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20 October 2011

I saw the headline of a news article the other day that really caught my attention. Its title, “Wear a skirt, not trousers to get ahead at work”, got me thinking about the public face and image we present in front of our business networks and how this affects our personal brand. 

Professor Karen Pine, the researcher featured in the article and co-leader of a study at the University of Hertfordshire, said the findings contradicted previous research suggesting women should dress more like men to succeed at work.

Her study, which canvassed 300 people, asked them to make judgements of images of women in suits or skirts, rating them on their confidence, success, trustworthiness, salary and flexibility. It only took three seconds for the participants to have made up their mind and decide that the women in the skirts presented more positively than those wearing trousers.

Malcolm Goldwell in his book, Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking, suggests that our minds are made up about the people we meet almost instantaneously - within two seconds. The reality of that statement is that within those two seconds, you barely get to say anything of great importance. Therefore, your image will make the greatest first impression. 

Now I am going to fess up and admit, after years of being a professional athlete that I am probably most comfortable in my tracksuit and sneakers. However, even I know that perhaps this would not be the best attire to represent my personal brand as I speak in front of blue chip clients both nationally and internationally. 

So, when my business started to grow a few years ago I decided that I might need a little help to define my own personal style that was in line with the brand I was trying to create for my business.  And I brought in the big guns. Julie Zanes, a professional image consultant and now good friend, gave me some great tips on how to make my first impression count.

Julie believes that your image and personal branding can create a successful pathway in your life, which helps make it possible to achieve a level of confidence that makes you unstoppable.

Now, while the research Professor Pine puts forward seems quite interesting, and certainly challenges some previous misconceptions that women need to dress like men to get ahead in business, I wanted to get Julies informed and experienced opinion on the matter.

Julie not only gave me her thoughts but also some great advice. She suggests that today women do not have to look like men to get ahead in business. They need to look like themselves, be good at what they do and express this with confidence.

She believes you can be perceived as successful, trustworthy and capable in either a skirt or pants. That maybe it is more about what you feel good in and what is appropriate for your figure and your workplace that determines what you should wear, opposed to the specifics of the article of clothing. She agrees that a skirt can show a feminine side, which is ok to do, as long as it is not done to the extreme with too many bows, frills, curls and pearls, which may lead to people not taking you seriously. On the other hand, looking seductive can show a powerful side, saying, “I’m here to get ahead” but may also be misconstrued in some cases as somewhat inappropriate for the workplace.

Julies final thought, which summed up what I also believe - there needs to be a balance of business and femineity, but most importantly, of being a genuine version of you. 

Maybe it is the confidence that comes from having a genuine acceptance of who we are, or maybe it is choosing to be the best version of ourselves by dressing for the success we deserve. Whichever is the case, I personally believe that no matter what image we choose to present, we all have the potential to deliver a professional brand image to achieve greatness - pants or skirts aside.

So, while I will not be throwing out all of my pant suits in response to this article any time soon, it is a good reminder to all of us to think of how we can make those first few seconds count. When we feel good about the way we look, we display a sense of confidence and self-awareness that is attractive and engaging. By feeling good about our intellect, our abilities, as well as our physical appearance, as professed by Julie Zanes, we truly are unstoppable.