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.

Over time, the expectation that businesswomen must behave exactly like men has faded. That has allowed women more leeway in their career choices and their clothing.

"There has been a lot of relaxing of what some of those standards were," she said. "The message now is not to dress like a man, but just to dress sensibly."

Younger Women Most Likely to Make Mistakes

Some experts say that dressing inappropriately is a particular problem with younger women who are likely to be more familiar with the clothing styles they see in fashion magazines than corporate boardrooms. The fluctuations during the last decade between "business casual" and formal attire have also made the situation more confusing. And television images of women in the workplace can distort the idea of what is acceptable.

Ginger Burr, president of Total Image Consultants, said she couldn't think of a single image in the media that would serve as a good model for young businesswomen.

"The blouses on the women on TV are cut down to the navel, and that's not acceptable. It all started with 'Ally McBeal,' and it's not getting any better," she said.

Burr noted that it was important for a woman to understand what's acceptable in her particular profession and office. A graphic designer who manages an office of artists will likely dress more casually than a corporate executive. But casual, she said, does not necessarily mean sexy.

Both Burr and Dumont said that women must accept a certain double standard when it comes to office attire and stereotypes. Men who dress poorly may be considered sloppy, but that probably won't affect the perception of their competence.

"For women, people will immediately assume: 'Oh, if she can't put a skirt and a blouse together, then how is she going to handle my finances?'" Burr said. "For men, they're more likely to say: 'Well, he's a bad dresser, but he's a whiz with numbers.'"

"There is a double standard for men and women, and it may always be that way. Women need to empower themselves and learn what impressions they are giving off with what they wear."

The Old Reliable Navy Business Suit

Both Dumont and Burr said the classic navy business suit was usually a good starting point. And they stressed the importance of finding clothes that fit properly.

Dumont said that, because of lifelong gender conditioning, many women were naturally drawn to soft colors like pastels. But she tells clients to create a more distinctive look by mixing dark colors like navy, black and racing green -- and avoid orange at all costs.

"Orange is just too aggressive. You don't even have to open your mouth, and people will just assume that you have a loud, shrill voice."

The goal, she said, is to look appropriate for a business environment but avoid clothing that will stand out.

"I always insist that you have to be perfect from head to toe. If they're not noticing your clothes or the scuff on your shoe, then they just pay attention to you and your credentials," she said.

The results of the Glick study are not surprising, the image consultants said. They said it was important to understand that while not everyone can be a fashionista, a woman can really hinder her career by accentuating her sexuality too much.

"If they're going to dress provocatively, they have to be ready for repercussions. People are going to talk about you, and you may not get promotions. Knowledge is power, and young women need to know that the image they're presenting may be holding them back," Burr said.