Are The Hoodies of Silicon Valley Keeping Women Down?

January 22, 2016, 3:19 PM UTC
Photograph by Frank Masi — Courtesy of HBO

Is the “slob chic” favored by so many of Silicon Valley’s boy wonders bad for women in tech? And, if so, is the difficulty these women face really all that different from the sartorial struggles of women in other male-dominated industries?

That’s the question I posed to readers of The BroadsheetFortune’s newsletter about women and business—earlier this month. My inspiration came from “The Subtle Sexism of Hoodies” by Aimee Groth, which argued that tech’s hoodie culture leaves women out of the “tribe” and creates confusion about what counts as appropriate workwear.

Below, a sampling of what readers had to say. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Not surprisingly, many of the responses came from women with personal experience in the tech industry:

“The issue is not unique to tech. Even in ‘dress up’ environments, women are stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to look both fashionable and professional, without being too trendy or overexposing themselves. And no matter what, all too often, our fashion choices become the first thing people talk about, no matter what’s coming out of our mouths.

Two incidents come to mind: At a tech company where I previously worked, a colleague told me she had heard it on good word from the guys in the pod next to us thought our team was comprised of ‘the best dressed and best-looking women at the company.’ I guess she thought it was an innocent compliment, but given that it was coming from a group of men—at an extremely male-dominated company with notorious culture—I found it out of line.

The second example is from when I worked in politics: I was in the middle of relaying a dense and complicated policy matter to a colleague when he interrupted me (which is terrible enough on it’s own) simply to say, “You look really nice today.” I finished making my point, then went off on him for how inappropriate it was for him to be dwelling on my appearance when I was trying to have an important conversation. He apologized to me every day for a week.

In short, it’s a man’s world. No matter what we are wearing (or not wearing.)”

–A.G., who works in technology in the Bay Area

“As a woman in the tech I definitely related to the article. Everyday in the summer, when it is 90-plus degrees I wear a skirt to work and am asked why I am so dressed up. I tell the guys I can’t really wear shorts—they wouldn’t be appropriate. If I wear a hoodie like the rest of the guys, I’m asked if I am okay because I look tired and I usually dress up more. I have resorted to mostly wearing a black shirt and dark wash jeans because that’s the thing I will get least criticism on.”

Julie Byers, who lives in Indianapolis and works for a Silicon Valley tech company

“While I was working in tech, I was busy thinking about how to explain non-relational databases, not what to wear while I did it.”

–Writer Suzannah Weiss

“Since moving to Silicon Valley from NYC, I’ve found that the lack of fashion or thought put towards it almost makes me want to look more fashionable than I would have dressed day-to-day in NYC. That said, I definitely do see many women who have themselves together.”

–Kate, a communications professional in the Bay Area

However, the issue clearly resonates well beyond Silicon Valley

“The fact is that not only are women judged far more harshly on what they wear than men are, but they also have a far “wider” (read: confusing) array of options (read: potential career landmines) available to them, with fewer tribe members around to provide role models and safety in numbers.”

Galyna Nitsetska, co-founder of UK workwear company Silkarmour

Confusion about work wear is something women have dealt with for decades—particularly as we moved up the ranks from secretaries and receptionists to mid- and senior-level executives…When selecting clothes for work one should consider your company, industry, audience, activities and whether will you be meeting with clients. There’s a line from the movie Working Girl, ‘If ya wanna be taken seriously, ya gotta have serious hair.’ Bottom line: In my opinion, female confusion does not equal discrimination.”

–Patricia Andrews, who works at an investment firm in Dallas

“I just wear a dress. One and done. I wish there was an affordable version of Garanimals for adults.”

–Christina, a New York City-based banker

One section in particular got under the skin of some readers:

In 2013, Diana Tkhamadokova, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs, launched the fashion app I Style Myself. As part of her research she spent several months in Silicon Valley, where she is now based, observing what women wore. She told Quartz: ‘If you look at the women in Silicon Valley, I’ve never seen less confident women. They think they need to look a certain way. Compared to UK, French, Italian women, there’s such a stark contrast.’ Thkamadokova explains that in Europe especially, women dress more boldly as a symbol of self-expression and power. She has yet to come across that same level of confidence in Silicon Valley.

Maeve, who works at fashion-tech startup in San Francisco, had the following response:

“Where are these meek, drab women? Having attended multiple events, meetings, and get-togethers across the wide range of Bay Area industries, I’ve never experienced or myself observed a lack of confidence. Sure, I’ve been to hoodie-heavy meetings, but have never felt I was an object of scrutiny because of how fashionably or casually I dressed. The women I’ve met here are confident, driven, accomplished. They dress the way that they do because they want to.”

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