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In the tech world, 'Dress for Success' can be minefield for women

Young professional women aspiring to technology careers face a challenge right from the outset: What to wear to an interview.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Elizabeth Bentivegna thought she looked professional when she went on her first-ever job interview for a web developer position. She had been told by a recruiter she was a good candidate for a summer internship.

Instead, in a rejection that went viral this week, Bentivegna said she was informed by a recruiter that she “looked more like I was about to go clubbing than to an interview.” That’s a characterization the Oberlin College senior claimed would not have been made of a male candidate.

(The recruiter did not respond to a request for comment. In an emailed statement, the tech company involved said, “Ms. Bentivegna was released from the interview process not due to her appearance, but rather because we had more qualified candidates.”)

“I was pretty offended and pretty upset on the phone when she told me this,” Bentivegna said. The reference to clubbing led her to infer that either the female hiring manager or two male engineering managers present at the interview found her outfit of a black T-shirt, skirt and cardigan too provocative for an office environment.

“If I’d come in wearing a pantsuit, would they have thought I was too professional?” she said. “There are these frustrating standards. I feel like there’s no way to win.”

Tech sector's 'female problem'

The tech sector’s resurgence has been accompanied by discussion of its “female problem” -- too few women in the industry’s top ranks and an atmosphere where sexual harassment persists. Against this backdrop, young professional women aspiring to technology careers face a challenge right from the outset: What to wear to an interview.

“All the rules of how to dress are out the window now in interviews,” said John Challenger, CEO of executive search firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. “Going to an interview in a suit when the environment is casual is going to lose you the job every time.”

But if a suit is out, figuring out what to replace it with can be tricky, and women are at a disadvantage, said Wayne Neu, associate professor and chair of the Marketing Department at California State University San Marcos.

“I think just in general, our society places more demands on women than they do men in terms of presentation of themselves,” he said. “It comes out in a variety of things that women are expected to do that men aren’t expected to do.”

“Companies can find other people who can do the job on paper — what makes you stand apart from other people who can do the job is if there’s a fit,” Challenger said.

To assess a stranger’s personality and work ethic, people unconsciously make value judgments about nonverbal cues like clothes and hair, Neu found. In a recent research paper, women wearing a lot of makeup or very high heels were judged as less-professional (as were men wearing baggy clothing or unkempt facial hair). Women with natural-colored hair or carrying accessories like a day planner were viewed positively.

Prior to her interview, Bentivegna said she had a conversation with the recruiter about clothing. “She did tell me on the phone it was a relaxed environment… everyone wore jeans and T-shirts there.”

What to aim for

Challenger said young applicants should aim for an outfit that’s dressier than the average employee, but not more formal than the hiring manager or potential future boss.

“Mirror the environment [and] take it one notch up from that,” he said. While it wouldn’t be impossible to get hired after wearing a T-shirt to an interview, he said, a candidate might be better off going a bit more formal even if T-shirts are the norm among workers.

Neu said young job applicants can be misled by the idea that they can look as casual as employees who have an established track record of performance. “I think too often they don’t think about that environment into which they’re applying,” he said.

A college student’s idea of dressed-up might not be the same as an older professional’s expectation. “They probably haven’t been socialized enough to know what the social norms are for that environment and I’m kind of thinking that’s what happened with this young lady,” Neu said.