Are You in Charge of Your Image?

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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Posted on September 20th, 2012 by

3 Responses to “Are You in Charge of Your Image?”

  1. Shona Easton says:

    Love the post Jane. I think I don’t fit tho….I rarely wear make up and I dress as I feel – mostly casual. Yes, people do react differently when you dress differently but that’s a UK thing and I don’t like it. I am the boss, whether I’m in heels and lipstick or in jeans and a fleece. I believe that my attitude (to business/people) speaks almost as loudly as my clothing, so it works for me.
    Thanks for the thoughts – I might have to approach this subject myself 🙂

    • Jane says:

      No, you don’t fit, Shona, becuase you are CEO of your own wonderful business and you can do what you like! Hooray! But women in older insititutions like banking, finance, local government tell me a different story. I bet it’s huge fun to work with you! It leaps off your web site page It’s interesting the point you make about other countries. Where do you think it matters least?

  2. Linda says:

    Good morning, Jane.

    Manicure? what’s that?
    Make up?

    For too many years than I care to recall, I was a Consultant in the NHS – usual power dressing if there was a business meeting; smart casual if a clinic. And as Shona said, sometimes jeans a T-shirt, especially for work with children, teenagers and home visiting. And yes, in the UK!

    I was no different to any other professional within my discipline and others – except those who were so up their own back passage that they couldn’t see the importance of dressing for the occasion. But always tidily – so jeans, no holes or frays…
    No make up or manicures either.

    Now I’m the boss of my own biz. I can wear what I want when I want. So I wear… suit for a meeting; smart casual for the ‘office’ (that’ll be my spare bedroom); and jeans when I feel like it – just not very often!
    No make up or manicure – a little ‘war paint’ sometimes if someone has really wound me up with their whinging or whatever. What I wear reflects my attitude and I firmly believe it’s possible to be casual and professional – but on no account sloppy.

    I attended a conference at the weekend, where a youngish (30s)male author was presenting to a mixed audience of authors, journalists, publishers et al. He wore tatty jeans; old trainers; and a mishmash of T shirt and hoodie. The audience was predominantly 50+ and about 70% female. My impression was that he was a slob; boring; conceited; and living to some sort of stereotyped image of what an author should be. OK he had landed some big book deal, but he lost at least one potential reader or fan that day – and he writes in my favourite genre.

    How much better it would have been had he thought about his audience and taken the time to smarten up just a little. It was the weekend – I wouldn’t have expected top hats and tails – but to have taken a little time to sport a shirt and jacket with his jeans would have given a whole different impression to his audience – well, me at least!

    In case I haven’t conveyed my thoughts very well (lol) I do think what you wear and how you wear it, is important regardless of gender, age, colour or creed.

    Kind regards,

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