Can Sexy Women Climb the Corporate Ladder?

If you're a professional woman with designs on occupying the corner office, your fashion sense better be more Hillary Clinton than Pamela Anderson.

A new study on women in the workplace finds that people are likely to feel negatively toward a provocatively dressed businesswoman in a position of power. But as long as she's the secretary, it seems most people won't mind.

"Playing up sexiness is sort of a dangerous game, particularly for higher status jobs. It's something that has more costs than benefits," said Peter Glick, the Lawrence University psychology professor who conducted the study.

The study, which appears in the December issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, focused on how women who emphasized "sexiness" were evaluated within high status work roles. Participants in the study viewed videotapes of women who were deemed to be equally attractive and then dressed both conservatively and provocatively.

The results showed that a provocatively dressed women in a managerial role evoked hostile emotions and were deemed less intelligent. But when study participants were told that the woman was a receptionist, there were no negative emotions or negative perceptions of the woman's competence.

"For women, it's not just about physical attractiveness, it's about how you play it up," Glick said. "If you look too sexy, the stereotype is that you're not that bright, and that's certainly not beneficial if you're planning to move up the ladder."

Dealing With a Double Standard

Numerous studies have shown that being physically attractive is beneficial for both men and women. Attractive people are generally assumed to be smarter and more competent. But for women, appearance stereotypes can be more complicated, particularly in a business environment.

Glick said the reasons for the negative response to the sexy female managers in his study were probably tied to traditional office mores and gender roles. Because high-powered jobs have traditionally been held by men, managerial positions became associated with masculine personalities. The challenge to that stereotype is likely what caused a negative emotional reaction, Glick said.

And, of course, there is the age-old "bimbo" or "dumb-blond" stereotype that often plagues attractive women. Though obviously not politically correct, Glick said women with aspirations of career advancement might be wise to recognize that these emotions exist.

"If you're really trying to demonstrate your abilities, looking sexy might not be the best way of going about it," he said.

At least one image consultant took that sentiment a step further.

"The first thing I tell clients is that [dressing too provocatively is] the kiss of death," said Sandy Dumont, president of the Image Architect, a consulting firm. "If you have to flaunt it, it tells people that you're not qualified and you have to use something else to get ahead."

Fashion Guidelines Relax Over Time

Mary S. Hartman, a Rutgers University professor and director of the university's Institute for Women's Leadership, noted that as more women entered the workplace during the last 30 years, there was pressure to assimilate to more masculine behavior and dress. She noted one particular 1970s study in which women were asked to dress in clothes identical to their male co-workers, complete with jackets and ties.

"Fortunately a lot of women in that study said, 'I don't think so, we'll dress as we please,'" Hartman said.

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