Oh what a thorny question for the professional woman! Women at work are subject to more scrutiny and comment about how they look than their male counterparts ever are. Even when we adopt the male dress code and sport sombre suits and white blouses we’re still subjected to criticism. Or being asked for the bill in a restaurant…
And yet, when coaching women looking to move onwards and upwards we do talk about it. Yes, I confess. If you are on the upward trajectory it’s very hard to ignore (but when you get there and are the boss, wear what the hell you like – you set the code then!)
Whether we like it or not, we project an image by how we look, how we talk, how we move. I have long advocated that women should not have to behave like men to progress, that what women bring should be valued equally in the workplace, and I don’t think women should have to dress in the male equivalent of a sombre suit. But I do think we should consciously manage our image at critical points in our career. Of course, that could include being a ‘rebel’ and consciously not adopting what everyone else wears! You make the judgement call.
We know that people sum us up in the first few minutes of seeing us. That’s almost always based on how we look. Professionally, we can choose to ride above this and do our own thing and wait for the quality of our work to triumph, or we can compromise to an extent and manage our image to help us achieve our goals.
If we don’t give a fig for standard custom and practice then we will be sending that message. Which is fine if that’s the message we are meaning to send out. If we are overly concerned with appearance then that will also be apparent. I remember watching a documentary on some high flying US woman executive about a decade ago and being appalled. She got to the office early so she could fit in a daily manicure (daily!!) and have her hair redone in her lunch hour and she kept a full duplicate set of make up at work, as well as spare tights etc. She believed she always had to look flawless to maintain her position and urged other women to do the same. Imagine having her as your boss. That felt to me like some kind of tyranny and I could never work in an environment like that.
On the other hand, when managing staff myself I have had to remind one or two that we did have a dress code and thet the code was professional. If you don’t look trustworthy and reliable when you are in a job where people need to trust and rely on you you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage and in this example, working in a large hospital, making patients feel nervous! We’re talking torn jumpers and grubby jeans here on a guy who was most miffed at being pulled up on his appearance. But when he changed his clothes he noticed that attitudes of other professionals changed for the better towards him. That was very interesting to watch. His more professional clothes made him behave more professionally too as well as (or because of) others treating him as a fellow professional too. (Check out Take Off Your Pyjamas for more in this vein)
What’s Your Image?
Some quick questions for you:
- Are you consciously managing your image?
- When people see you for the first time what is the impression they get?
- Do you ever think about your image? Do you care?
- Does it matter in your line of work?
In mine it doesn’t matter all the time I am sitting in my office, or talking to friends and colleagues who know me well, (I’m pretty casual,) but if I’m running a course for professional women you can bet I give it a lot of thought. I want the women to walk into the room and think, “this woman knows her stuff”. My image needs to be friendly, and professional. Of course after a few hours they will know whether I live up to the look but if I present the wrong image, if I look too casual or scruffy, I am going to spend at least the first hour making them revise their assumptions about me.
So it’s up to you. Do you think it matters? Has your image helped or hindered you in the past? Have you given it any thought at all of late?
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