Interviews, clothes, biases?

A query from a reader:

I have a job interview coming up and I have been thinking about what to wear! Normally I know that women tend to wear a skirt and jacket, or a dress. But I have been wondering whether this may disadvantage the applicant, by triggering (conscious and unconscious) biases against women. I was wondering if you knew of anything written on this, or have any views on the matter. I think women think they should look ‘nice’, while feminine clothes may distract or convey a certain lack of professionalism. So I am thinking of trousers and a shirt! But was just wondering if you have any thoughts on this.

Anyone know of relevant studies?

25 thoughts on “Interviews, clothes, biases?

  1. I think there’s pretty good research that says that unless about a third of the candidates are women, a woman is going to stick out as an anomaly. A skirt isn’t going to add much to that. I’d concentrate on what sort of clothes you’d feel most comfortable in, given that is, that you avoid clothes inappropriate for an academic, classroom setting.

    For the surely totally obvious that I am nonetheless going to spell out: I am supposing that some things one sees in offices as represented in Vogue, etc, probably aren’t a good idea. Plunging necklines, 4 or 5 inch heels, five or six bangles, dramatic chandelier (sp?) earings, and model-type eye-shadow. It would probably be good if you can keep your hair undercontrol, supposing it needs that.

  2. It seems to me that more and more women wear pants for interviews. If you are more comfortable in pants, go for it.

  3. “though I’m sure they also wear pants in the UK sense.”

    Probably, though it’s somewhere between inappropriate and illegal to make any effort to find out.

  4. Alien, good find! Though the former shoe salesperson in me is dying to critique the advice on footwear.

  5. I would wear a suit. Either with a very modest length skirt, or with tailored trousers. but a jacket that matches the bottom exactly is a must, the jacket at least needs to be lines, and its best if both parts are lined. well tailored professional look is very important. a white or light colored shirt, open at the neck but no or very little bosom showing, real gold jewelry a thin chain, bracelet, but not a bunch of jangling, and small gold earrings, no fake, go with well polished sterling silver if you cannot manage gold.
    mid height heels, plain, no spikes or super pointy toes. Other words, very conservative, and quality, same for folder of briefcase, leather, and not buldging with stuff, just what t yon need. eliminate purse, have cards, pen, personal grooming needs in briefcase, but to a minimum, make up, very natural look, add modest, not to heave false eyelashes if you can manage, them, but short, and FG’s sake glued on well, no chance of coming loose.

    Good luck, be a pro, be assured but do not brag, assure them you can do the job, and will be attentive to the companies needs.

  6. Is the query from a reader with a job in the private sector, or in higher ed? Is it a job with a retail clothing store (in which case, feel free to amp up the accessories a bit), or a waitress, or a law firm, or what?

    I’ve never owned a suit and I’ve been offered jobs within academia and without. I always wear reasonably nice-looking (not usually new but at least pressed) clothing in which I am very comfortable and feel completely myself (usually wool slacks, turtleneck, some sort of jacket). Just wear whatever makes you feel like yourself on your best days. Also, visit (or google for) this discussion at Philosophy Smoker, where they’ve run this query a few times and the preponderance of opinion always does boil down to, Be comfortable and look nice.

    I can’t resist the 30-Rock reference:
    “Hair movement is a sign of weakness.” Donaghy! (Kidding, though, of course. If you rock a natural fro then rock it.)

  7. About a ‘fro. I guess I think that in every such category there are controlled and not controlled versions, but I might well be wrong. This does raise for me the question of wearing dreads. Maybe since the reader is concerned specifically about gender, we don’t have to go there.

  8. Sweater sets in flattering jewel tones are a good alternative to the button button down shirt or blouse. Avoid pastels. Wear closed toe shoes.

    I was fascinated watching Michele Bachman’s outfit choices when she ran for the Republican nomination. Her nude hose under knee length skirts & open toed shoes did NOT look authoritative next to the suit wearers on the debate stage.

  9. anonymous, that is interesting. I wonder if her clothes were deliberately chosen. Women can pay a high price for looking authoritative, as we saw with HR Clinton.

    Of course, that would have been a rare bit of coherent thought…. :)

  10. I think there’s a lot of value in dressing how you will feel comfortable as well as professional. For example, the standard rule (as I understand it) would have me wear a button-front blouse or shirt with my suit. However, as someone who’s relatively well endowed, pretty much any button front shirt that fits me well around the waist will have gaping around the buttons. When I’m in the interview, I want to be able to concentrate on the conversation, not worry about whether I’m going to have a wardrobe malfunction. I’ve come to learn that wearing a simple camisole or sweater underneath my suit jacket makes me feel more at ease, and I believe that comes across in the interview as well.

  11. Wear whatever is the “dressy, professional” version of what you normally wear. Remember, the point is not just to get hired, but to get hired at a place that will tenure you. So, don’t radically depart from your normal, day-to-day teaching/professional wardrobe that these people will see you in for the next six years, should you get hired. If you have a face piercing, or dreads, or something otherwise quote-unquote “distinctive” about your appearance (which, in phil, sadly includes being female, and especially femme), you ought to show that in the interview. If they’re going to hold wearing a skirt against you, consider it a sign of lessened credibility, then you’ll never be able to wear a skirt to campus, ever, without them thinking less of you.

  12. Although I do love a good conversation about fashion, I have to say that I find these specific ways of talking about women’s dress–what should we do to keep people from being biased against us–incredibly depressing. This is mostly because it turns out that the answer is “you can’t, but it’s your responsibility!” If you go back and look at some of these conversations on the Smoker website and elsewhere, it’s the same kind of stuff, rehashed: don’t wear a power suit, because that’s threatening and reminds people of Hillary Clinton. But also, don’t wear a skirt, because that will remind us that you’re a woman, and people think that women are incompetent. Be conventionally attractive, but not TOO attractive. Wear glasses. Don’t wear glasses, because you’ll remind people of Elle in ‘Legally Blonde.’

    In the end, while I understand the impulse to ask the question as a pragmatic concern, it is so utterly depressing that we keep spinning our wheels trying to meet impossible demands that, ultimately, we have no control over–and with which men will never have to concern themselves. It’s hard, then, to think that the thinly veiled message isn’t just “don’t be a woman.”

  13. I read, in Cosmo of all places, a story about this one woman’s job interview. She’d heard the boss preferred “girly girls” and went in wearing something soft, flowy and feminine, which stood out against the pinstriped power suits everyone else was wearing….And she got the job! So you never know.

    I’ll echo what others say here. For the interview, dress one or two steps up from what you’ll be wearing to work. Without knowing what kind of job you’re applying for, it’s hard to give any more advice than that. Good luck!

  14. About rockin a natural fro… My hair’s natural texture is about like Chakira’s, and I wear it long like she does. People criticize and nag me constantly about it–defrizzer or no defrizzer. Creepy guys are always trying to touch it. ICK! Some of my hair critics tell me my ‘do might be the reason for this failed job interview or that.

    Wear your fro short, put it in cane rows, or in the case of an almost-fro like mine, wear it in a bun. Ghana braid is nice, too.

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