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was does it mean

What does it mean to dress like a woman?

Painting by artist Helen Hopcroft. Beginning in May 2017, Helen will dress as Marie Antoinette 24/7 for a full year, with videographer Jessica Coughlan documenting her every move.

It’s time to get ready for work. You look at your wardrobe and consider what you will wear, and what your choice might say about you to your colleagues. The options seem endless. Was it always like this? Do you think your mother started her workday with the same choices?

Fifty years ago, most women were teachers, nurses, secretaries, retail assistants or hairdressers. Secretaries, retail assistants and teachers were expected to wear skirts, stockings and high heels. Nurses had a clearly prescribed uniform and even hairdressers had a particular dress code. Female students were expected to dress a certain way too, which meant I wore skirts, stockings and high heels to university!

Dressing ‘like a woman’ was clearly defined, and for some leaders in our workplaces the mental picture has stuck. When Trump called on his female staff to ‘dress like a woman’, he clearly meant skirts or dresses, high heels and stockings. Part of the problem with this is that women’s careers and success continues to be assessed on their physical presentation.

This image has shifted significantly in the last 50 years, with women now thriving in almost every sector of the workforce, including science laboratories, the medical profession, politics, exploration sites, racing circuits, the sporting field, firefighting, and the armed forces to name a few.

When the hash tag ‘#dresslikeawoman’ trended, we got a very clear picture of how dramatically things have changed for women over the years in terms of how they dress for work. Some corporates, especially those in rapidly changing sectors such as IT, have thrown away the old codes completely, and to dress more formally would be totally out of place – think Google, Optus, Yahoo!, Apple and Atlassian. Female teachers now wear a range of clothes more suitable for the classroom environment, and there are seem to be no rules for entrepreneurs working from home or in collaborative workspaces.

Let’s look at a few examples that show what ‘dress like a woman’ means today in a range of fields:

  • Read about Associate Professor Katherine Kedzierska and Dr Jane Elith, who both won prestigious Academy of Science medals for 2016, and Dr Renee Whan who is head of the Biomedical Imaging Facility at UNSW. When they ‘dress like a woman’, they are likely wearing a lab coat over their choice of clothes. Dr Whan is featured in Xplore’s first book, Unexpected Women: Inspirational success stories by women in male dominated industries, which is now available as a free download.
  • We can see rising support for the Women’s AFL, Women’s Cricket and the Women’s Rugby 7s, not to mention our fabulous Olympic swimmers. For most of these groups their normal workday clothing is a sports uniform.
  • Women who work on construction sites, remediation sites, or even underwater, wear unisex clothing appropriate for the work at hand, ready to operate as engineers, ecologists, environmentalists, marine scientists and firefighters. Read the stories of Yassmin Abdel-Magied when she was working as an engineer in a FIFO role, and Heather Jones who owns and runs a trucking company in WA in Unexpected Women.
  • Many women are taking senior roles in our armed forces and their uniforms give gravitas to their position. Read the stories of Lieutenant Colonel Nicole Longley and Donna Wheatley in Unexpected Women, Squadron Leader Samantha Freebairn who works at the Royal Australian Air Force, and Captain Mona Shindy, the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab in the Royal Australian Navy.

The weather is hot as I write this article from the comfort of my home office. When I looked at my wardrobe this morning, I chose to wear a singlet top, shorts, and bare feet! With women’s participation across so many industry segments, albeit more slowly than we would like, what it means to #dresslikeawoman in 2017 is a very broad definition indeed.

Diana Ryall

Diana is a leading voice and advocate for Gender Equality in Australia and Founder of Xplore.
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