A scant two weeks after the brouhaha in Cannes concerning guests being turned away for wearing low-heeled shoes, the UK Trade Union Congress is proposing a banning of high heels in the workplace. Meanwhile, in my email this week, was a fresh new dress code declaring flat shoes unsatisfactory attire for working women. 

Elsewhere on the internet, in a hellogiggles post early this week, Kit Steinkellner declared 2015 “The Year That Girls Got Fed Up With Their Schools’ Sexist Dress Codes and Decided to Take Action Against These Shenanigans” and lauded Chloe Cross’s Yearbook quote: “I would just like to apologize to those who were unable to graduate with the class of 2015 because they were too distracted by my midriff and consequently failed all of their classes!”

First impression

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who advocate that anyone should be able to wear anything anywhere. There are many very good reasons for dressing appropriately and caring about your appearance. For instance, a recent experiment showed that most interviewers essentially make up their mind about an applicant in less than a minute and the rest of the interview is simply a pursuit of reasons to support the initial impression.

Anna Pitts of the Graduate Recruitment Bureau in the UK gives an even tighter timeframe. In a Business Insider article, Pitts explains that the window for making first impressions is only seven seconds long. That’s right. Seven seconds. If that’s how long it takes you just to get out your name, you’re in serious trouble.

Come Recommended, a consulting organization that focuses on job search and human resources has an interesting infographic on job interviews which provides some pretty interesting statistics. 33% of bosses claim to know within the first 90 seconds whether they will hire someone.  Only 7% of the first impression anyone makes depends on what is said; 38% comes from voice quality, grammar and confidence; 55% comes from the way we dress, act and walk through the door. 65% of interviewers claim that clothes could be the deciding factor between similar candidates.


The sad reality, of course, is that appearance is a very large factor in creating a personal image and clothes are a big part of how people look.

I even have personal experience of how important appearances are. Early in my career, I came across a book called Conduct Expected and one of the rules in the book simply said this: “Dress for the next level of management.” The book explained that while your supervisor has personal knowledge of how good you really are in your job, the executives who will actually be making the decision will base virtually their entire impression of you on what they know of how you look and behave and will essentially ask themselves this question: “Do I see him/her as a manager in this company?”

When I inherited a department from another manager, I also inherited a long pending recommendation for promotion. The lady had been recommended for promotion to supervisor two years running. Neither glowing performance appraisals nor above average supervisory skill examination results were enough. Finally, it was explained to me that they just couldn’t see her in a leadership role. They used different words, of course. But that was it. I had a long talk with her and we essentially agreed she would change her hair and wardrobe and would begin to use lipstick. She was promoted within the year.

Unfortunately, the clothing rules are not rules I have tended to follow myself. For my job interview, I eschewed the black skirt, tailored white blouse combination that is recommended for interviews in the financial services industry. Instead I came in purple slacks and a ruffled white blouse. I didn’t feel like pretending to be someone I am not and I was not applying for a customer service position. Don’t get me wrong. I was dressed quite neatly and my slacks, though purple, were quite nicely tailored. I can also, when needed, be very articulate and well-mannered. I got the job.

I could blame it on my upbringing. After all, it was our batch of students at UP high school that pointed out that the definition of school uniform merely specified blue skirts or pants. Since jeans were blue, then they should be allowed. We won that round. We were also the students that lobbied for wooden slippers (the bakya by Happy Feet, then all the rage) as they were far more practical in the tropical rains we had to deal with than the black leather shoes that were then the usual attire. We won that battle too.

As I explained with a bit of asperity to someone who had offered unasked-for advice, I’m typically hired for my brains and not for my looks.

So yes, certainly, people should dress appropriately. I would not condone wearing a bikini to a conference. However, I believe many organizations go overboard on maintaining appearances.

Inside, outside

There are two sides to the inside, outside coin. While we are often cautioned not to judge other people on the basis of outward appearances, the sad reality is this often happens. Even more sadly, in a society that forces individuals to conform to a single, acceptable look, there are usually very unhealthy repercussions.

One only needs to look at the great number of girls, and increasingly boys, who are obsessed about their weight to understand how incredibly harmful creating a set image can be.

When we impose a narrow set of guidelines for clothes, what are we really saying? That we don’t trust our employees to understand what is appropriate? That only our prescribed style is appropriate?

There is an even more essential principle involved when we apply the question to creative or academic institutions. In organizations that strive to create and learn and imagine, how can we not be encouraged to embrace people in all their diversity?

And then there is the insidious aspect to all of this. Many of these dress codes are inherently sexist.

Almost 20 years ago, in 1997, The University of Iowa College of Law published an article by Marc Linder. Its title was: “Smart Women, Stupid Shoes, and Cynical Employers: The Unlawfulness and Adverse Health Consequences of Sexually Discriminatory Workplace Footwear Requirements for Female Employees.”

In his conclusions, Linden has this to say: “It is absurd that working women wear sneakers on the subway yet pumps in the office merely because male superordinates decree that the wearers of such comfortable shoes deserve as much respect as “mouseketeers.” Following a conversation with a male colleague who had provided exactly that solution to my protests about heels, I just had to laugh.

It’s 2015. Isn’t there something more important for managers to be doing than thinking about how high our heels are?


Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at

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