If women want to be taken seriously at work, they should dress like men

Jessica alba suitAdam Pretty / GettyDoes Jessica Alba look more like a leader when she’s dressed in a suit?

The clothes you wear have a profound impact on how people perceive you.

Studies suggest that formal dress makes teaching assistants look more capable, wearing thick glasses makes people look smarter, and well-dressed customer-service agents are more likely to score sales.

That’s all great.

But the gender implications of dress go even further — and grow toxic.

In her 1990 study, Auburn University professor Sandra M. Forsythe asked 109 respondents who worked in marketing and banking to watch four videos of female applicants interviewing for a management job. Applicants wore outfits with different degrees of masculinity.

For Forsythe, “masculine” dress featured straight silhouettes, angular lines, and dark colours — as in a dark navy suit — while feminine dress featured rounded silhouettes, curved lines, and light colours — as in a light beige dress.

The respondents rated each applicant on their management abilities and their hireability.

The result? The more masculine the clothing, the more likely the applicant would be recommended to be hired — regardless of whether a man or woman was making the recommendation. Coincidentally, the women who were more masculinely dressed were are also seen as more forceful and aggressive — qualities that predict climbing the corporate ladder.

Forsythe’s study shows how cultural associations produce a bias in hiring. Masculinity is equated with leadership, so women who dress more masculinely are seen as better leaders.

Cultural biases show up in many contexts:

Just holding a beer makes people look dumber, thanks to how closely associated drinking and foolishness are in our culture.

• People who wear white labcoats — associated with doctors and chemists — actually perform better on concentration tasks, showing that presentation-based biases don’t just affect the viewer, but the person wearing the clothes.

Men who talk a lot at work are seen as more competent, while women who speak up at work are seen as less competent.

Frustratingly, more recent research suggests that the biases that Forsythe examined are with us today, especially in regard to gender. Female scientists with identical resumes to male scientists get lower initial salary offers, women are less likely to pursue “genius”-driven fields like engineering, and successful women are generally perceived as less trustworthy than successful men.

Maybe that’s why it’s still tall, deep-voiced men who are seen as CEO material.

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