The Mixed Messages Of The Sexy Workplace
Updated: Mar 12
#NotAllWomen dislike being objectified. Some encourage it, and then complain about male attention
Was she out of her mind dressing like that? For a website’s trade conference speaker bio?
Her tiger-striped too-tight tube top drooped so low on her generous chest, had it slipped another millimeter she would have displayed what a friend of mine called ‘clams on the half-shell’.
She had the rack for that outfit, for sure. But as a speaker at a business conference, well — even the extremely casual nature of the cannabis industry made me look askance.
Shouldn’t she try to be a tiny bit more business-like? Even if Business Casual might be considered overdressing for this particular event?
A woman can dress any damn way she pleases, right? But what if we’re sending mixed messages? In this era of aggressive, in-your-face #MeToo and #TimesUp, maybe we need to think about those messages. And by ‘we’, I mean everyone, not just women.
Just imagine if a man, especially one in power, strutted around the office with his shirt unbuttoned low enough to reveal his manly chest, his rock-hard gym thighs encased in tight trousers or perhaps the bike pants he didn’t bother to change out of when he got to work. Would anyone complain? Would anyone feel intimidated? Would they feel brave enough to report to the HR manager the guy who signs her paychecks needs to cover up more and stop sexualizing the office?
There’d be private grumbling and maybe a few blog posts deep within the bowels of Da Internetz complaining anonymously about Mr. I’m-Too-Sexy-For-This-Office.
But the ones who sexualize the workplace and complain about it the most are women.
Maybe the day will come when office workers can dress however sexually they want without making anyone feel uncomfortable, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Not in 2021.
Dress for excess
Perhaps the most venerable message harking back to the very early days of mammalian pair bonding is I’m sexually available for mating purposes.
The best-looking life forms get the cream of the mating picks, whether it’s a more brightly-colored mandrill butt, or supremely rockin’ bird of paradise mating dance moves, or perhaps less hairy cleavage, as was the case for Homo Erectus, who lost their body hair when they moved to the super-hot savannah.
Looking babelicious is a literally timeless message meaning, first and foremost, I’m available, Gorgeous!
The message is murkier today. A woman can look good without wanting men to attempt pickups. Men shouldn’t assume it’s what she wants, but she shouldn’t assume it won’t happen.
The self-objectifying pair-bonding message mixes with the one telling men Treat women in the workplace as colleagues, not sex objects, even as we wander around the office wearing self-sexualizing high skirts and near-illegal cleavage.
If the workplace is the place where work gets done, then why dress like you’re going out with your girlfriends?
It’s a tetchy, murky subject, with workplace harassment in the spotlight and a woman’s unquestioned right to not be sexually harassed regardless of how she’s dressed. It remains remarkable that some men still have to be reminded constantly not to pursue romantic attachments in the office, particularly with anyone who reports to them.
I’m not arguing women ‘bring it on themselves’, but I ask women to consider: If you want to be taken seriously at work, how are you presenting yourself? How you dress sends a message.
How seriously would a male colleague be taken if he wore what Wil Ferrell wore in a famous Saturday Night Live sketch?
It’s exaggerated but he’s only showing a bit more leg than a mini-skirted woman.
Let’s be honest: Some women enjoy being objectified, like the aforementioned Toni the Tiger. They work hard to look really, really good. Great clothes. Great hair. Great makeup.
A woman spending that much time on her face and body wants to be looked at and admired. Don’t deny it, Hot Stuff!
I don’t fault her for that.
The ancient Greeks and Romans got gorgeous. The ancient Egyptians dolled up. Hell, they may have invented makeup.
Men self-sexualize too, to send many messages, only one of them being I’m sexually available. It can also mean I’m the alpha male here. I’m the dominant one. I’m the one you have to fight if that don’t sit right with you.
I get the desire to look good.
But I kept it business casual when I worked in offices, because, well, the workplace isn’t the place for my red-hot sizzling menopausal mow-mow-mow. Now I work from home, and when I wear sexy summer clothes, I throw a wrap on for a Zoom meeting. Neither The Girls nor my bare shoulders belong.
