Dressing for Success–Female Tech Writer Edition

This post is long overdue, and I apologize. I wrote the men’s version of proper work attire three years ago, adding the comment, “I will not even attempt to decipher women’s fashion requirements. Best of luck to you.” However, I’m 99% finished with the first full draft of the book, and I realized that given the number of women who are technical communicators, not including an article on women’s attire was a copout. I figured I’m a professional, I’m a researcher, how hard could this be? As it turns out, it proved to be a little more complex than I expected. All part of the adventure, dear readers.Basic Research

I took the time to do some research on appropriate women’s attire for an American office environment. Even so, I had a feeling I was heading for a damned-if-I-did-damned-if-I-didn’t situation. After all, how dare a middle-aged white male who spends most of his days in Hawaiian shirts and jeans tell women how they should dress?

For instance, I’m quite well aware of the double standards and extra scrutiny women’s appearances receive in the workplace. I’m not here to apologize for those standards or defend them. My friend Erica suggested, “You can easily write about professional dress codes without assigning gender. Having a male/female category only perpetuates the idea that women should be expected to dress differently. We also wear pants and ties, it’s 2018.” But the reality is that there are different dress codes for men and women in large swathes of corporate America, and I’m here to tell you how things are, not suggest how they should be different. In five, ten, or twenty years, Erica might be right, and my representation of corporate dress codes will look quaint or cringe-inducingly awkward. Until that time, however, there are separate dress codes for women, and I’m reporting on those.

My formative corporate experience was Disney, which has a dress code that was born in the 1950s and only started accepting male facial hair (beyond founder Walt’s mustache) in the 1990s. It was also a big deal at Walt Disney World when women were allowed to wear non-dangling earrings up to a U.S. quarter in size–that was up from a nickel. Disney’s dress code runs over 20 pages and is very prescriptive and gender specific. After that I worked at a Department of Defense contractor in the Washington, DC, area, which was similarly conservative, given that most of the people in the building were former military.

NASA, my next large organization, managed a mostly gender-neutral dress code, at least in print. However, I found out later there was a lot of oral tradition behind it and some unspoken rules for men and women that people were just supposed to know or, if uncertain, quietly ask. For instance, did you know that Flight Readiness Reviews (the official meeting where they determine whether it’s safe to launch a rocket or not) required men and women to wear business suits? I didn’t find out until I showed up at one in business casual gear. I was strongly urged to hide in the back of the room and get lost as soon as it was over.

Also along the gender-neutral line of thought, Erica passed along an article about General Motors’ dress code, which reads simply, “Dress appropriately.” As someone who has seen some deplorable fashion choices at places ranging from Walt Disney World to interviews to funerals, I would submit that a lot of folks really do need guidance on what “appropriate” means, but that’s a topic for another day.

I also received links to a few articles that I commend to your attention:

Calling the Help Line

To get some real-world examples of women’s professional attire, I decided get feedback from female friends by crowdsourcing my query on my personal and professional Facebook pages. That sampling group consisted of a mix of individuals from across the U.S., all of whom have access to Facebook. Anything written in plain text from here on is from me; anything in quotation marks comes from them.

Wendy, Irvine, CA: “I think it greatly depends on the area of the country and the field. But gone are the days of a black pants suit.”

Lynne, Rockford, IL: “I would say dress pants or a slim skirt–at the knee or just above a sweater or jacket and a nice silky shirt or blouse–interesting accessories as well!”

Constance, Orlando, FL: “Forbes recommends a black or navy blue skirt suit with a jacket and a light colored blouse for business wear. Of course it depends on your body type.”

Wendy (same as above): “Bart, you may be able to avoid directly addressing this by speaking about general guidelines first: color theory, regional degrees of casual-ness, etc. and then cite examples like, on the west coast it’s super rare to wear ties. That would apply to anyone wearing a tie, man or woman. I think Erica has a very valid point for today, but on the flip side, I don’t agree everything should be gender neutral. I don’t want to be made to feel that I should strip myself of femininity to be taken seriously in a business setting. Thankfully, this is something that is also dissipating as time goes by. But along these lines, I think a question people need to ask themselves when they dress is, do I want to follow the norms and not potentially elicit negative reactions or do I want to shake things up and grab people’s attention? I think each has merit in different situations.

“A pretty good rule of thumb that I go by (for the following in with the norm situation) is: if you have to ask, the answer is no. ‘Would it be appropriate to wear brown lipstick when I present at this conference?’ Ehhh probably not.

“For the purpose of grabbing attention, I ask myself if what I’m wearing gets the point across that I’m trying to make. For example, in professional settings, I often wear highly feminine, brightly colored, but conservatively cut clothing. The point I’m making is that I’m not afraid to be feminine and that I’m unique, but I can’t be criticized by people who have very conservative standards because I don’t break conventional rules.”

