Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Wear to Work: The Context

An earlier version of this entry briefly popped up on Feedly when I accidentally published it before I was ready. I've been mulling over whether I want to post this one for a while, because it isn't strictly on topic when it comes to the fashion and spending type things I usually talk about. As an aside, when it comes to writing about women's experiences and social equality generally, I confess to feeling a bit of trepidationeven if I've never personally experienced any backlash from anything I put online.

As a woman on the cusp of entering the professional workforce for the first time in my life, I am always looking to read more about women and work. Whether its about leaning in, letting go of having it all, women's confidence and career advancement (and how a "confidence gap" might exist for reasons beyond any individual woman's control) or about dressing for the workplace, I devour almost everything on the subject. Because I enjoy fashion, shopping, and thinking about what to wear, I have copious thoughts on the subject of workplace dress for women. Separately from that, however, I think that it is useful to think about why women might feel more pressure and receive more scrutiny regarding workplace sartorial choices than men. 

While sexism (whether direct, structural, or internalized) is hardly an ugly word that must not be spoken, in my brief working life thus far I often feel... disempowered when it comes to discussing it with classmates and colleagues. All this while working in a field that, in recent years, has dramatically fewer examples of problems with gender discrimination than most (it's no Silicon Valley tech industry, at least). I might be "outing" my field by going into even this much detail, but I will work in an industry where the largest companies pay all junior employees on an extremely standardized and ultra-transparent salary scale, at least until they're promoted into the upper echelons. Bonuses are generally standardized as well, both between and within companies, with very few upward or downward departures for "merit" or "performance"-related reasons. Five decades ago, women were generally not welcome, but the industry has come a long way. It isn't there yet, but I can safely assume that my salary and advancement will be equal for the first few years.

I have almost never experienced explicit and direct sexism in any form, though racism-"lite" (being treated differently based on what people assume about my background and because of the specific combination of my race and sex) is possibly another issue entirely. There is, however, a subtler questions which I present without having any real thought on whether it speaks to larger problems with society or the profession:

Those in my profession talk about how luck and serendipity are often the primary factors in their major career decisions: what to specialize in (what specific type of finance, what industries to advise, etc.), whether to leave the large company, and various other steps forward. I've only been a summer intern, but that allowed me to observe how "luck" begins to have effects from one's very first days at work: One supervisor randomly has a very interesting intern-appropriate assignment to assign and gives it to someone they know. Another supervisor emails a list of interns they think would be interested about an assignment, but might or might not forget one or another intern. It is an accident and yet... 

Over time, I noticed that more of the summer intern men are constantly bogged down by interesting assignments that randomly come their way. More of the women spend more of their time twiddling their thumbs because no such serendipitous assignments were offered, and their best efforts to rustle up some work from supervisors they know also didn't turn anything up. Some of the women put themselves out there more than others (and some of the men experience the downsides of uneven distribution of work as well), but either way, when one attempts to rustle up new and interesting work too many times with no success, it is a very human thing, I think, to try less or even to stop.

It doesn't really matter, maybe. Our only goal that summer was getting a permanent offer, and it was understood that we'd all succeed (barring any illegal or lawsuit-generating behavior). Indeed, it costs a supervisor more time and effort to assign something to us than for them to do it themselves. 

Luck and serendipity as it relates to career development and advancement seems to rely, in large part, on who you know and the help they give. People are kind and willing to help and they don't consciously make such decisions in discriminatory ways. However, over time and in the aggregate, some people (women and minorities in particular, it's documented) probably get less help or mentorship than others despite going through similar efforts. Certain cultural backgrounds are more common in NYC corporate workplaces. Those who come from different walks of life naturally find themselves feeling more out of place more frequently for various small reasons. 

As can be expected, I don't have any real answers about any of this. When it comes to my own professional setbacks, when they come, I know that the way I present myself (i.e. in interviews) is to blame. I take responsibility for the path my own career takes, because, at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters to me is what I can control. Relatedly, I also do my best to advise any more junior student who approaches me and who is interested in my field, I hope to make them feel supported.


  1. Out of curiosity, what is it about the way you present yourself in interviews that you feel is to blame?

  2. I'm historically not super great at interviews for private-sector jobs. I haven't received a lot of direct feedback on it, though I worked briefly with a presentation coach at school during recruiting season, and his main feedback was that I bring in a lot of nervous energy. When I listen to other students (with more interview successes) discuss interview skills, I feel like I might not understand how best to present myself and my skills to interviewers.

    I'm pretty good at more academic interviews though, i.e. those for fellowships or scholarships awarded through a school! I have decent presentation skills when it comes to public speaking too, relatively speaking. I'm not sure why I have so much trouble with corporate interviews, but prior attempts to seek feedback through school has not yielded much fruit. I think I might end up hiring a professional presentation coach later on in life when I have a little more disposable income!


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