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by Chandra Prasad | March 10, 2009

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The days when women strove to wear mannish outfits to the office are long gone. Today, the range of acceptable workplace styles and fashions for women has increased considerably. The casual dress revolution has been of great benefit to women. Women who would have worn shoulder pads, nude pantyhose and floppy scarves to the office years ago now feel comfortable arriving at the office in a twin set and sandals, even in more traditionally conservative workplaces.

As offices become more liberal in term of office wear, however, there remain pockets of resistance. Open-toe sandals may be edging into workplace acceptability, but what about African-American women's braids, shemma fabric from Ethiopia, salwar-kurtas from India, and the Chador or traditional veil of Muslim women? Given the sweeping changes in workplace demographics, employers may soon be making decisions not on suits, but on saris. ~

Turning of the demographic tide

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, minorities and women presently comprise two-thirds of all new labor force entrants. Other estimates hold that minorities will represent more than half the total workforce by the year 2020. These shifts in the labor force, combined with a market that is increasingly global, have prompted companies to embrace diversity. From the Union Bank of California to Fannie Mae, companies are eager to find minority employees who possess strong foreign language skills and a familiarity with different cultures. According to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes women in business, diversity programs are prevalent across many major companies, including Charles Schwab & Co., General Motors, and The Northern Trust Company. Yet while the face of corporate America has changed, acceptance of cultural dress differences in the workplace has failed to follow suit - so to speak.

If the corporate world is suddenly receptive to cultural differences, can't it also accept unique or culturally-specific fashions? Not necessarily. In fact, the rules of dress seem as conservative as ever. According to "Dressing the Part," an article featured on the Minorities' Job Bank (www.minorities-jb.com/women/dressing12.html), the successfully dressed professional woman should wear "a tailored dress, or a dress with a blazer," but perhaps not "an executive suit with alpha-female shoulder pads." The author also advises her readers to "stick to navy or gray - or perhaps tan, beige, or blue" and "simple, light-colored blouses-or a silk foulard print with a small, even pattern." And it gets more complicated. Women have to also worry about cosmetics, accessories, perfume, and a dictionary to look up the meaning of "foulard." These are the sort of dress codes more reminiscient of the workplace of 15 years ago. Why the stringency? ~

Beyond "power hair"

Advocates of strict dress codes argue that these rules serve a practical purpose. Like the military fatigues of soldiers or the uniforms of soccer players, suits allegedly allow professionals to work on a level playing field. Moreover, professional attire unites workers under a common occupational banner. The suit, the starched blouse, even the gel-stiff "power hair" popular among news anchorwomen serve as status symbols, indicating degrees of wealth, prestige, and power. Unfortunately, accoutrements that may also signify critical aspects of a woman's personal or cultural identity are generally considered marginal or even eccentric symbols.

In the closet of workplace uniformity, minority adornments are more than highly visible; they are also fodder for stereotypes. A woman who does not "fit" her corporate culture may indeed experience stalled corporate development. This theory is supported by a 1998 Catalyst survey, which finds that an astounding 50% of female minority professionals experience pervasive stereotypes at work.

Viable request or subversive demand?

A thread on Vault.com's Women in the Workplace message board entitled Braids: do you wear them to work?" reflects this conflict over appearance, professionalism, and minority status. A poster named "ruth" exclaims, "I really don't think that the workplace is a place to express one's heritage, and i don't think that employers have to allow each individual employee the opportunity or forum to express him or herself at work. Beyond basic civil rights, an owner of a company is just that--the owner--and doesn't have to give you the dubious 'right' to dress/groom yourself any way that you see fit." Her conclusion - although cynical - is nonetheless effective: "The epic struggle against genuine racial injustice should not be reduced to a debate over hair care." ~

But do these messages truly represent a debate over hair care or do they signify the subtle and subversive biases that minorities - and especially minority women - continue to confront on the job? Why must the hair of minority women resemble that of their "anglo-looking" peers? It is because "looking professional" means catering to the status quo?

A poster named D. expresses her opinion on the matter: "I am a Black female, and while I do not think that people have the right to wear whatever clothing they want to work (recognizing that some environments call for very formal dress), I do think that Black women should be allowed to wear braids, as long as they are neat and simple. Most Black girls wear braids throughout their youth, and only later, as they learn that "Black" hair is inferior or unacceptable, do they go after chemical straightening products . . . . If organizations required straight haired White or Asian women to get curly perms in order to hold on to their jobs, there would be an uproar." ~

Improvements at the top

Clearly, some employers regard specific minority-specific styles as aberrant and even substandard in the workplace. But the situation is far from hopeless. It is a commonly accepted principle that once professionals reach the executive level, they may do as they please. As Ethan A. Winning says in his article, "Dress Codes: Women Get to Wear the Pants," a professional "at the highest rung of the ladder-anyone making over $200,000 a year-can wear whatever he or she wants. If he or she has made it that far, there's no one left to impress." Indeed, as minority women earn more positions at the executive level of major companies, individuality-including the choice to don culturally diverse apparel-will become increasingly prominent. Case in point: Orit Gadiesh. This Israeli woman sported purple hair during part of her reign as Chairman of the Board of Bain & Company, a major strategy consulting firm.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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