The Importance of a Woman’s Image in the Workplace

I am a female attorney working at a 10 attorney law firm in South Texas who has been practicing for 4 years. Professional dress is required at my firm. Gentlemen, that means a coat and tie for you. The lines for professional dress for women are not so cut and dry.

A few months ago, I read an article entitled “The Importance of a Woman’s Image in the Workplace” that was published in Legal Ink Magazine by William Cane. Mr. Cane is the president of Manhattan Makeovers and his firm provides image consultations and makeovers for attorneys. (Passing thought: Do people really pay money for that?) Mr. Cane states that, “if you are a professional—like a CPA, investment counselor, or attorney—you are going to be judged on the basis of your appearance everyday by clients, colleagues and decision makers.” I do agree with this statement; however, I don’t agree with much else in Cane’s article.

Some of the more interesting of Cane’s comments are:

-“You cannot sport hair that is longer than shoulder-length if you wish to be taken seriously as an attorney.”
– “You want to look like an attorney, not Lady Gaga.”
– “It’s a serious mistake to remove your jacket at work since doing so immediately reduces your authority.”
– “The only acceptable shoe for a female attorney is a closed-toe, closed-heel pump, with heels no more than two and a half inches.”

I would like to point out that I regularly violate 3 out of the 4 “image rules” above. For those wondering, I don’t look like Lady Gaga. Despite my longer than shoulder length hair and occasional 3-inch heels, I believe I look professional at work at all times. I do bring a jacket to work everyday, but I don’t wear my jacket around the office all day. In South Texas, where we are constantly braving the heat, men do not wear their jackets everyday either.

The thing that bothers me the most about the article is Mr. Cane’s tone. He is speaking to an audience of educated and intelligent women as if we are silly school girls and as if we have not overcome many obstacles and made more important decisions than what to wear in arriving where we are today. Surely, if a woman has made it through college, through law school, and passed the bar exam, we can trust her to make a competent decision on 2.5 inch heels vs. 3 inch heels, right?

My views on this article are pretty clear, but I am curious to see how it makes you feel.


Shannon White

Shannon White is an attorney at Wood, Boykin & Wolter, P.C. where she practices real estate, probate and business law. She received her Bachelor of Business Administration from Baylor University and graduated from Baylor Law School with honors. She and her husband Stuart live in Corpus Christi.
Shannon serves on the board of the Coastal Bend Women Lawyers Association and as Vice President of the Corpus Christi Young Lawyers Association. She currently serves as a director for the Texas Young Lawyers Association, serving on the Law Focused Education and Competitions committees. She also is a director of the Corpus Christi Education Foundation and a member of the Junior League of Corpus Christi.

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  19. what about curly haired women?! I am constantly struggling with this. luckily I am in a laid back firm with dressed down being the day to day. however when confronted with my professional photos I am conflicted between straightening my hair and looking like the rest or embracing my curls. I feel like curly hair makes me look less professional? thoughts?

  20. I can’t help but wonder if men have the same fashion policing by consensus. I’ve certainly seen plenty of men inappropriately dressed for court (no jacket, no tie, wrinkled suit, etc.). I wonder if women self-police to such a high level that nothing is right and therefore nothing can be wrong either.

    Would we ever see a poll on a blog about lawyering asking if men should always wear ties?

  21. I concur with Laura Pratt. Until Mr. Cane carries around 20 pound breasts that hate being confined to a blazer, I can’t take him seriously.

    Speaking of blazers, I’m fortunate to work in an office that doesn’t require them, even in the courtroom. I often wear a cardigan atop a blouse with slacks or a skirt and feel plenty professional. At the end of the day, when I’m comfortable (or as comfortable as possible sans yoga pants), I’m confident, and when I’m confident, I kill it. That’s what clients, even those who are uber image conscious, want, right?

  22. I am so glad you responded to this. While I think it is definitely true that we need to present a polished/ classy appearance in the court room (and the workplace) the idea that we can’t do so while also being fashionable (and having hair past the shoulders) is just crazy.

  23. Thought this was funny:
    “For maximum effectiveness with all the people you will meet in the workplace, make sure your hair is shoulder-length, or a little shorter. Keep it neat, using hairspray or other products to ensure that there are no loose strands flying this way and that.”

    I have naturally curly hair and have kept it longer than shoulder length for pretty much my entire life. Its a shame that my good hair genes will be responsible for my professional ruin and general ineffectiveness in the world.

    This is a ridiculous concept. If I left my jacket on all day, my law partners would spend the day asking me where I was going. Also, I cant function without my sleeves rolled up to about mid-forearm. I’m sure this is a deal breaker for this guy too.

    And finally, remember girls: “When you wear conservative suits and shoes you’ll probably find that you’re treated better, you will be challenged less often, and your work day will go smoother with everyone you meet.” I look forward to that no-fun, no-frills, style-less crape suit changing my professional destiny. I had been wondering why I wasn’t president of the universe yet. Must be those colorful skirts I wear and the pointy heels.

    I would bother to be offended by this but its too ridiculous to be offensive.

  24. Women are so lucky to have options! As Navy JAG, I really miss this perk of our profession. I envy my lawyer friends that dress with style- especially when I find myself in a J Crew or Banana (too much for my own good). Sigh.

    That being said, even in the military, I see women that struggle with the tailoring and fit. This makes sense since suits are massed produced for one body type and our uniforms are generally designed for men. I don’t understand why a person would spend money on a suit/uniform but then not spend the extra 20-40 bucks to get it tailored for YOU. (As you can see, I completely agree with the other posters-wearing clothes that fit make all the difference.)

    I find the gentleman’s article hilarious-
    I wear men’s black work shoes everyday , yet people seem to do what I tell them to:)

  25. I take issue with Mr. Cane’s article on so many levels.
    1. I don’t know if I would trust a man with fashion rules for women.
    2. The rules you listed seemed to be geared towards making a woman appear more masculine, and as such, these rules only perpetuate the myth that in order to be more professional as women, we need to start doing things (and looking) more like the men.
    3. The article highlights the different take on women’s fashion in various parts of the country. IMHO, in the South, women dressing classy and ladylike goes a long way with clients and in the courtroom.
    4. I cannot believe he didn’t discuss fit, cut, length, and tailoring. I fear most women in the practive of law make more mistakes here rather than with hair length or color choices.
    5. As a vertically-challenged individual, heels higher than 2.5 inches generally increase my presence and authority in a room.
    6. Like you, I frequently break 3 of the 4 you listed. As of yet, it has only bolstered my credibility and not stifled it.

    1. Laura – You are so right that fit, cut and length are a much bigger issue than any of Mr. Cane’s ridiculous concerns. These are the details that go a long way toward creating (or destroying) a professional appearance. I do wonder if anyone has some bright line skirt length opinions? I’m still applying the ‘if it hangs below my fingertips, it should be acceptable’ rule from high school, but as a tall girl I may be pushing the envelope occasionally.

      1. Ladies,

        I agree that tailoring, for those who can afford it, is essential! I’m 5’11 (without heels ) and nothing ever fits properly off the rack, but I try a lot of different labels and stick with what works. I also wear 3 inch heels on occasion. This puts me over 6 feet! I like to wear them when I literally want to dominate the conversation.

        I do agree with Mr. Cane on one issue. As an attorney, I do not wear open toe shoes to court. However, that is my own rule, and not one I expect or require others to follow.

        As for skirts…. If you think it’s too short, it probably is!

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