The message I want to send is to take me seriously. Workplaces are for work, not sexual advertising.
I dare you to not look at these
A woman I worked with many years ago sent a hugely contradictory message with the way she dressed at our small IT firm. She had a highly confrontational attitude, in-your-face aggressive defense with male colleagues. I understood why: She’d previously worked in American law firms and auto dealerships, two of the most notoriously misogynist professions.
She had to be a badass to survive in traditionally female-sparse offices. Like ours. Except ours wasn’t particularly misogynist.
It blew my mind how she dressed every damned day. I don’t know if it’s how she dressed at her previous jobs but every morning I was greeted with her ample chest’s décolletage.
The very last thing I would ever wear if I worked in a toxic masculine environment (which our office wasn’t) is something shoving The Girls in everyone’s faces.
Then there’s LinkedIn, another professional setting where self-sexualization needs to be downplayed.
People, I’d like to remind you Linkedin is NOT Facebook! It’s a PROFESSIONAL networking group and romantic gestures, comments and messages have NO PLACE here!!! Women have a hard enough time being taken seriously in the yaddayaddayadda RANK MISOGYNY of yaddayaddayadda EQUALS TO MEN yaddayaddayadda BAD BEHAVIOR yaddayaddayadda…
LinkedIn Himbos—men looking for love in just the wrong place—happen even to old farts like me on occasion. I shrug and message back, “LinkedIn is a business networking site, it’s not a dating service, I’m not interested.” End of story.
It’s a minor male faux pas, at worst. Unworthy of the overprivileged First World posting tantrums they customarily spark from outraged Cleavage Queens of Babelonia.
It stands to reason someone might mistake a really good-looking social media profile picture for a potential availability signal, especially if a woman puts a lot more effort into looking good than I put into crafting the perfect snarky comment response.
A self-sexualizing photo sends a mixed message.
No need to publicly eviscerate the miscreant on social media. Save your outrage for stuff like Weinstein’s casting couch or Cosbying someone’s drink. Or, to be fair and non-sexist, being accused by over a dozen men of raping, fondling, and sexually harassing them.
Everyone sends messages the way they dress, whether it’s Everyone look at me, I’m God’s gift to wo/men or My mother still dresses me.
When I watch a female CEO spend an entire day responding to her LinkedIn himbo tantrum commenters, getting mad at those who don’t support her or tell her to chill, and her photo indicates she spends more money on her hair than I spend on a month of groceries, I think, Oh, enough already! You want to be looked at! Just tell him to eff off and move along! Don’t you have important CEO shit to do?
Dressing sexy creates the potential for workplace drama and could be mistaken for sexual overtones. Which happens on both sides of the romantic divide, despite #MeToo. Sometimes women are the sexual predators.
With growing educational and economic power comes responsibility. Today’s office ain’t yer grandma’s Mad Men office. There’s still plenty of inequality and sexual harassment, and the power imbalance still skews heavily toward men, but, and this is critical, not as much as it used to.
At this particular trade conference, for the infant legal cannabis industry, I saw a fair number of woman-founded and woman-owned businesses. The cannabis industry boasts a higher percentage of women in senior positions (37%), 21% higher than the national average. Yay for….oh, man, I forget!
People can dress however they want. But we need to consider the message we send. Men are slowly ceding power to women but we’re nowhere near parity. The woman in the tight dress and best boobs money can buy is not perhaps the best image fighting the ongoing sexualization of women in the #MeToo era.
Workplaces are for work, not your cleavage, and that goes for men too. The more we can focus on our jobs and not Ms. Sexpot or Mr. I’m-Too-Sexy-For-This-Office, the more productive we’ll all be.
As public debate increasingly puts the ‘coarse’ in ‘discourse’ and humans divide up into their own little More-victimized-than-thou tribes, it’s time to take stock of how much we ourselves contribute to our problems. Not to assign blame and beat ourselves up, but to take responsibility like big boys and girls and resolve to do better. This includes the misunderstandings coming from mixed messages.
Mean what you say, and say what you mean, however you communicate it.
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