On Dressing Girly At Work

Hanging out after a conference with another female programmer, or, “bragrammer,” I will admit that the first thing we talked about was our clothes. I had admired her dress during her talk, and I was wearing a kind of new sleeveless bike/street jacket vest with scarf, going for a monochrome grey-blue look.

Later on in the conversation, she admitted, “I’ve noticed, when I’m working with more women, I dress more girly. ” She works with 100% guys at her workplace, “… that we talk about clothes, and our appearance more. So I’ve started doing that with the guys.” She’ll comment on a new sweater, a new haircut, etc.. They seem taken aback, but not in a bad way, in a “no one ever notices me” way.

I work in a 50/50 workplace, well, it’s a start-up with 4 people so it’s easy to be 50/50. I’m probably creepily interested (and discuss it in SCRUM) in how their haircuts all change weekly. Still, they all have short hair and haircuts get creative then. Mine is boring, I comb it forward, trim, done. Takes about 5 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I have dropped a lot on a good haircut.

She and I were talking in a positive way about it, but there is definitely a negative way. She and I both noticed that if we wear high heels or skirts at work, it’s going to make people uncomfortable and/or get comments. It’s not that you’re wearing them to not get comments, but it’s also not an invitation to talk about your love life. Some of us, honestly, just want to wear good-looking clothes.

In programming circles, there’s a growing stereotype of the women-programmer: she’s more a punk Girl With a Dragon Tattoo than a woman in high heels. I understand it’s a sign of an evolving idea– a kind of next-step to men who want to make programming more inclusive. “Yes, I can imagine working with a woman,” the guy thinks. But when a woman walks in the door with more of a: “woman I see outside my apartment walking her dog,” “woman at a PTA meeting,” or “woman downtown drinking at that wine bar” look – who is also equally in love with gadgets, social media, github, and hackfests- they’re a little freaked out. They want that “20-something roommate’s little sister who started that comic store” back. Sometimes I get the “do you work in marketing?” or “did you actually code this by yourself?” phrases, that are a tip off. I have my hipster/punk days, sure. The ironic (usually cat) t-shirt, hair in knots, biking up to the conference. My way of handling that moment of incongruence is to sit it out, and, usually, they warm up to the new idea. I’m a hopeless believer in meritocracy?

I’m going to bring this up even though it’s more of an aside: believe it or not, it’s not about looking provocative, but I know that can be the consequence. I was trying to explain the idea of “women dressing for women” to an ex-boyfriend. He was adamant that women dressed for men, that this theory was wrong. My argument is: women, and anyone really, dresses for the best appreciator. If fellow women are also shopping all over Chinatown for the new baggy bright orange purse, they’re going to appreciate that you’ve got it, since they knew how hard it was to find (for under $40). I’ve found that to attract men, a cute sweatshirt and jeans do just fine. If I want to wear nice clothes that I think are nice and fashionable, then I’m dressing for others who also follow the trends. So, I could be dressing for men who like to shop (straight or gay, they exist), it’s really about, dressing well. BTW he was no fashionista- but wore the requisite SF uniform of black North Face and (somewhat cheap, loose) jeans.

Before you go off and talk to your local bragrammer about her clothes, be warned: if a guy mentions what you’re wearing, it’s far different than another woman. I know it’s unfair, but repeated situations have taught us this. I’d recommend to first observe and document before you start out doing it. There’s a safe way of talking about clothes: don’t talk about how it looks on their body. It will be seen more as a talking point about shopping vs. a personal comment.

  • Melanie Archer

    It's so damn hard to decide what to wear to conferences. Skirt + unambiguous middle age== recruiter, it seems. Job or client interviews are other wardrobe sand traps.

  • Part of me wants to dress girlier just to counteract the expectations, you know? I had red nail polish on during one interview, the reaction was actually pretty funny.

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