Law Firm Encourages Female Employees to “Embrace Their Femininity”

Top British legal firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has hired image consultants to give their employees advice on how to dress more appropriately for the workplace. Their guidelines for women are mainly to stop being so damn masculine — oh, and slutty, too.

Female lawyers at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have been advised to team their stilettos with skirts rather than trousers to ’embrace their femininity’.

But they can’t embrace it too much.

Necklaces, they have been warned, should be avoided as they could draw undue attention to the bustline.

That’s right, ladies! Enough with the comfort, already.  Be prettier and more womanly for us — but not too pretty.  No one likes a skank.  What, is this advice straight out of the 40s?

But hey, before you get that nice new skirt of yours all in a twist (those things can be hard to untangle in the stilettos you’re undoubtedly now wearing), be aware that while the men haven’t been admonished to dress more masculine, they have also been warned against being too sexual:

And in a bid to keep everything above board, male employees have been told not to allow their ties to hang below their belts for fear of drawing unwanted attention to their nether regions.

Uh, right.  What?

I know that I ought to be more annoyed that amused.  And I’m working hard at it.  Luckily, Sociological Images brings it back down to earth for us with an astute analysis:

A spokesman for the company doling out this advice says that it’s about being “professional.”  This is a great term to take apart.  What do we really mean when we say “professional”?

How much of it has to do with proper gender display or even, in masculinized workplaces, simply masculine display?

How much of it has to do with whiteness?  Are afros and corn rows unprofessional?   Is speaking Spanish?  Why or why not?

How much of it has to do with appearing attractive, heterosexual, monogamous, and, you know, not one of those “unAmerican” religions?

For that matter, how much of it has to do with pretending like your work is your life, you are devoted to the employer, and your co-workers are like family (anyone play Secret Santa at work this year)?

Indeed.  While this may initially seem like just yet another bit of obnoxiously run of the mill sexism, it begs an important question.  Who gets to decide what is and is not professional?  And how many layers of oppression get all wrapped up in that decision?

Thanks to Kristen for the tip.

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17 comments for “Law Firm Encourages Female Employees to “Embrace Their Femininity”

  1. William
    December 29, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    Control appearance, control individuation, control dissent. Its very difficult to upset the status quo if even the most irrelevant of things (like the length of a tie or the placement of a necklace) are tightly regulated with social disapproval coming from people who hold the future of your career in their hands.

  2. exholt
    December 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Experienced both ends of this as someone who worked for internet startups where casual clothing such as t-shirts, jeans, shorts, sneakers, and sandals were a-ok to extremely stiff law firms and financial companies where business casual and/or formal clothing and shoes were mandated depending on the level of client interaction expected for one’s job.

    Impression I got was that in those stiff environments, they wanted to project a “serious” image which they felt was undermined by dressing casually like we did in the startups or your stereotypical college undergrads. To them, one’s clothing choices sends a message about yourself and your level of perceived intelligence/seriousness…..kinda funny when many of the least intelligent people I’ve met in life tended to be exactly the types to wear formal “professional-looking” clothing like suits and ties and be judgmental about others’ clothing choices whereas most of the smartest people I’ve met tended to not be nearly as obsessive and judgmental about the clothing choices of other people.

  3. GallingGalla
    December 29, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    If any of my workplaces tries to mandate that I wear heels, I’ll hit them with an ADA lawsuit so fast their heads will be spinning. Due to multiple chronic injuries and dyspraxia, wearing heels for one day guarantees severe pain for me, and wearing stillettos will guarantee that I wind up with a broken ankle before the week is out.

    Ever notice that the dress code for men, while stiff and confining, is not physically hazardous, but women are expected to HURT THEIR OWN BODIES to conform to the dress code?

    Note: I’m not objecting to women (or men!!!) who choose to and enjoy wearing heels. It’s the enforced conformity that I’m riled up about.

    And also, funny innit (not), how cornrows or dreads are somehow “unprofessional” when they are hairstyles with no more or less meaning than hairstyles that white folks like myself wear?

    Or, for that matter, wearing a skirt and stilettos when you’re a *trans* woman.

  4. December 29, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Ever notice that the dress code for men, while stiff and confining, is not physically hazardous, but women are expected to HURT THEIR OWN BODIES to conform to the dress code?


  5. denelian
    December 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    this is… i mean…

    to me, a skirt is only something i wear when the guy and i are going on a date and i want to get laid after it. it used to be something that i wore when i was going out, before the guy and i got together. it is not something i would wear to work. *I* think that skirts are unprofessional (this may be totally unfair of me. but… i think men and women should be wearing the exact same sort of thing. including shoes. slacks, button down, tie and jacket if formal, flat dress shoes. also, i have noticed that if i wear a skirt i am somehow “asking” for a male co-worker to say something about it, generally either that it’s too long or too short, and complaining gets me told that thats what i get for wearing a skirt. so rather than deal with it, i came up with my new idea of “professional”. and really, it’s good for me, because why SHOULD i wear a skirt to work?)

    erm. rather babbly of me. but genderized clothing is generally required, in my experience, only in places that are catering to gender stereotypes. fuck that.

  6. GallingGalla
    December 29, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    denelian @5: I don’t like dress codes in general, but a gender-agnostic one that applies to *all* employees equally, like what you specify (pants, flat shoes, etc), would be FAR preferable to the typical gendered corporate dress code.

