On the first day at my new job with a civil engineering firm, I felt more than a little bit anxious. I wanted to make a good first impression. I had spent much of the night before agonizing over my wardrobe. I knew from my interview that office wear was generally business casual. But what did that mean for me?
There were times when I really wished I could be a man. Engineering work uniform? Cotton dress slacks, long-sleeve dress shirt. Add a tie if meeting with a client. Replace loafers with sturdier work boots on days with a site visit. In fact, I knew one guy I went to school with who literally had a closet lined up with 8 of these identical outfits. Getting dressed in the morning was not a mental chore at all.
But there was no easy equivalent to this outfit for me, and I frankly didn’t want to adopt his model of dress anyway – the style was not at all flattering to my body shape. Plus, the slacks and dress shirt somehow managed to look far more casual on a woman than a man. I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional, so too casual was not an option. So, I did my best to choose slacks and a blouse that were cut for a woman’s figure, but not too fussy or delicate. But I still felt anxious about my choices. I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't hitting the mark.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find choosing what to wear any easier after a few weeks at work. There were no other women engineers in my workgroup from whom I could even take a hint. The administrative assistants were mostly female, but their short, tight pencil skirts with silky blouses and spike heels didn’t seem like a good choice for the variety of tasks in my job. And frankly, I didn’t want to attend a meeting again where I would be mistaken for the secretary coming to take the meeting minutes, like had happened to me the first week. The manager who had done so was certainly apologetic…but he also wouldn’t meet my eye or directly address me during that meeting, I think out of embarrassment. Which certainly didn’t serve my career very well.
I experimented with slightly different clothing at first, trying to figure out what would work. But just as I was starting to feel like I was narrowing in on a style, I started picking up on office chatter that sent my anxiety soaring again.
First it was the two guys chatting in the cubicle across from me. “Yeah, Julie was the only one who spent enough time on that part of the project to really know what the hold-up could be now. I would sure like to pick her brain now. But, well, it couldn’t be helped. I mean, we really couldn’t keep her on…”
I knew Julie was the engineer who I had replaced, but I hadn’t realized she had been fired. Not the sort of news that instilled peace and calm in me in the new job...
Then it was the awkward moment in the team meeting, when we were trying to figure out how to mollify a client who was being particularly difficult. My colleague Jack casually tossed out, “Well, too bad we don’t have Julie anymore. Here is a situation where we really could have made use of those low-cut blouses she liked to wear.” Some of the other guys chuckled, and some glanced my way and looked a bit uncomfortable. But no more was said, and the meeting moved on.
The final blow was when I had my regular one-on-one with my supervisor. He made some comment about transition challenges in the project I was taking over from Julie. In what I assumed was an unguarded moment, he explained to me that they hadn’t had the usual time to go through exit procedures and project transfer because the split had been awkward.
“Julie was a good engineer, but we had to let her go because she just wasn’t fitting in. I mean, she wore these shirts that were just unprofessional. Some had these wild, bright patterns and I just didn’t know if our clients would be confident in her ability as an engineer. I had talked to her about it, but she didn’t really change how she dressed. And then some of her blouses were a bit too sheer. They were really distracting to the guys….” He paused and cleared his throat, as if realizing he had overshared. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, you know what I mean. Of course, it wasn’t just about that. We just needed someone who could be more of a team player. And we’re so glad to have you here. Your work is solid, and we are so glad to have a woman engineer in the group. I mean, I know how important that is. I keep hiring women, but we have really had trouble keeping them here.” And then he quickly changed the subject.
Well, if I had been nervous about my work wardrobe before, now I was petrified. It seemed that if I missed the mark, I was in danger of being fired. Maybe it was time to go get those khaki slacks after all and forget about bringing my personality to work with me?