Why Working Women Should Wear Skirts Instead Of Pants

women do better at work wearing skirtsWomen's workplace attire has been a contentious issue ever since women entered the workplace. After all, women are under social pressure to look sexually desirable, which can sometimes conflict with the office pressure to look professional. A new study in Britain offers up an answer to this clash: choose skirts, not pants.

At the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England, 300 people were shown images of women in navy pantsuits and skirts, their faces blurred, and asked to rate them on five criteria: confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary and flexibility. The volunteers were only given a few seconds, but if a "snap judgment" is meaningful -- and research says it is -- skirts are the better choice if women want to impress their co-workers.

"We may think that fashion is just profligate indulgence and our sunny personality will eclipse our dull attire or detract from the soup stains on our anorak. Untrue," said Professor Karen Pine, who co-led the study.

The clothes that women have been permitted to wear have always reflected changing female status -- from the climbing hemlines of the Roaring '20s to the homemaker silhouettes of the conservative '50s to the shoulder-padded power suits of the money-drunk '80s. Until the early '90s, women weren't even allowed to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor.

The study's conclusion could be seen as regressive, as women who wear more ladylike, leg-flashing clothing are favored over women who choose to break down those norms. On the other hand, as Pine points out, it shows that women can dress in a feminine manner and achieve workplace respect. This supposedly contradicts past research that says that women should dress more like men to be successful in a traditionally male domain.

There are limits, however, to how far we should take these findings. Looking at the dress styles of the most successful women politicians and executives might be a more accurate method of determining how a woman should dress for success.

Hillary Clinton, for example, has been lambasted for decades for her unfeminine wiles -- the frozen coif, the boxy jackets, and the unsleek pantsuits. At the same time, however, she's the U.S. Secretary of State, fourth in the presidential line of succession. So it hasn't held her back too much.

Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, and most powerful woman in the world according to Forbes magazine, has long been ridiculed for her basin-like haircut. And when photographed on vacation in a giant baggy striped shirt and elasticated pants, Der Spiegel observed that "sartorial elegance is hardly Merkel's forte."

Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, is the most powerful female businesswoman on the planet. She has a particular penchant for bright-colored suits, shawls and saris. The impression given by traditional Indian dress was not tested in Pine's experiment.

Of course, many powerful women elegantly combine professionalism and sex appeal, like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Christine Lagarde of the IMF, and Michele Bachmann of everywhere on your television. There's no single wardrobe, it seems, that translates to wealth and power. And if you're wealthy and powerful, you'll probably get a stylist anyway.

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