Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Memo to the gals at Clifford Chance

When I see the way professional women are often portrayed in TV or in the movies – I’m thinking of some of the outfits that law firm managing partner Jessica Pearson struts around in on Suits, and the push-up-bra cleavage and short, tight skirts that Lisa Cuddy, a doctor and hospital head in House, sports – I have to ask myself whether it is vaguely possible that some women in senior positions in the “real world” might think that this is an acceptable, even expected, way for them dress.

So maybe there are workplaces where those who’ve passed the bar dress for work as if they’ve never passed a bar in their lives.

Still, it’s difficult for me to believe that the women of Clifford Chance, a major law firm with offices all over the world, need to be told not to wear “party outfits” to work.

Then again, it’s been a while since I regularly worked in any office, and I’ve never worked in a law office, so what do I know about the way professional women dress these days?

Let me qualify that. I do see plenty of female doctors and nurses on a regular basis, and most of them dress pretty darned comfortably and sensibly. Oh, I do see the occasional young doctor walking around in heels, and sometimes I ask them how they do it (all the while thinking, ‘you don’t have many more years of wearing those ahead of you, girlfriend’). But I’ve yet to see Jessica Pearson or Lisa Cuddy-style cleavage on display.

This is not to say that they’re all dowdy. (Although the scrubs that the chemo center nurses wear aren’t all that snappy. But, hey, I want them to be worrying about their patients, not how they look.) No, I suspect that under the white lab coats that most of the MDs and NPs wear, they’re wearing clothing that’s at least moderately fashionable.

And while I’m guessing that women in large, urban, power law firms have to up their fashion game a bit over what women in teaching hospitals can get by with, do they really need this sort of advice, which appeared in a memo entitled “Presentation Tips for Women.”

• “If wearing a skirt, make sure people can’t see up it”
• “Make sure you can stand in your heels.”
• “Wear a suit, not your party outfit”
• “Understated jewelry, nothing jingly or clanky”
• “Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe.”
• “No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage.” (Source: Business Week.)

Do top-drawer law school grads working in big law actually need advice of the “I see London/I see France” variety?

The memo was sent out by the firm’s Women’s Committee which, presumably, is composed of women so, presumably they do need  it. Or some of them do. (Of course, the sweet young things wobbling around in Laboutins, flashing red soles, cleavage, and peeps at thongs, would probably just chalk this up as jealousy on the part of older, out of play frumpsters jealous of the eye-ball attention the sweet young things are getting from the senior partners.)

And, just because no women at Clifford Chance can win for losing, the list of glamour do’s and don’ts includes:

“Don’t dress like a mortician.”

Oh, I get it.

Consider the Lauren vs. Marilyn suggestion. Women lawyers should be sultry seductresses, just of the ash-blonde vs. peroxide-blonde variety, and wear sexy 1940’s femme fatale suits rather than 1950’s Seven Year Itch dresses.

Appropriate sexiness, not menswear drab.

The tips aren’t just reserved for  dressing for success:

• “Don’t giggle.”
•“Don’t squirm.”
• “Don’t wave your arms”

Sounds like the type of advice that, say, the kindergarten teacher might give to her charges before their big graduation ceremony.

Do Harvard and Yale law grads of the female persuasion need to be told not to giggle, squirm, and wave their arms?

As for:

• “Don’t hide behind your hair.”

This seems a bit contradictory when taken in tandem with the Lauren Bacall advice. I mean, I don’t recall Marilyn Monroe hiding behind her hair. But maybe this piece of advice ties to the don’t dress like Morticia one.

Overall, I find this memo pretty disheartening.

When I started out in what was still the first wave of women in the previously all-male workplaces of the 1970’s and 1980’s, no one needed to tell us not to giggle, squirm, and wave our arms.

No one needed to tell us that jingly, clanky  jewelry was incompatible with a presentation.

No one needed to warn us about crotch shots.

Maybe, as we donned those menswear suits and floppy bow ties, we could have stood a little of that “don’t dress like a mortician” advice.

But is this what we burned our bras on the barricades for?

Remember ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’?

Not so fast…

Not that in my day there were no dress issues in the workplace.

In one classic incident, the only two female VP’s at a nuttier-than-a-fruitcake software company (where I logged nearly a decade and ended up the only female VP) got into it over dressing for success.

In this corner, “S”, the power feminist, who only wore menswear suits and whose philosophy was that, if someone noticed what you were wearing, they wouldn’t be listening to you. In the other corner, “J”, who wore whatever she damn well pleased.

“S” and “J” hated each other – rightly so in both directions, I might add – and “S” often felt called upon to critique “J’s” costume of the day.

At one meeting, “J” watched “S'” checking out her outfit – black mini-skirt, red turtleneck, big hoop earrings. Before “S” could open her mouth, “J” said, “I know what you’re thinking about saying, and f you.” S’s response? “Don’t tempt me.”

Now, I was not an eyewitness to this exchange, but both “S” and “J” related the story to me, repeating things verbatim.

Who was right?

Don’t know, but “S” is still going strong and has a stellar résumé – publications, boards, etc. – while “J” has dropped from sight.

For the record, I don’t recall either of them giggling or squirming.

1 comment:

valerie said...

When I worked as an analyst at a downtown Boston firm that looked like a very successful Brahmin law firm, it was pretty much male. One alleged analyst, who didn't last long, was loud, rude, and crass so it was no surprise that her mode of dress was often eye popping. One day she was sprawled across a loveseat in the lobby putting the 'little' in little black dress, wearing steel spiked heels that she promised would "make the partners bark like dogs". One of the partners took exception to her welcoming pose and rather than telling her to stop making the place look the best little whore house in Boston, he sent a memo to all employees banning analysts from the reception area. ha.