We asked women in tech what they wear to work — and why

Pay Up
Pay Up
May 10, 2016 · 5 min read

By Julia Carpenter

Sometimes choosing a work outfit can actually *feel* like work.

Women know that what you wear to work can say a lot — what you do, where you do it and even how you do it.

Whether or not to even care about your work outfit can become a loaded dilemma. “We deserve to spend our energies and time on more important, business-critical activities,” wrote Pay Up member Gina Helfrich.

In our Pay Up community of women in tech, members have cited a particular variation on the challenge of dressing for work: In a male-dominated industry known for its uniform of casual clothes, whether women dress up or down, feminine or neutral, can carry its own set of signals.

So we held a discussion with Pay Up members and asked: What do you wear to work? And why? The answers revealed a full (sometimes colorful) spectrum of work experiences, office cultures, budgets and more.

Here’s a look at the clothing choices some women in tech are making and the logic that drives them. The quotes have been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

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Angelique Weger, senior front-end developer
Work Outfit: Vintage-inspired dresses with a cardigan and flats or booties.

I think, as with so many of the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, it cuts both ways. Women who opt for the hoodie + jeans uniform can be made invisible and get blowback when they don’t actually feel its appropriate to be treated like “one of the guys” in the workplace. Women who present in more traditionally feminine attire can be at risk of having their expertise misidentified/diminished or, worse, receiving unwelcome attention and being harassed.

Nicte Trujillo, content developer
Work Outfit: I dress according to my activities and mood nowadays but try to keep the “childish” items (i.e. nerdy T-shirts, frilly clothes) to a minimum.

I’ve always struggled with how to dress at work, honestly. I ask my employers before I start a job if they have a dress code and none have really given me much to work with. So for the most part, I dress on the comfortable side. I’m nerdy and awkward so heels or fancy outfits that will most likely be stained at some point are a big no for me. I just dress up whenever I meet a client (which rarely happens in my current job).

Meg Ward, software developer
Work Outfit: Pencil skirt in black, peplum top and a military-styled cardigan

I’ve probably reinvented my wardrobe three or four times at this point … I’m a fat woman, so I feel like I have to pull myself together a little more than some of my peers do to be taken more seriously. So I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with what looks good, feels good and puts out the image of someone who knows what she’s doing.

A simple work uniform can say a lot — what you do, where you do it and even how you do it.

Aubrey Bach, senior marketing manager
Work Outfit: I’m wearing a white peasant blouse, black corduroy skirt and brown leather ankle boots.

“Dress for the job you want” is a good mantra — but it’s complicated depending on what that job is … I’ve seen people walk out of technical interviews with mental points deducted because they were too dressed up for a company that prides itself on being “casual” — but I think the definition of “casual” is so complicated by gender. Working in tech and having a fairly “fem” aesthetic can be a majorly double-edged sword.

Emily Leathers, director of software engineering
Work Outfit: Nice dark jeans, spaghetti strap camisole, and bright plaid button-down. Today is TOMs flats with sparkly music notes on them (by far the most outrageous shoes I have). Occasionally some fantastic heels, but that’s more rare (and I often carry them to work).

I’ve noticed that I’ve changed dress style as I’ve moved through different roles. Moving from team lead to director actually made me switch ​*back*​ from a wardrobe balanced toward Modcloth-sweaters to one balanced more toward plaid button downs. I don’t want to feel fancy — I want to feel part of my team. My title and respect get me into important meetings — I don’t want to look like I’m overcompensating. I ​*deserve*​ to be there, and dressing down a little comes across as confidence (I hope!).

Many women say dressing for the workplace is an issue of workplace culture.

Annie Daniel, data and visuals developer
Work Outfit: I thrift. I hate spending more than $15 for anything.

I get asked regularly if I’m an intern probably mostly because I look 15, but also when I would wear short-ish, colorful dresses. It made me worry that if other people perceived me as an intern, then my boss and coworkers might too. As a young woman trying to get my hu$$$$tle on, I’m trying to distance myself from that perception as much as possible.

Sruti Cheedalla, software engineering
Work Outfit: The truthful answer is yoga pants a T-shirt! But when I go into the office I would say jeans, nice top, and flats.

There is a cultural gap to clothing as well. If I wear something too “traditional,” I am perceived as not integrating into the work culture. If I walk around in a traditional outfit, sometimes it’s perceived as I am not “American enough.” That’s not specific to just the tech working world though.

Gina Helfrich, tech co-founder
Work Outfit: Jeans and a stylish top, typically.

What infuriates me about the whole conversation is that it’s so often framed as “how can women figure out what they should wear to be taken seriously?” instead of putting the onus on companies, HR, and executives to do the introspection and internal work necessary to ensure that people are evaluated on the basis of their skills and competence, and treated like they belong, regardless of what they happen to be wearing. You can see just from this thread how women are forced to think so carefully and bend over backwards to figure it out.

Pay Up is a private, Slack-based community dedicated to fostering conversations about the gender wage gap. It was formerly managed by the Washington Post.

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