What Women Wear To Work Matters Too Much—and That Needs to Change

When Australian TV anchor Karl Stefanovic revealed he wore the same suit on air for over a year without anyone noticing, he made worldwide headlines and drove home the notion that men have it easy when it comes to dressing for work.

His sartorial experiment—devised in response to the constant comments his female on-air colleagues received from viewers and the media about their outfits, hair and makeup—showed exactly how little thought a man actually needs to put into getting dressed every day.

If time is one of a professional’s most important resources, women may be starting every day at a deficit.

Figuring out what to wear to work, particularly in the corporate world, requires more strategizing, more hours and more thought for women than for men.

From dressing for the day’s schedule to making sure your outfit rotation is deep enough to not cross over from fashionable to sexy, women make daily decisions that never cross their male colleagues’ minds.

Like the gender or "pink" tax—where similar items such as deodorant and dry cleaning cost more for women than men—when it comes to something as simple as getting ready to go to work, working women are unfairly disadvantaged.

Men in suits can go from daytime to evening events with ease, and they can wear virtually the same (flat) shoes every single day without anyone noticing.

Our male counterparts don’t have to worry about blisters, keeping up with colleagues or switching shoes when they get to the office.

"I always wear flats to work, and I’ll put my heels in a bag and stick them in my purse. If it’s only a couple of blocks, I’ll walk in my heels. Or if I’m going to take a cab, I’ll wear the heels. I think about it every single day. I have 15 pairs of shoes and boots sitting under my desk right now." —Kate Chinn, a marketing director.

Women are constantly calculating distance when considering wearing their high heels. If you’re going on a sales call or outside meeting, do you take the subway with your male colleagues or do you change your shoes on the sidewalk? It can be hard to appear professional when you’re fiddling with your shoes in front of coworkers or subordinates.

After all, it’s not exactly CEO-like to be showing your bare feet—calluses, week-old pedicure and all—to your colleagues.

And just wearing high heels can cause a professional faux pas, as one now-senior executive discovered:

"During my first summer internship in New York, I wasn't familiar with the subway grates on the sidewalk, and on the way to a team lunch with senior colleagues, I ended up getting stuck.

The men I was with didn't move aside or even notice that we were walking on the grates, and I didn't want to make a scene. But I nearly fell flat on my face and suffered the embarrassment of my shoe choice."

Women also have to think ahead about what they will be doing, where they will be going and how will they be getting there. What if you’re in the office in the morning but have a meeting with the CEO in the afternoon? Or you have a client dinner or networking event after work?

"I have to think about my schedule for the day," said Alexia MacIntosh, a director of retail marketing. “If I’m a man, it doesn’t matter what my schedule is. I’m going to be wearing the suit and tie.”

Indeed, men often have the luxury of knowing that what they’re wearing at 9 a.m. is almost certainly going to be acceptable at 9 p.m., unless it’s a black tie gala—and that just isn’t the case for women.

"I determine what I wear based on the meetings and audience I have that day. A dress and heels are my default outfit, and for internal meetings I wouldn’t wear a jacket, except with the CEO. At night for a dinner, I’d wear a dress and add a necklace or jacket. We have to put a lot more thought into it. It all takes time—time that men don’t have to spend."—Alexia MacIntosh, director of retail marketing.

Time and money, that is.

While a man could spend nearly as much money on his clothes as a woman, he’s unlikely to. Men don’t scour the racks at Saks or Neiman Marcus for just the right shift dress that covers their chest, but still fits in the waist, or drop over $2,000 on a leather tote bag that can hold their wallets, laptops and ballet flats.

Women also have to change their dress depending on what sector they move into.

"What makes professional women lose any sleep over this is not how they think they look, but how others perceive them based on the clothes they wear," says Lorna Hagen, a senior vice president of human resources.

"I played it safe in a very old media company run by men, but when I moved to my next gig at a large women’s retailer, my boss would call me 'Madam Executive.' I shed the suits very quickly."

Outside of a dystopian future where everyone wears the same jumpsuit to work, women are going to continue to expend more time, money and thought on clothing themselves than their male colleagues.

But we can and should work on fixing the tangible in the meantime, with equal prices, equal pay and equal work.

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