This has become a “chick” question. The female stereotype is that we obsess over this question every day and every time we need to change our outfit. But in reality, it is a question that we all ask ourselves every time we get ready to leave the house. Men tend to ask it subconsciously; women give it more conscious thought.
Working in a male-dominated industry makes this question even more stressful! As a minority, you are constantly under a microscope for things that are relevant and irrelevant to your job. Being a minority makes the majority wonder why you would want to work in this industry where there are very few “like you” around. Unfortunately, what you choose to wear can lead to questions about the most irrelevant issue of all: sexual preference. As if a person’s sexual preference has absolutely anything to do with their ability to perform a job. A discussion of this ridiculous prejudice could easily fill a book, or two or even three, so let’s just put that aside, and recognize that it is something to be aware of.
Overall it’s not about “should I wear my Jimmy Choos or my Gucci shoes today?”. Instead, it’s about where am I going to be, what perception do I need to project, what should I wear to visually say I am a credible person, what objections can I overcome by how I am dressed, and am I over / under dressed. These are some of the things that women in construction need to consider before they even leave the house.
Many of the ladies I interviewed shared the same story with me about when they get dressed in the morning. Things they have to consider include: who am I going to meet with, who will see me today, what is my role (am I a boss, am I meeting with a client, or will I be in the field), what clothing is acceptable, what shoes are acceptable, is my shirt to low-cut, do my shoes have too high of a heel, how much make-up should I put on, and what jewelry is acceptable?
The answers to the first few questions drive the answers to the rest and even then women are still faced with the reality of being a minority and consistently having to prove themselves over and over again.
Amie Riggs-Swarts shared a slightly different spin to the challenge of women’s fashion in construction. She is a five foot blonde with spunk, an unmatched personality, and she loves to wear heels. She had the blessing of being the owner’s daughter so within the company she wasn’t aware if people looked at her or questioned her ability differently than they did her brother or any other men that work at her company. But from prospects, customers, and suppliers she has heard everything from, “You’re not wearing the right shoes,” to “You’re a woman,” to “We selected your company because you were the only woman we met in this industry.”
When faced with objections or questioning comments, Amie learned to respond with “would you like to start talking about the job or learn a bit about me first?” Being a strong woman, she never took these objections or questions personally; instead she dealt with the situation at hand and then moved on.
Amanda Grindle shared a different story, “I deal with this every single morning as I get ready for work. I love fashion and I love clothes but I have a very hard time dressing for this industry because I am fulfilling many roles. As the owner, I feel it is necessary to wear corporate appropriate clothing, but I also go out into the field where heels are never appropriate. I feel my competence is conveyed through what I wear.”
Yes Amanda does own a set of steel-toed boots that, “when I put them on, make me feel very official particularly if I’m also holding a clipboard! But those same boots do not go very well with a dress and jewelry, or in a business meeting with clients.”
Erin VerHoeven had to learn the hard way about how fashion can affect a business’s bottom-line. “There was a time when I felt pressured to dress up more than I really wanted to. At the time, I was under the impression that meeting with a potential customer meant you need to be dressed as you would for a job interview—wearing skirts, nice slacks, and blouses. However, this backfired a few times when the customers felt my company must be too expensive if I was wearing such nice clothes. A kind architect finally recommended to me that I needed to look more like a contractor if I wanted to be seriously considered a contractor. So now my usual uniform consists of nice jeans, heels of some kind and a dressy jacket or shirt. If I am attending an industry networking event I may dress a little nicer.”
Each of these women has had different experiences, but they all had to learn the same lesson—how you look and how you dress is under a microscope. Like with food, prospects, clients, suppliers, co-workers, and your boss will judge your capability first by how you look. You need to ensure that their first impression is a positive one, so there is one less expectation or assumption you need to overcome in making your way through this industry where you are a minority and unfortunately, need to consistently “prove” yourself every day.