The Price of Clothing

 Photo credit: vonderauvisuals from Flicker

Photo credit: vonderauvisuals from Flicker

Equity is not only about preventing and responding to sexual harassment, or equalizing pay. Gender norms are far more pervasive and embedded in the fabric of our workplaces. For example, what women wear to work can often feel like a tightrope walk, where it’s all too easy to make a misstep and become the subject of scrutiny by co-workers – male and female.


Appearance plays a large role in how women are perceived at the office. Research shows that women who spend more time on their appearance are more likely to get promoted and women who wear make-up are more likely to earn a higher salary. As development workers, we have closets full of corporate-looking dresses, pantsuits, and high heels to show that this gender norm is alive and well in our field. Each day we make small but intensely scrutinized decisions about the way we look. The cost is both monetary and mental.

A young woman development worker shared her experience with us: “Male supervisors say things to me like, ‘That dress looks really nice on you,’ which makes me really uncomfortable. After a comment like that, I start to worry about how I’m sitting and if the sweater dress is too clingy, does the skirt ride up too much? So then, while I mean to focus my attention on justifying the proposal budget, I’m thinking about how I’m sitting and how my body is in that space, and if I’m being appropriate or if I’m drawing attention to myself -- men simply don’t have to do that equation while trying to work.”

Another global development woman told us, “If you don’t wear makeup, you’re seen as less professional. If you do, you have to factor in the additional cost and time, and make sure that you get your makeup just right otherwise someone might comment on that! Too much makeup often implies a different set of judgments.”

Male supervisors say things to me like, ‘That dress looks really nice on you,’ which makes me really uncomfortable. After a comment like that, I start to worry about how I’m sitting and if the sweater dress is too clingy, does the skirt ride up too much?
— Anonymous storyteller

The price of wearing clothing and make-up that is considered too attractive is steep. If a woman is sexually harassed by a colleague or a client, the message is often that it is her fault for not dressing more conservatively.

From another woman who spoke to us: “Our organization has been trying to talk more about harassment in the workplace. The discussion always goes back to female sexuality. What was she wearing? What did she do to entice harassment? You see women’s faces after these sessions and they’re demoralized. They hear colleagues with whom they’ve never discussed this stuff talk about how women can control how men behave around them. That is a prevalent notion in the U.S. and in the contexts where we’re working. It’s harmful and demeaning.”

When Quantum Impact asks women about this issue, women almost universally agree that we spend a lot of time thinking about how outfits might be perceived at work and unfortunately, have a lot of outfits sitting in our closet that we don’t feel comfortable wearing to work anymore because of the comments that have been made when we have worn these pieces of clothing.

“I have absolutely considered those comments as I get dressed in the morning,” one woman told us. “I have had the unfortunate vision of how an [older/male] boss will react to my choice of attire - thinking: ‘Oh wait, ugh … he made a comment about this dress, and we have a big meeting today with a partner. I don’t want to think about his thoughts on my figure while we’re in the conference room.’”

What can leaders/managers/colleagues do?

Start by refraining from commenting on women’s dress, shoes, and make-up. Yes, that includes compliments. Keep the focus on women’s work products and their performance. Men, please read the Devex op-ed by Paul Mann on being a good male ally, which talks more about this and other ways to show up for women.

Companies should abolish gender-specific dress codes if they have them. Relaxing requirements will encourage women to spend less money on their appearance – one study showed that women spend on average $15,000 in make-up alone over the course of their careers and 20 minutes a day of time – over 120 hours a year.

Find other ways to dismantle attitudes around attire. One woman told us that her employer offers women in the company access to fashion consultants to help them ascend more quickly into leadership roles. The message it sends to women is that to be a leader she must wear what is appealing to men. Why not focus on coaching women and men to let go of their judgments about women’s appearances, and integrating inclusive leadership into management training? This will save women time, money and energy in the long-run.

As with other types of unconscious bias, it requires social hardwiring to rid ourselves of societal gender norms. However, with diligence and integrity we can make our workplaces judgment-free zones.


The stories in this article were shared anonymously by women development workers and are part of the ongoing Women Working in Global Development campaign, a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.

Sarah Grausz