There was a time when I could afford to whip up something girly from my closet. I was particularly fond of a short dress, a pair of strappy sandals and chandelier earrings. I’d put on a pink lipstick and pout at the mirror, satisfied that I wear who I am—an adventurous, kalog, fun-loving girl.
But then, something happened. It’s not because some manongs look at me in a lewd way when I commute, or because my fashion preferences evolved. You see, when I decided that I love television and video production work and chose it as my career, I noticed something. I do a lot of interviews for work, and direct people to do actions while the camera is rolling. I work with a crew and help the cameramen carry heavy camera suitcases, tripods and reflectors to locations.
In a work that has me moving around a lot, and having to “lead” the shoots so we will get all the materials we need on time, on budget, and set on a high standard, I gradually felt that those lacey trims, fringed skirts and candy-colored tops were contradicting what I was supposed to be. I needed to look more credible, more like an “authority.” I just had to change.
Masculinizing the job
Being a leader or a manager is tagged as a predominantly “masculine or male” job. This idea has been embedded in society’s psyche because industries and businesses had been established by men, not women. The rules, the structures, charts, numbers, departments, schedules – all these were made by men for men. You can’t blame them for back then, a woman’s place was in the home – to run the household, take care of the kids, a tough job, if you ask me.
When the industrial era rolled around, and the husbands were killed in the war, women had to earn money and they found their place in the work sector. They worked mostly as nurses and secretaries — jobs for the “nurturing” female. Some found work in factory roles that needed able, careful hands. But none of these jobs enabled women to become decision-makers, leaders and managers. I guess you can consider them as supporting cast to the protagonist male.
But times have changed and we’re already past that era, or are we?
The need to look tough
Most women I know feel empowered. Yeah, we can all heave a huge sigh of relief, because the battle’s been fought already. We’re here reaping the fruit of their labor. But studies have shown that discrimination against women is still rampant, even in first-world countries, where 40 percent of women are in the work force.
According to research, women have to act more like men in order to be successful.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote about the “Opt Out Revolution” in her book Lean In. What she found was that women climbing the corporate ranks tend to quit their high-flying jobs because they experience incongruence of roles. Her role as a “nurturer” in society’s and her eyes, contradict with her masculine tough job as a corporate executive, that’s incongruence. When a woman is stressed by this, she “opts out”.
Similarly, even female academics are haunted by this incongruence. In her article in The Guardian, Francesca Stavrakopoulou talks about how female academics tend to wear masculine clothes to be taken seriously.
She wrote, “masculine dress is the standard academic uniform, for academia remains an overtly male domain. As a result, female academics find their appearance scrutinized in ways a male colleague would rarely encounter.”
Thus, women who wear in a conventionally feminine way tend to be seen as frivolous. According to Francesca, this can undermine the perceptions of her intellectual and professional skills.
She adds, “dressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us: a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious academic.”
The battle’s been won? I believe not. Women may be more empowered now, but the fact remains: the roles assigned to women during the olden days are much embedded in our subconscious, so much so that we are no longer aware of it. Want proof? Take, for example, the concept of power-dressing.
Power dressing, in fashion magazines, is the style of women wearing androgynous, structured clothes, often for office or corporate settings. It sounds like a nice cover story or a main editorial for a women empowerment piece, yes?
But power-dressing, according to “Women’s Dress for Success Book”, is a by-word that came about in the 1980s as the result of more women entering the business realm. Essentially what it means is that women who wanted to be and look successful had to wear masculine clothes. It is the woman adapting to the way organizations have always been, including corporate attire. To power-dress can mean an empowered woman, but it can also go the opposite way—women trying to look more like men in order to fit in.
In the same way, I can react in two different ways as well. I can be like professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou who refuses to be daunted—“This infuriates me, and I refuse to accept it. My intellectual abilities as an academic should be judged on my work: my research, my publications, and my lectures.”
Or I can go to the easier route: accept that society has intrinsic biases towards gender, especially women and what they wear, and wear what I need to wear in order to be taken seriously.
For now, as I absorb a TV requirement for an interview with a successful businessman and prepare for a 4-day hike in the jungle of Pangasinan next week, I will just lay my dresses to rest in a drawer. In a tough world, with a tough job, surrounded by males who probably haven’t heard of the word “gender incongruence”, some things remain as they are.
For my work, I can set aside expressing my feminine side, because I choose to change. This is me growing up.
And this is why, I’m not going to wear a skirt to the shoot tomorrow.
The author is writing her thesis on “Media mothers: the contrasting roles of mothers who work as senior managers in media.”