Dressing for the Workplace – A Social Experiment

“I’m going home, gonna load my shotgun.  Wait by the door and light a cigarette.  If he wants a fight, well, now he’s got one.  He ain’t seen me crazy yet.”

All right, I’m going to delve into something fairly serious here, which is not what I normally try to do.  I have my moments, but I generally try to keep things pretty light-hearted.  This is related to my newest endeavor, though, so I think it’s important.

Should it matter how you dress as long as you’re following your workplace’s dress code?

Now, that’s a pretty ambiguous question.  I’m aware of that.  But I wanted to make it clear – I am always following my workplace’s (fairly lenient, yet businessy) dress code.  I’m a new employee, and I like nicer-looking clothes.  I choose to wear workplace-appropriate attire on the weekends, sometimes.  I choose that.  I want to make that clear.  I do not ever break the dress code.

In order to get to the pattern I’ve been noticing, I need to explain myself a little bit more.

I started working as a TA in September of last year.  My full time job, then, was as a laboratory technician at a major university.  So I had the unique challenge, at that time, of dressing in a way that was appropriate for both jobs.  Which means… pants.  Only pants.  I couldn’t get very creative, because I had to have lab-appropriate clothes on for my other job.

Now, though, I have started a new position that doesn’t have that unique restriction.  I can wear dresses and skirts is what I’m saying.  And I LOVE dresses and skirts.  I’d wear them every day if it wasn’t so freaking cold here right now.  So, come summertime, watch out!  I’m going to wear dresses all the time!  (This is actually probably true, even though I was making a joke right there.)

So, here’s the pattern I’ve noticed these last two weeks.  Yes, I’ve been running a social psychology experiment on my engineering students.  (Guys, if you’re reading this, don’t be mad. Just keep reading.)  When I dress how I did when I was still working in the lab, I blend.  I fit right in.  I can joke with them, talk to them, and they pay attention to me and not to what I’m wearing.


When I dress how I like – in dresses and skirts and heels – I feel extra confident.  I feel like I could run the world.  But that’s when things change.  That’s when the engineering students start doing something that I really hoped they wouldn’t do, so I could prove the world wrong.

They treat me differently based on what I’m wearing.

Why?  No, really, why?  This is an actual question.

Does my personality change when I have a dress on?  No.  Do I really look any different?  No.  Not really.  It started out innocently.  One day, someone said I looked taller.  Yes, heels will do that.  Another day, someone said my tights were sparkly, and I must have a hot date.  Sure… with y’all, I guess, because it’s just another day at work for me.  I just happen to be wearing sparkly tights.  And most recently, I could feel someone following me with his eyes (and later, he actually followed me around the room).  I had on leggings with a dress.  I was completely work appropriate.

Am I a different person?  Should I be less respected because I have a dress on?

Oh, hell no.

I understand that feminism gets a bad rep.  I’ve said that before.  But I was raised with the understanding that I can do anything at least as well as any man, if not better.  I have a Chemistry degree.  I am nearly done with a Master’s.  I’m an umpire.  My dad used to sit me down when I was in high school and crying because I’d never had a boyfriend, and he would tell me that I’m smarter than them, and I let them know, and that’s why they didn’t want to date me.  But it’s their loss, he would say, for being too stupid to realize it wasn’t a bad thing.  I believe in gender equality.  I do.  And I should be able to wear what I want (within reason, obviously) and not be treated differently for it.

When I was initially drafting this post, I was going to write about how to deal with uncomfortable situations in the workplace.  Because I’ve been uncomfortable.  But I realized that that isn’t the actual issue here.  I’ve been joking around that I’m never offended by the things that these guys do or say (and, for the record, I’m usually not), but I’ve been taken aback by the results of my two-week social psychology experiment.  Yes, I probably need a longer experimental time frame, but still.  The initial results are upsetting.  I should not have to be uncomfortable in my workplace.

What am I going to do?  Nothing, other than write this post.  Nothing right now, at least.  I’ve been correcting people when it’s relevant.  (Such as, “No hot date, just work!” and “Well, I have different shoes on today.”)  But otherwise, I’m a sit-and-hold-my-tongue kind of person, as a whole.

But I will say this.  I have been offended, yes.  But I’m not cowering in a corner.  I have this theory that a person’s go-to karaoke song says something about their personality.  If I’m ever a manager at a company, I’ll probably have that as an interview question.  My go-to karaoke song is “Gunpowder and Lead” by Miranda Lambert.  Take from that what you will.

And men, for the love of God, when a professional woman is wearing a dress, don’t comment on it.  We aren’t dressing for you.


“I’m gonna show him what a little girl’s made of – gunpowder and lead.”


4 thoughts on “Dressing for the Workplace – A Social Experiment

  1. It’s so frustrating, isn’t it? I work at a university and although there are occasions when I need to dress really smartly, most of the time casual clothing is fine. I cycle to work, so jeans are my go to, but I’d much rather wear a dress or skirt. On the few occasions when I have chosen to wear those items, some male colleagues have commented in a way that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Although that’s better than when I gave a guest demo at a local college, where a female member of engineering staff said that the students were generally not interested in the topic we were covering. I said that they all seemed to be fine and were listening to what I said, to which the other member of staff said that it was because I was dressed like a slut!!! I had on a dress that was nearly knee length, with thick tights and it really wasn’t low-cut. I was so stunned that I didn’t reply. 😦

    1. Oh, wow! That’s terrible! Yes, it is very frustrating, and it’s completely unfair. The world needs to do some changing yet. :/

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