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 .
Most Americans would call two weeks off a vacation, not punishment.
So here is today’s thought problem: why can men get away with making snide, sexist and derogatory comments about female colleagues’ appearance, when women don’t attack men, particularly male colleagues, in such virulent and public fashion?
My theory is that women know we cannot get away with it. We’re not in Iran – we don’t risk being jailed for criticizing men  – but most women pick up early in the game that different rules apply to men in our country and our culture. Without consciously censoring ourselves, very few women would ever dream of publicly vilifying a man the way Kornheiser ridiculed Storm .
Just try to imagine it: Katie Couric ridiculing Matt Lauer’s tight pants? Diane Sawyer mocking Charlie Gibson’s wrinkles? Barbara Walters calling Hugh Downs a stuffed sausage?
I can’t picture any of them daring to do so. You might believe that women in general are simply nicer, more caring than men – but before doing so I ask you to recall the behavior of the girls you knew in 7th and 8th grade. Or you might argue that highly successful women like Storm, Sawyer, Couric and Walters are too professional to sink so low. Yes – they’ve had no choice but to adhere to absurd standards of professional perfectionism in order to succeed in male-dominated fields of television. Perfect – from a man’s view. Non-threatening. Cute and attractive but not domineering. Someone men can count on to draw within the lines, to follow the unwritten rules. Definitely not someone who’d ridicule a man’s appearance. Someone as savvy as Storm would not go after a male colleague’s clothing, style or work performance the way Kornheiser – without apparently even thinking – did to her. Even Storm’s cordial, conciliatory response to Kornheiser’s apology demonstrates the textbook non-threatening non-confrontational approach she probably internalized long ago.
For a man, demeaning a female colleague means a two week suspension. For a woman, game over. I’m not arguing that women should strive to ridicule men for their fashion faux pas, beer bellies, bad ties or toupees. However I’d sure like to see greater latitude for women to dress as we please and to appear our age – in other words, to be held to the same professional standards as our male colleagues. Without fear of being whispered about in the hallways, called into HR or ridiculed on ESPN. To be judged by our accomplishments -- not our go-go boots.