Wednesday, 26 March 2014

"To crack the glass ceiling you don’t need a sharp stick , you need a sharp suit."

"To crack the glass ceiling you don’t need a sharp stick , you need a sharp suit."

This was the sage advice administered by clothing company Wardrobe as I waited at Waterloo.

For starters, suggesting that women are robbing themselves of top jobs as a result of their imprudent fashion choices is irresponsible, especially when so many barriers to women's participation in male-dominated spheres exist. What about lack of affordable childcare, bosses undervaluing women's contributions, unequal domestic burdens, nepotism, demeaning media coverage that adds to an overall societal impression that women are unable to contribute anything meaningful, etc. etc...?

Is it helpful, Wardrobe, to suggest that women are responsible for these inequalities because of their failure to buy an expensive suit and dazzle their way into the boardroom?

I understand that this is what advertising does. It exploits fears or problems in society then sells us the solution. This latest piss-poor effort is an attempt to capitalise on women's inequality in the workplace and refocus our attention on the important things in life: clothes and shoes. It's far more convenient (and profitable) to make the glass ceiling a 'women's problem', one which they can ostensibly fix alone, rather than analysing the structural inequalities which keep women out of boardrooms.

Yes, in some ways it makes a refreshing change to see women's clothing marketed without the customary abundance of nudity and florals. But the underlying premise is the same: women must have a certain 'look' to be tolerated in a male world. It is women who must change. As Wardrobe simpers in their ad, "In no time at all, you'll be in a fitting room with an armful of pieces that will change not only how other people see you, but how you see yourself."

In 1977 John T Molloy wrote The Women's Dress for Success Book which popularised the concept of 'power dressing'. In the preface to the book, he writes this little nugget of wisdom:

"Sometimes [dressing for success] specifically involves dressing to make the right impression on men. This is not sexist. It is a stark reality that men dominate the power structure - in business, in government, in education. I am not suggesting that women dress to impress men simply because they are men. My advice to women is based on the same principle as my advice to men: Your clothes should move you up socially and in business, not hold you back.

If women control a substantial hunk of the power structure in ten or fifteen years, I will write a book advising men how to dress in a female-dominated environment.

It is not sexism: it is realism."

Newsflash, John. Reality is sexist. It was then, it is now. So simply reflecting reality and not attempting to call out the sexism and change it? That's sexist too.

Nearly forty years later, the same problem crops up in Wardrobe's advert. It suggests that women rather than businesses should change. That women should take pains to fit into that world, rather than attempt to change it. And it's a fine line to tread. As the ad reminds us, professional women must look "confident, successful and ahead of the game - while every inch a woman". We all know the tiring and exacting double-standards that game involves: Women should be smart, but not sombre; chic, but understated; business-like, but not drab; not too feminine, but never too masculine.

Let's get something clear right now. Women can play this game but rarely can we win. We will always be "too this" or "too that". It doesn't matter if we're in a suit or a skirt, it doesn't matter if we wear black or fuchsia. We will always be sub-par because we are women and as such are scrutinised, picked-apart, and shamed in ways that our male counterparts simply are not.

"OK", you might say, "so the Wardrobe thing was one crappy advert on a tube station and Molloy's power dressing manual was a crappy book published almost forty years ago. In the grand scheme of things, is it really that important?" Well, yes.

Wardrobe's advert perfectly illustrates the same dangerous yet pervasive understanding of workplace (in)equality that Molloy capitalised on in the 70s, and which is still refusing to die. It's an understanding of equality that wants women to adapt, and business to continue as usual.

I don't want a world where equality means participating equally with men in a male culture. I didn't become a feminist to get equal rights to something men made for other men. For me, "equal" doesn't mean "the same", doesn't mean "as good as", doesn't even mean "like". Why do I have to be "like" a man in order to be equally valued? In the words of Catharine MacKinnon, "this traditional notion of equality does not ask why men do not have to be the same as anybody except one another to be treated as equals or why women are regarded as the ones who are different from men."

Why should we settle for smashing through a glass ceiling into a masculine world? We should be putting pressure on the establishment to change, not endlessly scrutinising our own conduct in the hope of changing ourselves. Adverts like Wardrobe's and how-to manuals like Molloy's (still very much in existence today) manipulate feminist concepts of power, empowerment, and gender gaps and create a distracting noise which obscures the reality of the issue.

Feminism should be about grand visions for society - a space where women's priorities, experiences, and needs are woven into the social fabric on an equal footing with men's, not hinged in awkwardly as an afterthought. The feminism of our mothers didn't want to settle for anything less than revolution. What has happened to that fighting spirit?

Wardrobe wants you to "take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself: could the wrong packaging be limiting your potential?" If you're naked, and happen to see a vagina in the mirror, then yes, I agree, your packaging is limiting your potential. Unfortunately, it's going to take more than a couple of expensive suits to solve that problem.



  1. Yeah. This ad quite shocked me:
    It's a (bad acting) monologue of a girl ranting about how she hates being single, saying that it's been over a year since "that idiot, Leo" dumped her because he needed more space. Then she puts on some Avon mascara and... (yes, for the fact of having mascara on) she realises doesn't even need a man, she can finally do all the stuff she always wanted, such as watch romcoms, watch all the soaps she wants (and she quotes: "the 6pm soap, the 7pm one, the 8pm one, the 9pm one, the 10pm one..."), and she can finally refuse to do these things she hates, such as going to watch football at Bob's (Bob is a friend of Leo), as she "doesn't like football and doesn't like Bob", or spooning when sleeping, because, ugh, the guy snores. She realises "You know what? I'm megasingle, megafit, megapretty, and I'm "going all the way to the floor, all the way to the floor" (which is one of those sexualised songs), and leaves.
    So, what? Am I supposed to relate to a woman who only likes romcoms, watches 5 hours of soaps a day, hates men, and realises the only reason someone might have one is because they are feeling needy, and this supposes enduring and ordeal of football, male jealousy, non-romcom films and snoring, ordeal that she doesn't have to put up with anymore? (as if feeling "powerful" just because you're wearing makeup didn't indicate any issue whatsoever) Now I see why this Leo guy needed space away from this girl. I'm with him. And I'll start associating Avon makeup with futile naggy women.
    But it seems like I'm alone, as of the over 1.5 million views, all the females comments seem to be of relating, support ("So funny!" "You nailed it!" "You go, girl!"). What's to do?...

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