The Mentorist

The Flip Side of “Mad Men”

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Women in tight clothes make men uncomfortable.

Let me qualify that a little:  If you work in a law firm or other conservative setting and want to be taken seriously as a professional, do a “perception check” before leaving home:

  •  Is my cleavage visible when I lean over (or, worse, when viewed straight-on)?
  • Are my clothes straining at their seams?
  • Is my skirt shorter than the current (and très chic) Duchess of Cambridge would wear?
  • Are my heels straight out of Lady Gaga’s closet?

I feel silly even writing this post.  Can you believe we’re still talking about how women should “dress for success”?  It’s 2013, and this topic should have been dead and buried long ago.

Unfortunately, it’s alive and kicking.  Just last month, a (male) managing partner commented to me that a senior associate in his law firm was not helping her chances of promotion by the way she dressed: too tight and too low-cut.  His perception was widely shared, it seems.

What makes this a tragic tale is that none of the partners who had worked closely with this associate over the years (all of whom happened to be male) felt comfortable suggesting that she might “rethink” her wardrobe choices

I get that.  These days, such a two-gendered discussion — no matter how well intentioned — could later be twisted around by a disgruntled employee and used in a gender discrimination suit.

What’s sad is that the partners’ silence on this issue – and the associate’s continuing inappropriate dress — may well result in her not being promoted.

So, what’s a woman to do?  Try these:

  • Observe what the most successful senior women in your firm are wearing to work.The Flip Side of Mad Men
  • Read articles that recommend how women should dress in a profession that falls near yours on the conservative-to-edgy scale.  Even better if the article also takes up geographic differences.
  • Find a personal shopper at one of the high-end department stores.  Explain your work situation, then see what wardrobe pieces she chooses for you.
  • Dress for your current weight.  If your clothes have taken on a provocative air simply because you’ve gained some pounds, buy new clothes – or quickly lose the extra weight.  (The first is easier.)
  • After getting dressed for work, look long and hard at yourself in a full-length mirror, then answer this:  “If a stranger were asked to guess my profession, based solely on my appearance, what would he say?”  Rinse and repeat until you get the right answer.

I love Joan’s wardrobe on “Mad Men” as much as the next person does.  Just don’t model it in the halls of a buttoned-up law firm.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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