“Does wearing jeans and sneakers, as a woman, make you any less competent, equipped, mature or well-adjusted than women in corporate wear?”

– I thought to myself as I sat in a meeting.

[I was wearing jeans, suede Converse sneakers and, to be a bit presentable, a sand-colored long-sleeved shirt, exactly like this one worn by Marion, from France, whom I do not look like at all.]

This is Marion from France. I do not look like her. I just have that same shirt in white and beige.

The easy answer to my question is “no”, right?

But, look at the corporate environment where you work.

Please tell me if there are women in positions of power who wear sneakers and t-shirts.  I need to not feel like a freak.

A month or so ago, there was this hullaballoo about Mark Zuckerberg wearing a hoodie to his Wall Street investors pitch (I first read it in the New York Times Bits Blog; it’s also featured in CNN, Bloomberg, Forbes, etc.).

People bestowed it with all sorts of symbolism – about the cultural divide between Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

At least, though, Mark Zuckerberg probably gets away with wearing hoodies to work.

Steve Jobs gets away with his running shoes.

But I would love to see the day-to-day wardrobe of top women in business, even in Silicon Valley.

See, my definition of success, for a long time, has been “the privilege of getting to wear what I’m comfortable with to work, while still having people’s respect”.

I’ve always envied this man I was with in an elevator.  He’s an industry bigshot, and, on that day, he was wearing jeans, and a plain white shirt which was so worn it had holes along the side.  I told myself that someday, I want to be just like that – have enough achievement to and gall to credibly mock the system. As the New York Times article mentioned, similar to Zuckerberg’s and Job’s “anti-fashion statement”.

Image from The New York Times

I’m slowly realizing, though, as I stay longer in my job and interact with people higher up the corporate ladder, that there isn’t much room for t-shirts, jeans and sneakers when you’re a woman who wants to command a certain level of respect in meetings with executives.

That’s even when the other executives are wearing sneakers as well. (Since I work in a broadcasting and production outfit).

Coincidentally, this month’s Fast Company issue features the “league of extraordinary women”.  As usual, I like the structure of their web feature on the topic.

But, more than that, this made me want to see how these top women presented themselves.  To check whether there was hope for sneaker-wearing women to stay true to themselves when in managerial positions in corporations.

Here’s what looking at a few profiles turned up:

Lily Cole, Brand Ambassador for Body Shop
Gabi Zedlmayer, HP’s VP for Global Social Innovation
Cherie Blair, Founder – The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
Tory Burch, Founder – Tory Burch Foundation

Granted, this was a magazine feature, so they are probably being primped and dolled up.

I know, I know, they’re just clothes, and I might be making a big deal.

Wearing “corporately-acceptable” clothes doesn’t diminish your values or convictions.  It’s just that neither should casual clothes diminish competence and respectability.

I understand that these women might wear a whole different set of clothes while at work, which is why these make me happy:

Jessica Jackley, Founder – Kiva
Susan Davis – President, BRAC USA
Grace Bonney – Founder, DesignSponge

And, fine, I should stop discriminating against women who wear popularly fashionable clothing, in the same way that I clamor for stopping the discrimination against casual clothes.

But, continuing with the fun, I decided to post the first Google Image associated with the corporate leaders in Fast Company’s 2011 Most Influential Women in Tech.

These women are AMAZING.  I am very glad I went through the list, and I suddenly feel very shallow about even thinking about something such as work clothes.

Prerna Gupta, code-writing former beauty queen with computer science and economics degrees from Stanford

Prerna Gupta – CEO, Khush

..who, I’m happy to see, also wears t-shirts and jeans to presentations!

from flickr user thakurprashantsingh
from flickr user thakurprashantsingh
Alisa Miller – CEO, Public Radio International

Nichole Goodyear, head of an award-winning, innovative social media agency built on a cost-per-engagement model.

Nichole Goodyear – CEO, Brickfish

Jessica Kahn manages engineering, operations and strategy for Disney’s mobile application development.

Jessica Kahn – VP of Engineering, Disney Mobile

Kellee Santiago, who leads her team in making accessible games for even previously untapped gaming markets.

Kellee Santiago – President, thatgamecompany

Heather Harde, who spearheaded building an in-house ad-sales team, developed conferences and events, and created a research arm to grow TechCrunch’s business.

Heather Harde, Managing Director, AOL’s tech properties, and Former CEO of TechCrunch

Cher Wang, one of the richest people in the world, and runs the company that came out with the first Android phone.

Cher Wang – CEO, HTC

And, these last two help show that objectification can happen no matter where you are in the corporate ladder…

I saved the two seemingly most “popularly seen as hot” ones for last.

I guess they can’t help that they’re gorgeous, smart and savvy.

Marissa Mayer, one of Google’s first female engineers, who graduated in symbolic systems with honours from Stanford, and has a masters degree in computer science from the same university.

Marissa Mayer – VP of Consumer Products, Google

and….

Rachel Sterne (who sometimes has an eery resemblance to Katherine McPhee), who was a U.N. political reporter, used to run a hyperlocal news service, that distributed live online reports from the people directly experiencing “the news” and now the chief digital officer for New York city.

Rachel Sterne – Former CEO, GroundReport

This is the second photo in her Google Search stream:

Sterne (NYC Chief Officer for Digital) and Max Haot – CEO, Livestream

Now, let’s look at the first five male leaders or figureheads in Fast Company’s 2012 Most Innovative Companies.

(Darn it, I should have been more specific and said, I would observe the first full body pictures in the Google Image stream.

Because, now it looks like a headshot-attractiveness thing.

Sorry, to all the individuals in pictures here, if this seems a bit invasive.  I realized collecting the images suddenly seemed creepily voyeuristic. I’m tempted to Google myself to “even the score”.)

All in all, the conclusion is – I realized it isn’t so bad.  If you stick your neck out and prove yourself, I’m guessing you can eventually get away with what you want to wear.  It isn’t about the packaging really (even the boys have to play by the corporate rules, sometimes), it just all depends on the strength of character and actual skills you have to pull of the success.  Cool.

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