Friday, March 28, 2014

Federal Judge Richard Kopf Supports Professional Dress For Women: Called Sexist

This issue of professional dress never really goes away because humans are animals when you get down to it. I enjoy writing about it because it amuses me. A long time ago when I was working in a different industry and for a different company than I do now, I and a few of my fellow plebes were leaving for the day and happened to share a elevator ride down to the lobby with a firm partner. This man was known to be chronically irascible. I think we all hoped to just spend the 20-30 seconds needed to reach the lobby in silence. No such luck. The partner noticed that one of us, fortunately not me, was dressed in what he considered to be a cheap and unimpressive suit. As the firm's business model involved sending people worldwide selling or producing quite expensive accounting, financial and information technology solutions, the partner was concerned that my co-worker was not representing the firm professionally. The partner told the employee that "We pay you too much to dress as s**** as you do." He asked him where he got that suit and told him to take it back. We reached the lobby. Everyone else scattered but the partner and my hapless co-worker remained behind. The partner wasn't finished with his lecture. I learned the next day that after the partner had finished tearing this guy a new one, he arranged for his own tailor to create a group of new suits for the employee.

For certain businesses and at certain levels within those companies, how you dress is almost as or equally as important as what you know or how well you do your job. This has changed somewhat in America as casual workplaces have become more common but certain industries haven't really budged all that much. There are expectations of a professional demeanor and style. This is true for both men and women. I no longer am required to wear a suit every day but the managers two and definitely three levels above me are always in suits.

A Nebraska federal judge named Richard Kopf made what he thought was an obvious, self-deprecating and humorous short observation about the need for women lawyers to dress in appropriate, that is, non-sexy, attire. He did so on his blog, which you can read here if you're so inclined
True story. Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late twenties. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes...
From the foregoing, and in my continuing effort to educate the bar, I have three rules that young women lawyers should follow when considering how to dress for court:
1. You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.
2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.
3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.
Leaving aside the oddity (to me) that a federal judge has his own blog, I understood the point the judge was making. He was speaking primarily of courtroom attire but as I pointed out these issues occur in every workplace. There have been several instances in my work history where people have been admonished, cautioned or disciplined for inappropriate attire. This included a woman sent home for wearing capri pants and a man bluntly told both on and off the record that his habit of wearing jeans guaranteed that he would never get promoted. And he never was.
Needless to say the judge's observations didn't go over very well with some people. Roughly half the comments on his original post are him explaining or apologizing while he made a more complete explanation/apology in a follow up post. Obviously all the usual suspects predictably weighed in to call him sexist, lecherous, accuse him of objectifying women and so on. I don't think his point was out of bounds. There are ways in which people can dress that are more appropriate for the nightclub or dance scene than the workplace. People notice and make assumptions. Making assumptions is wrong of course but people still do that. And noticing is always going to happen. I have written before that if a lady goes through the trouble to put certain things on display it would be rude for me not to notice. It's just human nature.

I don't think that women or men should or can spay/neuter themselves when they go into the workplace. But it's not too much to ask that explicitly sexy clothing be discouraged at work. It can lead to serious misunderstandings, lack of focus and harassment claims. Those last are worst case scenarios of course. But I think at the minimum it's somewhat disingenuous to have created a corporate environment where almost anything can be construed as sexual harassment and yet have some women dress in a manner that is designed to invite notice, commentary and sexual interest. It is true that your style of dress says absolutely nothing about your skill set. It is also true for women that if you come to work in a skirt that barely covers your lower half and a top that shows off your upper half, you will get a different level and kind of interest from (especially male) peers and supervisors. Anyone who claims otherwise is likely not being truthful. 

Pointing this out is not being sexist. It's being realistic. As I've written before if you have a skirt that is so short that you must struggle to get out of your chair without showing everyone everything or are wearing a top so low cut that men's eyes constantly drift, chances are your clothing might be a tad provocative for your workplace. That is unless you work for Hooters. It's all about time and place.


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