ ​ask​ ​folks​ ​to​ ​cover these​ ​up​ ​in​ ​a​ ​kind​ ​way.​ ​For​ ​example,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​worked​ ​with​ ​one​ ​employer​ ​who offered​ ​a​ ​job​ ​to​ ​a​ ​candidate​ ​​before  ​asking​ ​him​ ​to​ ​hide​ ​his​ ​tattoo.​ ​They​ ​wanted him​ ​to​ ​know​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​their​ ​top​ ​choice​ ​for​ ​the​ ​role​ ​and​ ​that​ ​the​ ​tattoo coverage​ ​was​ ​just​ ​an​ ​expectation​ ​of​ ​the​ ​job,​ ​rather​ ​than​ ​a​ ​reason​ ​why​ ​he wouldn’t​ ​receive​ ​an​ ​offer.

The​ ​reality​ ​is​ ​that​ ​there​ ​are​ ​industry​ ​expectations​ ​and​ ​western​ ​style​ ​business​ ​suits​ ​are​ ​not going​ ​out​ ​of​ ​style​ ​anytime​ ​soon,​ ​but​ ​there​ ​are​ ​ways​ ​in​ ​which​ ​we​ ​can​ ​handle​ ​the​ ​concept​ ​of professional​ ​dress​ ​with​ ​some​ ​more​ ​flexibility.​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​have​ ​all​ ​the​ ​answers​ ​and​ ​I​ ​know​ ​that​ ​it would​ ​be​ ​a​ ​difficult​ ​task​ ​to​ ​ensure​ ​that​ ​​everyone ​feels​ ​included,​ ​but​ ​I​ ​also​ ​know​ ​that​ ​we​ ​can all​​ ​be​ ​better​ ​at​ ​making​ ​sure​ ​​more​ ​people​ ​feel​ ​included.​ ​Regardless​ ​of​ ​our​ ​own​ ​personal belief​ ​systems,​ ​political​ ​affiliation​, ​or​ ​culture​ ​of​ ​origin,​ ​we​ ​work​ ​in​ ​industries​ ​that​ ​serve​ ​people and​ ​each​ ​day​ ​we​ ​show​ ​up​ ​to​ ​work​ ​we​ ​act​ ​as​ ​role​ ​models. 

So,​ ​what​ ​messages​ ​are​ ​you​ ​sending​ ​about​ ​professional​ ​dress?



11-15-2017 09:17

This topic goes well beyond dress--it's an issue of personal identity. In one of our intensive programs we talk about the habitus of different professions, meaning the manner of presentation accepted as the norm (e.g., suits in banks). Then we discuss the idea of identity consonance--when the new norm is a good fit for your personal identity--versus identity dissonance. Positive identity dissonance occurs when the new norm fits with your vision of the new you to which you aspire, even if it's very different than what you're used to (think of Melanie Griffith's character in the film Working Girl). Negative identity dissonance is when you feel you're giving up something integral to the self when you adapt to the new norm. Helping students work out where they are on this spectrum and deciding their lines in the sand is an important part of the advising process.