Dorsey took the stage at TED2019: Bigger Than Us in Vancouver, British Columbia, wearing a black beanie that covered his ears and part of his beard, a black hooded sweatshirt, black pants and black boots.
His look led one Twitter user to write, “FUN CHALLENGE: every single professional woman show up to work dressed like this.”
Reactions to the tweet, posted by Ariel Dumas, show that she is not the only one who thought of a double standard for women and men when Dorsey took the stage. The tweet has received more than 12,000 likes and drawn hundreds of comments, many of them first-person examples from women.
“I forget to put on mascara one day on a fully painted face and all I hear is “are you tired?” And “are you not feeling well?” And others get to show up in last month’s dirty [expletive] laundry,” wrote one commenter.
“I’ve been told to dress more professionally at work including wear nicer shoes (I wear black lace-up leather shoes), get a hair cut, wear more make-up, and dress less “sporty” or less like a junior lecturer. I would not get this feedback if I was a man,” another woman wrote.
Men recognized the discrepancy too, with one writing, “My wife spends an incredible amount of time, energy and $$$ to look good at work. I’d show her this tweet, but don’t want her head to explode.”
Lauren McGoodwin, the founder of Career Contessa, a career site for women, said it is common knowledge that tech leaders like Dorsey have a business (very) casual dress code. She asks though when the last time was that we saw Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg matching her boss, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, at a major event in his standard t-shirt or hoodie.
[Sandberg, in fact, wore a black skirt suit and pantyhose for a 2010 TED Talk.]
“It’s like men have a uniform and somehow it’s powerful, but women are not allowed to have a uniform that’s that casual,” McGoodwin said. “If Sheryl Sandberg did that, the story line would be that she’s unraveling because of her appearance.”
McGoodwin said she “absolutely” sees a double standard in workplace attire for men and women. She described it as a type of game that women cannot win.
“If we put too much work into our appearance, we’re conforming to the crazy expectations put on us and are not a girl’s girl,” she said. “On the flip side, if we’re not put together then it’s like, ‘Don’t invite so and so to the client meeting today because she’s not looking so good.'”
McGoodwin added, “If you want to be a woman who wears what you’re comfortable in, you also have to make a public announcement about that and you have to be the CEO of your own company.”
Georgene Huang, the co-founder of Fairygodboss, also a career site for women, said she experienced the dilemma women face firsthand recently while presenting at a conference.
“One day I wore a dress and high heels and the next day I deliberately dressed down,” she said. “It was partly because of travel [later in the day] and there was a part of me that thought it shouldn’t matter, that I’m a CEO and is what I’m going to say about the company less important than what I wear?”
Huang wore pants and flats for her presentation, and the world continued to turn, an example, she says, of how expectations can be shifted for future generations of women.
“I hope it sort of made it easier for anyone who wanted to do that,” she said. “Just to have another person doing it, there is less peer pressure to conform to the standard.”
Huang added of Dorsey’s TED Talk attire, “I think it’s fine the way he’s dressed as long as women feel they can do the same, which I don’t think they do.”
“Maybe instead of asking for people to hold men to that same impossible standard we hold women to, we challenge ourselves to stop judging professionals for what’s on the outside? A bold ask, I know,” she said. “But what if we lived in a world where leaders of all stripes and genders could sit wherever they wanted to on the Beyonce to Jack Dorsey spectrum. No judgement.”
McGoodwin’s advice to women frustrated by the double standard is to be more transparent and to set the example themselves, wherever they can.
“I saw a woman [on a plane] who had rollers in her hair and was eye masking and I thought, ‘She is my personal hero,'” McGoodwin recalled. “Women often look like they somehow got it together when the reality is they are working really hard to put it all together.”
“If a female CEO comes to work with her hair in a ponytail and says, ‘I just came from a workout’ and is vocal about it and doesn’t hide it, that’s leading by example,” she said.
And for women outside the C-suite, there is still a need to keep talking about and challenging the status quo, according to McGoodwin, who acknowledged that for years even she has straightened her curly hair because of the cultural images of powerful women in suits with straight hair.
“The worst thing we can do is make a lot of noise about this and then stop talking about it,” she said. “Women should wear what they’re comfortable in at work because work is not a fashion show.”