Erica, Orlando, FL: “Writing gender neutral wardrobe advice would not be ‘stripping’ anyone of their feminity. And I think Bart would look quite fetching if he presented in brown lipstick.”

Samantha, Los Angeles, CA: “There are also some inherent differences. For instance, in a business casual setting, it’s certainly not appropriate for men to wear open toed shoes, however women can wear a peep toe and remain appropriately dressed.”

Stacey, Orlando, FL: “This is a crazy difficult topic for women now. I started a part-time consulting gig in an office environment, and it is allllll over the place.”

Celeste, Houma, LA: “I have been working as a technical writer for 5 years, in addition to contracts analyst and marketing specialist for the same company. I’d love to provide feedback, especially for those just graduating from college. I work in erosion and sedimentation control/construction, and I almost never meet our clients face-to-face. I wear company shirts (slim-fitting polos) with jeans and sneakers to work.

“Whenever I am unsure of a workplace’s attire and cannot find out a direct answer about it, I assume business semi-formal: a clean, modest top that is not too ‘loud’ (no bright colors or obnoxious patterns), modest-length skirt (not a mini skirt or leather one) or dress pants (not skin-tight), and dress shoes. My go-to outfit consists of black dress pants/slacks, a white dress top from JC Penney, black blazer or shrug, and black dress flats. I keep my makeup minimal (natural-looking) and wear only one pair of earrings instead of two (I have double piercings).

“When in doubt, consider what you would wear to church/temple/religious events. I would rather err on the side of caution and overdress a little bit than to show up and feel severely underdressed.”

Melinda, Washington, DC: “Business attire… Basic colors… Black, navy and gray. “Conservative. Shirts can have some color but keep the tones down. If not buttoned, they need sleeves. If no sleeves you need a sweater. (No bare arms.) If buttoned, buttons should not pouch or pull (if it doesn’t late flat the shirt is to tight).
“Learn to tie a scarf and a tie.
“Bottoms… Skirts should be no shorter than 1-2 inches above your knee. (No maxi-minis) and simple. Either A-line or very simple flare. No gypsy looks here. Generally I see from about 1-2 inches above the knee to mid calf. Anything longer looks frumpy.
“Yes you should wear nylons even if you think they are old fashioned.
“Flats, pumps, and modest heels are a must but stilettos are a no no. Boots are ok if they are simple as the trend has come back in style.
“Always have a matching blazer in your primary color palette in your office (behind the door on a hanger) ready to go. You can dress up or down based on your schedule.
“Hair… Neatly cut and styled. If you have short hair – pixie, bob and just shoulder length are all good choices. If you have longer hair plan to fix it every day and often have it up so its not on your shoulders.”

Final Thoughts

And so forth. Below are my final thoughts on wardrobe choices for anyone–male or female–working in a scientific or engineering setting:

  • When in doubt, conservative/plain colors (blue/black/grey/tan/white) work best because they are least likely to attract attention.
  • If you are working in an environment that requires you to enter a factory, lab, or shop floor, you should avoid dangling accessories and open-toed shoes (some shops require steel-toed shoes). No sandals or flip-flops.
  • Keep your hair a single, natural-looking color. Academic or more artistic environments might be more forgiving of magenta, blue, green, or taxi-cab yellow.

Beyond that, I will leave fashion choices to you and, ultimately, to your employer. Can you express your individuality? Certainly–within whatever guidelines your workplace allows. If you find your workplace guidelines too restrictive, it might not be out of line to find a new workplace. Otherwise, a certain level of conformity is expected. Hopefully this entry has been helpful.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Dressing for Success–Female Tech Writer Edition

  1. Laura says:

    This is a very complex topic which is why I didn’t respond when you asked on Facebook. The only true answer is, “It depends on industry, circumstances, region, and personal preferences.” Much of the advice I got in school is very out-dated. For example, as a 30-something, I’ve never owned nylons and can’t think of a single instance I’ve seen a same-aged peer wear nylons in the past decade. What’s appropriate in formal Washington, D.C. would look out-of-place in informal Florida.

    I try to find a middle ground where I feel comfortable, express my individuality, stand out (because advice to not stand out comes from a position that women should be in the background and I’m just not a background kind of gal), and still look great if I were to meet someone important or be photographed.

  2. Hi Bart! Great piece here! I’m about to start my Bachelor’s in a few months, and am already thinking of the dress code issues once I finally start working as a tech writer. This definitely confirmed some assumptions I previously held about women’s dress code. I loved Wendy’s feedback – I do the same by dressing to express myself and be unique without grazing the boundaries of what’s ‘acceptable’.

    Sharing this for sure – thanks again for covering this topic! 🙂

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