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‘I’ll be silently judged’: Why millennial women ‘age up’ to be taken seriously at work

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When Lauren gets ready for work, she thoughtfully picks out every item to wear.

The 27-year-old, who asked Global News to only use her first name, has a public-facing role at an Ottawa-based nonprofit. She’s expected to present herself professionally, she says, and wears either a blazer, dress or skirt everyday.

“I do this especially because I look young for my age and am often mistaken for being in my early 20s or even late teens,” she said.

“Meanwhile, my 40-year-old male boss comes to work every day in a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers (or cargo shorts and sandals in the summertime) and no one bats an eye. His ‘professional’ look when doing presentations is simply throwing a blazer on top.”

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For some millennial women, or women who look even younger than their actual age, dressing for work can be a process. Many workers want to look put-together, approachable yet authoritative, and avoid wearing anything too revealing.

Dressing professionally for some even comes down to hair. There have been stories of Black people not being hired because of it.

To combat this, some women try to “age up” through their wardrobe choices in an effort to be taken seriously, by wearing glasses, hiding tattoos and applying make-up.

For Lauren, sporting nice shoes and wearing glasses helps.

“I don’t feel I’d be taken as seriously otherwise,” she said.

“People see figures of authority as old, male, and white. I am only one of those things, so for a lack of a better term, I feel I really have to look like I have my sh*t together to be heard.”

Communicating through clothing

When women enter male-dominated workplaces, there is often a norm around how things get done and how people behave, says Tanya van Biesen, the executive director of women’s workplace organization Catalyst Canada.

Different work environments have different standards of dressing.

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In office environments, dressing norms often include wearing things like blazers, dress shirts and suits — items associated with masculinity and power. To fit in, women may conform to this style of dressing to be taken “seriously,” van Biesen said.

“You could also argue that men have been forced inside a box to dress in a certain way, and that women have been granted more latitude in terms of what they can wear to to work,” she added.

In more casual or laid-back workplaces, it may be perfectly OK to dress in jeans and T-shirts. What you wear, however, signals whether or not you “belong” in certain spaces, writer Erika Thorkelson explained in an essay for the Walrus.

“We are told that if we internalize the right dress codes, we can overcome whatever systemic obstacles lie before us,” Thorkelson wrote.

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“Endless blogs and magazine articles attempt to teach us how to dress for success.”

Dress affects all young people — not just women

The pressure to “dress for success,” though, is not just an issue millennial women face, van Biesen says. It’s one faced by all young workers.

Layer on intersections of gender, race and ethnicity, and certain groups can face more pressure to dress “appropriately” than others, she adds.

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“We talk a lot about ‘bringing your whole self to work,’ but I do still think at least in North American culture… we police each other into these pretty narrow bands into what is ‘acceptable dress,'” she said.

“And that policing is caused by ‘the normative group,’ but that normative policing happens by both men and women.”

In Lauren’s office, she says women employees face extra pressure to not only dress a certain way, but perform professionally while maintaining a “positive attitude.”

“If I want to get ahead in this world where workplaces are designed for men, I don’t have the luxury of showing up in a T-shirt and jeans,” she said.

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While she believes she would still feel compelled to dress professionally if she were a young man, she believes her youthful appearance and gender identity compound this pressure.

“I think for men, it’s seen as ‘bonus points’ to dress professionally, whereas for women it’s sort of an expectation,” she explained.

“Dress fashionably and flatteringly, but don’t be too sexy. Wear make-up, but not too much. If I don’t hit the nail right on the head, I’ll be silently judged and dismissed.”

Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca

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