Recently, Loyola Law School in Los Angeles issued a memo to its students outlining what not to wear to work-study jobs. For one: low-cut tops. Another: those sexy Louboutins. “I really don’t need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I?” asks the author of a memo entitled “Ethics, Professionalism and Course Requirements for Off Campus Externs” but then goes on to mention it anyway. “The legal community is small in L.A. and judges and lawyers who have unprofessional experiences with externs talk freely amongst themselves about the experiences. It can be embarrassing.”
It can also be sexist. I’m talking about the memo, of course, which offers no such guidelines on appearance for men, if we’re to assume that men aren’t among those whose cleavage and heels are generating whispers within L.A. courtrooms. The memo’s implication is that there’s a relationship between how women look and how well they do their jobs, and that it’s okay to judge a woman on her appearance. It’s one thing to acknowledge that a bias exists in society, but quite another to insist on kowtowing to it, and to expectations that are, in most cases, initiated and maintained by men, but not imposed on men.
Women are very often reduced to, or at least measured by, their looks, in every industry, and the message can be infuriatingly contradictory. Look good, but not too good. Pay attention to vanity, but don’t be obvious about it. Be different, but about the same as everyone else. The Loyola memo noted that the school had received “complaints from supervisors” about students’ dress, though it isn’t specific about the nature or number of the complaints. While it’s possible that some women may go overboard, perhaps the topic could have been addressed with the individual(s) against whom the complaints were filed. After all, overboard is both subjective and confusing. At least one law professor advised women to get ahead by wearing “skirts to appeal to men, makeup to look healthy and competent, and heels to appear more powerful.”
What’s a constant, though, is that looks matter, and usually that attractiveness pays. So why shouldn’t women, who face any number of disadvantages in the workplace, use what they can to get ahead? According to research by Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful, the top one-third of attractive females earns about 10 percent more annually than those in the bottom sixth of the genetic pool. A 2006 study from the University of Helsinki that looked at the role of beauty in politics found that the better-looking the candidate, the more competent, trustworthy and likeable he or she was perceived to be.
When it comes to dress, a recent Harvard Business School study found that dressing distinctly could make a woman appear confident and influential, two qualities especially relevant for courtroom lawyers. We can’t blame Loyola Law School for society’s obsession with appearance, and if judges and juries are indeed forming opinions about female lawyers’ abilities based on the length of their skirts, it’s important for would-be lawyers to recognize that. It’s not right, but perhaps it’s a reality. Law in particular is a profession that relies heavily on the opinions and very real biases of others. That said, we can hold the school responsible for helping to perpetuate the mixed messages women receive about their appearance, and for issuing a memo that, while perhaps useful in spirit, was insulting and condescending in tone. Loyola is a highly rated law school; it stands to reason that the students accepted there have at least some common sense and social awareness. Presumably there are some brains behind those bodies. By widely issuing the memo using the language it did, Loyola expressed doubt in the abilities of its female students to make their own decisions regarding something as basic as what to wear. It’s important for a school that’s in the business of educating women to recognize and support the idea that women can be both smart and attractive; to help shift the conversation from an either/or.
Meanwhile, women should keep pushing the boundaries and resisting definitions, and wearing what they deem appropriate. There was a time, after all, that pantsuits were considered “shocking” courtroom garb, a convention that changed because women insisted it change. With persistence, eventually what will matter most is how women perform their jobs, and not which shoes they happened to choose that morning.
Peggy Drexler is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University.