More than 400 female leaders across Australia and the world have expressed that they feel their wardrobe choices are being judged more than ever before, a new study by Monash University and The University of Nottingham shows.
Research by Dr Amanda Heffernan from Monash University’s Faculty of Education and Professor Pat Thomson from The University of Nottingham’s School of Education, highlights the ongoing judgment female leaders experience with their clothing, makeup, hair, accessories, perfume, tattoos and piercings.
The research found that women view the blazer as a 'suit of armour' that instils confidence and the garment is a permanent feature in leaders' wardrobes.
However, women also described the financial investment required to 'look the part' was extreme, especially for those in new leadership roles.
Women also expressed feeling a sense of injustice at the energy and effort required to 'meet expectations of appearance' in their jobs, compared to their male equivalents.
Dr Heffernan said that the research details the challenges women face when it comes to looking professional while also being comfortable.
"While women are disciplined to focus on their appearances, their energy and effort are being funnelled into directions that distract and deplete them, rather than help them advance their work and careers.
"We can see these frustrations reflected in our research such as; the time that it takes to find the right items of clothing: the significant investment into ‘smart’ and ‘professional’ jackets; the time that it takes to achieve and maintain the ‘right’ hairstyle; and, the choice one participant made in the mornings between a long, relaxing breakfast or spending more time applying makeup.
"We also see it in the pain, discomfort, and restriction of movement described by participants when referring to their wardrobes.
"As one participant commented: ‘I am torn between wanting to look good and be respected, but also angry that I have to do this a certain way’," she said.
The researchers found that women in academia specifically, reported a need to replace or update their wardrobes when moving into leadership positions, to assist in creating an image and identity to reflect their authority and professionalism.
Others reported that their body shapes and personal appearance didn’t suit corporate wear, and felt physically restricted by tightly-fitted clothing, compared to men’s clothing which rarely causes pain or mobility constraints.
Professor Thomson said the concept of corporate attire for women, as well as entrenched characterisations and perceptions of female leaders, needed to be revisited if women were going to seek and achieve full potential in their careers.
"Bodies are most often seen as sites of struggle and illness.
"We learn about leaders who are stressed, not sleeping, anxious and overworked.
"While wardrobe isn’t the sole determining factor of being a successful leader, this research offers new insights about the experiences of leadership, life trajectories and the ongoing objective discrimination women face going for and within those high-level roles."