As I scan the subway each morning on my ride to midtown, I cannot help but notice the stark differences in the way that women and men dress for work. Almost every man is in a dark suit or khakis with a light-colored button down. Women, on the other hand, tend to be dressed in a variety of ways. While many wear suits, which are far more heterogeneous than the ones worn by men, a large number are dressed in pants, dresses, blazers, or a combination thereof. When working women approach their closet every morning they face the unique responsibility of considering what their outfit will say about them. Will the pink dress portray them as being less serious than their male counterparts? Will a flowy top block them out of a partners’ meeting?
Dressing as a woman involves an exhausting process. You are expected to find the right balance of looking professional, polished, and feminine, while avoiding being frumpy, or worse, provocative. Many women fear that how they look will speak louder than the work they produce.
As emphasized by MK Han’s post yesterday, unlike men, women are expected to navigate the complex and sometimes contradictory messages that their clothing can send about their competency as professionals. It can be frustrating for young women to realize that despite all we have accomplished in our academic and professional careers, we are oftentimes still judged based on our appearance. For many women in the law, we not only need to present ourselves to our coworkers, but also to clients and judges. For better or for worse, most judges are still older and male and have certain expectations about how women should dress. Some judges even tell their law clerks to inform female attorneys on the case what is appropriate and what is not before a hearing even begins, though most judges at least have stopped looking down on female attorneys who choose to wear pants instead of skirts. Judge Richard Kopf, a federal judge in Nebraska, made headlines when he posted a piece on his personal blog titled “On Being a Dirty Old Man and How Young Lawyers Dress,” where he refers to a “wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer” who, in addition to being an excellent attorney, “wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest.” He “especially appreciate[s]” these attributes. For women attempting to gain traction in a competitive and male-dominated field, especially trial litigation where appearance is particularly important, it is hard to read posts like the one written by Judge Kopf and realize that the cards are stacked against you before you even enter the courtroom. It is unfortunate that even today choice of fashion could outweigh level of competence.
Of course, fashion does not necessarily need to be a source of stress and rather can be an opportunity to communicate or express our individuality. Current pop culture offers many examples of women, such as Alicia Florick from the Good Wife and Jessica Pearson from Suits, who dress beautifully and stylishly for the workplace and also achieve distinguished career success. Nevertheless, professional women, especially in the law, still have to face the reality of forces like Judge Kopf who think what they wear is more important than what they can achieve.