I work in a professional services firm as an auditor where image is important. I consider myself to be a fairly attractive and well dressed person. I sometimes feel that I am not taken as seriously because I am attractive, and sometimes am ostracized by some of the female managers. I feel that I always have to work extra hard to prove myself, and am getting quite burnt out during this process. Is there an easier way to avoid this sort of perception from people, save from deliberately dressing down/looking less attractive?

As you said, image is important in the professional services industry. It requires a highly professional image, even when casual. As an auditor, I assume that you are dealing with companies’ financial records, their bookkeeping methods and strategies on reporting revenues. The recent corporate scandals, such as Enron and Worldcom, have brought unethical auditing practices and fraudulent reporting of revenues to the forefront. To achieve high levels of success in today’s environment, it’s now essential that auditors dress and act in a way that inspires trust, in addition to having an excellent skill set.

Jealously and envy of another’s attractiveness can easily create dissension between female cohorts, with managers being no exception. Keep in mind that we all tend to view “attractiveness” and appropriateness through personal filters and that we nonverbally signal others how to treat us by the way we present ourselves (all aspects of the physical image: attire, hair, grooming, posture, body language, etc.). Considering that, let’s attempt to discover why you are not taken as seriously as you would like to be by the firm’s female mangers, or even at times ostracized by them.

One of my mentors said, “For things to change, first I must change.” With that premise in mind, let’s start with you, and explore some potential contributing elements that are within your control to address. Contemplate these questions as indicators for potential issues from a managerial perspective:

  1. Does your firm have a dress code? If so, do you follow it to the tee?
  2. What is your overall personal style? …does it interfere with you looking businesslike when you’re at work? For example, overtly sexy styles, ultra-glamorous Hollywood images, girlie-girl looks, pop-art fashions, overly casual looks, including high-fashion denims are not appropriate in the professional services industry.
  3. To feel attractive, do you follow fashion trends that make a less than businesslike statement, particularly for a conservative workplace, such as wearing short skirts without hosiery, open-toe shoes, spandex tops or pants, leather skirts or pants, sleeveless tops or dresses, tight or extremely body-conscious garments?
  4. Do you wear excessive makeup (foundation, eyes, or lips or combination thereof) or a lot of fragrance?
  5. Is your hairstyle (length, cut and color) considered to be in the professional range?
  6. Is your voice high pitched or little girlish?
  7. Do you chew gum in the workplace?
  8. Is your posture erect? …standing, walking, sitting?
  9. Do you feel confident? ...act and speak with confidence?
  10. Do you use correct grammar when speaking?
  11. Are you a team player?
  12. Do you respect the female managers of your firm? ...whether or not you like them, do you treat them with the respect due their position?
  13. Do all female managers of this firm have a similar style, regarding their personal image? Can you define their style and what details comprise the similarities? Is their style a radical departure from your style or one that you abhor?
  14. Do you respect the male managers of your firm? ...whether or not you like them, do you treat them with the respect due their position?
  15. Do all male managers of this firm have a similar style, regarding their personal image? Can you pinpoint any similarities of their overall style to the female managers’ style?
  16. Do you aspire to a management position?
  17. Do you have yearly performance reviews? During that process, have there been any criticisms, constructive or otherwise? Have you made efforts to alter the behaviors, skill deficiencies, or habits that were pointed out at that time, even if you disagreed with the criteria used for your review?

If all of these aspects of your workplace image are non-issues, then there may be some profound communication differences, some diversity-tolerant problems, and/or negative biases that are permeating the corporate culture, little of which are in your realm of control.

Given that you mentioned having a “not-taken-seriously” clash with more than one female manager, further investigation would be prudent. Consider scheduling a private appointment with the manager or director of the Auditing Department. In an emotionally neutral tone, ask pointed questions about the source of the problem you are experiencing. Keep your inquiries or statements about you, in the first person “I feel” mode rather than second person accusatory mode. Example of second person statements: “She makes me feel ostracized; she ridicules me… or you don’t respect me.” Example of first person statements: “I feel there is a problem with you taking me seriously. Can you tell me what that is about? … or I feel like I am ostracized at times, the odd man out. Do you have any suggestions for what I can do to keep that from happening?” The first-person statements will elicit a healthier, less defensive response from your manager. What’s more, good managers are then forced to look at their role in what is transpiring, at the overall group dynamics, and to evaluate how their management style is working with regard to your situation.

With this direct approach, respect for you will instantly go up as it takes courage and poise to face a problem in such a straight-forward manner. More than likely, your manager will then be forthcoming with her genuine perception of the issue. Then you will be fully informed and can make the appropriate changes or begin looking for a new firm. Keep in mind that you will need references or a recommendation from your current manager if you decide there are insurmountable culture and style differences.

For your long-term happiness and career goals, it’s important for you to handle this situation in a timely manner. When we are not taken seriously, it takes an insidious toll on our self-esteem and confidence levels.

Attractiveness is a wonderful attribute. Studies show that attractive people have higher incomes, on the whole, and they clearly receive more opportunities in life. It’s my philosophy that anyone can be attractive and a large part of my work is encouraging women and men to maximize their attractive potential so that they may enjoy greater success. I am not, in any way, suggesting that you make yourself unattractive to fit in with this group.

Nonetheless, it’s important to evaluate your brand of attractiveness, if it is appropriate within your field and if it’s supporting your success within this workplace. If you have gotten off track with your business image, you can make some changes without looking staid or frumpy and without altering the private you. Learning to make clear distinctions between social attire and business dress is helpful. While women today have the leeway to look highly professional and highly attractive at the same time, there are still some professional dress standards that if ignored can be stumbling blocks to success.

Lastly, I recommend that you take a communications course, especially one that helps you determine your communication style and incorporates a study of other primary styles. Video taping of your performance in such a course and the private review/critique with a qualified instructor is an extremely valuable tool in understanding how and why others perceive you as they do. Excellent communication skills, verbal and nonverbal, will enhance your career and your personal life.

Best of luck to you,
Sherry Maysonave

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