It really beggars belief. A new study by Monash University and the University of Notthingham said that women leaders still feed judged by their wardrobe choices. In fact they feel what they wear is policed more than ever, with the blazer seen as a “suit of armour”.
Research by Dr Amanda Heffernan from Monash University’s Faculty of Education and Professor Pat Thomson from The University of Nottingham’s School of Education makes for interesting reading. Importantly, they highlight the ongoing judgment women educational leaders experience with their clothing, makeup, hair, accessories, perfume, tattoos and piercings.
While the mental health and psychosocial impacts of gender discrimination are well documented, researchers wanted to explore how the selection of garments and accessories continues to disenfranchise women educational leaders compared to their male counterparts.
Now, I’m a great one for wearing a blazer as seen in my picture above. But it’s worth reflecting on how much a blazer or jacket is a marker of identity for us female leaders, and as a result it forms a major part of our dress for success ethos. It seems, whether self consciously or not, we wear our jackets to make us feel confident in leadership roles. I know I feel more self-assured if I look and feel well groomed before an important meeting or speaking engagement.
But this is at a cost for us women because it’s expensive to constantly update your wardrobe, makeup and keep your hair in check. I have found during this time of isolation the ability to wear casual clothes every day a relief and not buying clothes for an extended period has been kinder on my bank balance. So, I totally understand why women, particularly those in new leadership roles, feel the wardrobe expense keenly. There is even a sense of injustice at the energy and effort required to “meet expectations of appearance” in their jobs, compared to their male equivalents.
Taylor & Francis Group published preliminary findings in the book Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research. Altogether more than 400 female leaders from Australia and across the world have so far shared their insights and experiences about their wardrobe identities.
“While women are disciplined to focus on their appearances, their energy and effort are being funnelled into directions that distract and deplete them, rather than help them advance their work and careers. We can see these frustrations reflected in our research,” Dr Heffernan said.
“In the time that it takes to find the right items of clothing: the significant investment into ‘smart’ and ‘professional’ jackets; the time that it takes to achieve and maintain the ‘right’ hairstyle; and the choice one participant made in the mornings between a long relaxing breakfast or spending more time applying makeup.
“We also see it in the pain, discomfort, and restriction of movement described by participants when referring to their wardrobes. As one participant commented: ‘I am torn between wanting to look good and be respected, but also angry that I have to do this a certain way’.”
Researchers found women in academia reported a need to replace or update their wardrobes when moving into leadership positions, to assist in creating an image and identity to reflect their authority and professionalism.
Others found their body shapes and personal appearance didn’t suit corporate wear, and felt physically restricted by tightly-fitted clothing, compared to men’s clothing which rarely causes pain or mobility constraints.
When asked whom they considered when making wardrobe choices, women said parents, staff and students in that order.
Professor Thomson said the concept of corporate attire for women, as well as entrenched characterisations and perceptions of women leaders, needed to be revisited if women were going to seek and achieve full potential in their careers.
“Bodies are most often seen as sites of struggle and illness. We learn about leaders who are stressed, not sleeping, anxious and overworked,” Professor Thomson said.
“More attention needs to be paid to the physical toll that leadership of today’s schools takes on head teachers and principals, which is significant and it impacts on their longevity in the job.
“While wardrobe isn’t the sole determining factor of being a successful school leader, this research offers new insights about the experiences of leadership, life trajectories and the ongoing objective discrimination women face going for and within those high-level roles.”
Men may not think about it much as they prepare to go to work, but for us women getting dressed for the day at the office is simply not as straightforward. And, I’m not even going to get into my views about those women who give you the up and down look. The women who think they can sum you up by the style of shoes you are wearing. The subject of women judging other women is a topic for another day.
To download a copy of the report, please visit:
For more information about the project, and to contribute to the global dialogue on ‘women, wardrobes and leadership’, please visit