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Home  > Article

Are You Too Sexy For Your Job?

By Kate Lorenz,

Warning: Too much cleavage can be hazardous to your career.... and there's science to prove it.

Warning: Too much cleavage can be hazardous to your career.... and there's science to prove it.

Dressing sexy can have negative affects at work especially the higher you climb on the ladder, according to a recent University of Lawrence study led by professor Peter Glick.

The study found that risque dress on the job is viewed as inappropriate for those in all positions. Managers who dressed provocatively, however, were perceived less intelligent and less competent, while those in lower level positions (like receptionists) were not. The study also suggests that women who wear racy clothing are perceived as using their sexuality to advance professionally.

"Although various media directed toward women... encourage women to emphasize their sex appeal, our results suggest that women in high-status occupations may have to resist this siren call to obtain the respect of their co-workers," Glick concludes.

So what can happen if you dress provocatively at work? This past year we saw two high-profile cases involving women who were deemed too sexy for their jobs.

Harvard librarian Desiree Goodwin, who holds two advanced degrees from Cornell University, charged that she was passed over for promotion 16 times because of her attire and physical attractiveness. Goodwin claimed the jobs she sought were given to women with less experience and education and that a supervisor told her she was perceived as a "pretty girl" who wore "sexy outfits."

Meanwhile, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, Caterina Bonci, a Roman Catholic religion teacher, said she was fired from her job at a state-run school for being too sexy. (The school principal said both parents and teachers complained about her high hemlines and ample d?colletage.)

"In the 14 years I had this job, I have always been attacked by my female colleagues and the rest of the staff because of my attractiveness," Bonci told the Italian media.

"And if you consider that at our parent-teacher meetings it was always the fathers who came to see me, one can see why I have so often been at the center of attention and a target of gossip."

Bonci failed to win her job back; Goodwin not only lost her civil case, but also received a bill for Harvard's legal costs.

Fair or not, courts around the country are upholding employers' rights to ban "sexy" dressing in the workplace. Just how do the courts define "sexy?" According to Eric Matusewitch, deputy director of the New York City Equal Employment Practices Commission, the courts consider "sexy" attire to be clothing that is particularly revealing and of extreme fit, as well as excessive use of makeup.

To those who argue that this discriminates against women, Matusewitch replies, "The code applies equally to both sexes. So, if employers require men to dress conservatively, they can require women to avoid tight, flashy and revealing outfits as well."

With the current "skin is in" fashions and the media full of images that suggest provocative dress is acceptable -- even desirable -- in the workplace, how can you make sure you don't cross the line? Here are some guidelines:

Skirts: Too little is too much. Skirt lengths should be no more than one hand-width above the knee.

Tops: Make sure there is at least one-inch of room between body and fabric and that it is long enough to conceal your midriff. Stomach, breasts, back and shoulders should be covered. Fabric should not be overly sheer and a bra should be worn (with no straps revealed).

Dresses: No halter tops or cleavage-baring necklines. Avoid overly snug fits. Again, hemlines should hit no more than one hand-width above the knee.

Pants: Shun overly tight or hip-hugger pants that expose the midriff. Stick with neutral colors.

Shoes: Heels should be no higher than two inches; toe should be closed. Avoid strappy styles, bright colors and patterns.

Hair: Keep your hair sleek and off your face. Avoid the teased, over-processed look.

Makeup: Keep it clean and natural. Avoid heavy eyeliner or evening lipsticks.

"If you flaunt your figure in a professional setting, colleagues and clients may question your judgment or make unflattering assumptions about your character," warns Susan Roane, lecturer, author and business etiquette expert. "Clothing and appearance are visual shorthand. The point is to be noticed for your business skills, not your short skirts or push-up bra.

"If you want a job, dress the part. If you want to show off your body... well, that's what your free time is for."

Kate Lorenz is the article and advice editor for She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

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