    And it would make things a hell of a lot easier on trans folk who are transitioning on the job, as it removes a huge distraction and point of contention regarding T3h Ev0l Trans.

  7. Amanda in the South Bay
    December 29, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    In the United States, the relevant case law is Price Waterhouse v Hopkins, which I think is somewhat germane to this.

  8. denelian
    December 29, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    yeah, it would be prefered. and better for transfolk. and anyone else whose body (or whose self-image) doesn’t hold up for skirts.

    all the fuss thats made over ‘sexual misconduct” and “sexual harrasment”, you’d think corporations who keep being sued over them would implement policies that are gender neutral so they could STOP being sued. but it is apparently more important to uphold gender norms than have a good working enviroment.

    if i ever work someplace again that tries to make me wear a skirt, i am suing. i am not a person who normally makes a big fuss, but i’m so done with being treated that crap because i have breasts; i refuse to be forced to wear cloths that make me look even MORE sexual TO WORK!

  9. Rosalux
    December 30, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Pants only is no more gender neutral than high-heels only. Forcing me to wear pants is like saying “your body does not fit our (masculinized) ideal so you have to wear clothes that make you look dumpy”.

    There’s no such thing as a “gender neutral” dress code, unless it’s on the level of “no knees should be visible and you must wear close-toed shoes”. Because if it were gender neutral it would be just as likely to mandate “women’s” clothing as “men’s”, right? And no company is going to mandate skirts for everyone.

    Of course, I’m lucky to live in a city and work in a company with enough butch women & transmen that dress shirts, slacks, and plain flat shoes (not “flats” but regular lace-up or loafer dress shoes) is considered perfectly professional. I wonder if that’s true at law firms around here?

    Also: you forgot “classism” in there. Because the dress code is generally for all office employees, not just the ones paid well enough to afford it.

  10. GallingGalla
    December 30, 2008 at 12:59 pm

    Also: you forgot “classism” in there. Because the dress code is generally for all office employees, not just the ones paid well enough to afford it.

    Point well taken.

  11. roses
    December 30, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    Interestingly, at the companies I’ve worked for (an oil company and an engineering firm) the dress code has been a lot more lenient for women than for men.  Men wear slacks and a collared shirt, period.  Women can wear slacks, skirts, dresses, collared shirts, sweaters or dressy tops.  The result being that in the summer, women had the option of bare legs and open toed shoes and men didn’t.

    Personally I would be irritated if I had to wear pants to work, because as a plus sized women with an apparently untypical body type, I find it very, very difficult to find pants that fit comfortably and look good. Skirts and dresses are much easier for me.

  12. Bitter Scribe
    December 31, 2008 at 2:39 am

    This is what’s so great about working from home. Half my clothes are rags, and no one cares.

  13. December 31, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    I formerly worked at a non-prof law org where the entire staff was women. We hired consultants to “re-brand”, as our branding had been done in the 70s and looked it. Weirdly, we hired a non-feminist white male consultant. His rebranding ideas for us involved trying to “soften” and “feminize” us because he was concerned that being a group of badass female lawyers would frighten the public and our allies unless we softened our image with familiar feminizing tropes. When we balked at these ideas, he resorted to sports metaphors to explain his thoughts.

    Good times.

  14. January 1, 2009 at 4:02 am

    this is exactly why i’m against dress codes and the idea of ‘professional attire’ because it’s just another way to institute oppression across the board. this is why i cannot stand when people see something about dress codes and are like ‘well you DO have to maintain a certain amount of professional atmosphere…’ and it’s like, why? and why does ‘professional’ seem to always be straight white UPPER CLASS dude? i don’t even believe in this reasonable standard of blah blah blah. i just would not be phased by a lawyer in court in a tanktop, i’m sorry.

  15. January 1, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Oh, but I’m sure the law firm is going to properly compensate their female employees for those pretty skirts, expensive makeup and neverending supply of pantyhose, right?

    Maaaaaan, GTFOOBWTB.

  16. neil
    January 1, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    these corporations and law firms cater to the upper class, and so it is not surprising that they encourage a posh, classy aesthetic. it is about making the customer feel reassured and at home. no one is being required nor forbidden to wear a skirt. in the practice of law part of dressing professionally can be expressing deference for the tribunal (if you’re a litigator), or deference to the client, by muting your own individuality when you’re acting as someone’s agent or officer.

    i agree with the poster that says that dress norms are generally more flexible for women than for men. there is a wide range of attire suitable for professional women whereas mens attire amounts to a few variations on the business suit. establishing a norm for women to wear a suit style tracking as closely as possible the one developed for men would be absurd. perhaps norms for female professional attire will harden over time.

    i see the necktie as an oppressive garment. it is alternately a noose and a collar, and is de rigeur for men in formal settings. but, it is a fairly old tradition and serves as a reminder of the role you’re meant to play while wearing it.

  17. sexetveritas
    February 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Pants-only corporate dress code would discriminate against those women who wear only skirts as part of their religious faith. Of course one can argue the merits of a religion that mandates gender separation. But it is still discrimination on the part of the workplace. Better to state that all employees may wear pants or skirt (of “modest” length, if need be.)

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