My original intention for this piece was a very SEO-friendly, seasonally appropriate call for women in the ad industry to take the opportunity to assess their personal brand as they gaze upon the new year. But, as I began to think about it, I started considering what a privilege it is to be in a place where we’re able to define our brand at all. Especially with the authenticity and unapologetic you-ness the career marketplace is coming to demand.
It’s hard to argue against authenticity. It’s exhausting to push yourself to conform to the boxes of your workplace. Who wouldn’t want to be free to be themselves every moment of their lives?
Still, as I spent the last year attending panels, workshops and lectures encouraging me to “bring my authentic self to the workplace,” I started to think about how a decade ago, authenticity had very little to do with success. We were in recession. Job pickings were slim. We had to fit the culture any way we could rather than shopping around for a culture that fit us.
And the women joining the workforce 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago certainly didn’t have the luxury of “being themselves.” Authenticity was a term used to sell revenge potato sack dresses, not talent. They had to find ways to convince men they deserved positions beyond the secretary’s desk and that meant playing the game and the part. Not to mention dressing it.
Of the ‘70s, Shira Tarrant, author of Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style says, “"[Wearing a pantsuit] was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a business woman, but women were still criticized for trying to emulate men, because it was a derivative of menswear.”
Not exactly a lot of room to be yourself when you’re walking the fine line between dressing for success and making sure men don’t feel you’re trying to steal their identities.
Tarrant also unpacks the androgynous, oversized styling of the power suit women used to hide their feminine figures in the ‘80s, “ women were starting to get MBAs. They were going to crack the glass ceiling, and in order to do so, they wore the big shoulder pads and the shirts that have a homage men's ties."
There wasn’t room for exploration of a personal brand let alone authenticity. Maybe some of these women felt totally at home in these monstrosities:
But I’m inclined to believe there were many who didn’t.
Even just five years ago, Zooey Deschanel came under fire for her girly girl brand. And I can relate. There are still days I look at my wardrobe and consider ditching the polka dots and feminine dresses for slacks and blazers just in case it will ensure I’ll be taken more seriously. But, then, that wouldn’t be very authentic.
Obviously it’s not only a sartorial issue. Clothing just happens to be one area where research is more readily available. Anecdotally, there’s a great deal of other ways women have had to bend to their male-dominated work environments.
We’ve long been encouraged to take up golf because it will help us be “better at business.” I know many women who love golf and many who prefer spending Saturday afternoons doing pretty much anything else, but the idea that one has to play golf to be successful suggests women are still expected to conform to male business culture.
Beyond women, when you consider the cost of golf and the white upper/upper middle class connotations of that cost, it becomes a different, more problematic, discussion altogether. Ultimately, this idea that golf is the truest path to success, suggests business culture isn’t as open to individuality as the many articles suggest.
When we dig even deeper, it gets darker and more disheartening. There are plenty of instances where women of color don’t feel comfortable wearing their natural hair to work, or worse, are fired for it. This isn’t even a question of personalities or athletic ability not meshing with business culture. It’s just people trying to be human in the workplace.
Consider the piece Shadon Ghassemlou wrote about relying on her middle name to get interviews. For her, authenticity was so inaccessible she had to change a very core element of her identity just to get in the door.
This reflection isn’t meant to discourage women from being themselves in the workplace. I truly appreciate how far we’ve come in embracing individuals from every side of the counterculture, but we do have to acknowledge that it’s a privilege to be able to blur the lines between our work and play personalities. We have to recognize the women who came before us who had to fight to blend in just so men would let them do something more than fetch coffee. And we have to own the fact that there are still many who feel the call for authenticity doesn’t apply to them.
All this to say, thank you to the women who opened the doors to not only careers, but to the opportunity to be ourselves as we pursue those careers. And to those who feel excluded from the freedom of unabashed uniqueness in the workplace, I’m sorry. We’ve got to do better.
/written by Eliza Green
/image by Laszlo Ilyes