Dress for Success?
by Leslie Morgan Steiner
When I graduated from college in 1987, I faced grim choices in professional interview attire: navy blue or black suit, cream or white ruffled shirt. A kind of armor. For years my work wardrobe made me want to scream every morning. At Johnson & Johnson, where I stayed for nearly a decade, HR published a dress code that seemed to apply only to women: skirts had to skirt your knee, and sleeveless tops and bare legs were banned, even in August. All motivated professional women abided scrupulously by the code; we drew within the lines. Women who didn’t were whispered about, considered suspect, overly flirtatious, or unambitious. Following the rules signaled to everyone that you were serious about your career.
Times sure have changed. Fuschia, zebra-stripes and purple outfits hang in my wardrobe now. But women still face a puzzling mandate when it comes to professional attire.
Case in point. Picture this: you’re a 47-year-old working mother of three at the top of your profession. Finally sufficiently successful and confident, you start dressing with a measure of creativity, expressing your personality beyond the boring black and navy suits you wore for decades.
Until a male colleague – a peer working for the same company – ridicules you, your age, your weight and your clothing choices. In front of one million people.
"A horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She's got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt ... way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now...She's got on her typically very, very tight shirt. She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body ... I know she's very good, and I'm not supposed to be critical, so I won't ... but come on now! Stop! What are you doing? ... She's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point."
This actually did happen, to real life 47-year-working mom, ESPN commentator and longtime sports journalist Hannah Storm. Her tormentor was fellow ESPN employee Tony Kornheiser, ( a former colleague of mine when we both worked at the Washington Post, although I have to admit he never chastised me for wearing short skirts).
Kornheiser is not exactly a fashion plate himself. He’s a 60+ year-old, rangy, balding, scraggly-bearded, big-nosed man. If one were to extend the people-as-food analogy he applied to Ms. Storm, I’d probably describe him as a celery stalk a few weeks past its prime at the bottom of the slimy vegetable drawer.
But no matter how goofy looking he is, there’s one huge protective factor in his favor – he’s a man. His looks and clothing barely matter, because no one attacks successful men in public in this country for their attire or appearance. What Kornheiser did to Storm is gender harassment, not “what I do for work” as Kornheiser tried to plead. Regardless, ESPN handed Kornheiser a wimpy two week suspension.