What's wrong with dressing sexy at work?

In an age of 'business casual,' many up-and-coming professionals think nothing of wearing spike heels and short skirts to the office. But will it hurt their careers?

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: Please settle an argument. My daughter is bright, articulate, and ambitious. She is 26 and has worked her way up from an administrative-assistant job to loan officer at a large bank in Miami, and I really believe (okay, maybe I'm biased) that her talents and excellent people skills could take her all the way to the top. Just one problem: She dresses like a streetwalker. I have told her that wearing spike heels, ultra-short skirts, and low-cut blouses to the office will hurt her chances for advancement, but she says this is her style and she is sticking with it. Do you agree that she's making a mistake? If so, will you say so in your column? Maybe she'll listen to you. -Dade County Dad

Dear D.C.D.: A strong sense of individual style is a wonderful thing, but I have to agree that your daughter may be taking "business casual" a bit too far. The trouble with dressing provocatively at work is that it could distract people from her other assets.

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But don't take my word for it. An article published about a year ago in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, a scholarly journal put out by the American Psychological Association, said that - although physical attractiveness is generally an advantage in the workplace - "a sexy self-presentation harms businesswomen" who are in, or who aspire to, managerial jobs.

The article was based on a study by Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Glick found that sexy clothing and high heels "were viewed as inappropriate for both managers and receptionists, but a female manager who emphasized her sexiness elicited more negative emotions" and was seen as less competent and less intelligent than more conservatively dressed peers.

In Glick's experiment, both male and female businesspeople were shown a series of videos of a woman discussing her background and hobbies. The scripts and the actress were the same in all the videos, but the woman's dress and job description changed. When the actress was dressed in revealing clothing and claimed to be a receptionist, her attire "had no effect" on how she was perceived. By contrast, when the scantily clad actress described herself as a manager, the people watching the tape saw her as less competent than "her typically professionally dressed counterpart (wearing flat shoes, slacks, and a turtleneck)," and even estimated that she had earned a lower GPA at a less selective college.

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

Even so, your daughter probably doesn't need to run out and stock up on turtlenecks and slacks. What constitutes acceptable dress varies widely from one industry and company to another, or even from one department to another in the same company. And some parts of the country - maybe even Miami - may be more accepting than others when it comes to showing a little bit of skin. Your daughter's best bet would be to look above her at what more senior women at the bank (assuming there are some) are wearing, and take her cue from them.

What do you think? Post your comments on our Ask Annie blog.

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Many thanks to all who wrote, in response to the October 18th column on public speaking, to recommend that the stage-frightened sign up with Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org), whose 10,500 local chapters in 90 countries give people a chance to practice speechmaking in a friendly, encouraging atmosphere. Writes Elizabeth from Toronto: "This organization changed my life. I'm no longer the least bit nervous about public speaking - in fact, I enjoy it. At 27 bucks for a six-month membership, it's one of the biggest bargains out there."

Thanks, too, to Roger Soder, a professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I'm glad to see someone at long last comment on the overuse of Power Point," he writes. "Can you imagine Martin Luther King giving his 'I have a dream' speech as 'I have a [click] dream'? Or Winston Churchill saying, 'I have nothing to offer you but [click] blood [click], sweat [click], and tears [click]'?"

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