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Anyone who has had the dubious pleasure of viewing even a single episode of The Apprentice will be aware that those aspiring to preferment by Lord Sugar set off for work fully-coiffed and made-up, sporting agonisingly uncomfortable shoes and unforgiving trousers. Competitors rise at the crack of dawn to layer on all manner of grooming products when they could (and should) have been tucked up in bed asleep.
Surveys have found that the average woman spends the equivalent of 10 working days a year getting ready for the office, and expends almost 20 per cent of her income on her working wardrobe.
And it is not just women. Men deal with their own set of obscure demands, too: in some workplaces, I’m told, having a shirt from the “right” retailer, or knowing when to deploy cufflinks, can spell the difference between promotion and treading water. Of course, we all love a little bit of display, and there is no sure-fire way to eliminate the social signifiers of our clothing choices, even if we wanted to. Everyone who attended secondary school will be aware of the subtle messaging conveyed by minute adjustments to hem length, shoe width and shade of jumper.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for setting office workers free (literally) from stifling dress codes — and, in the case of women, the frankly weird expectation that they should sport full make-up at all times.
Thirty years ago, there was a direct correlation between seniority and formality: the higher up the career ladder you were, the sharper your attire.
Now, if anything, the reverse is true. Mark Zuckerberg owns multiple versions of the same T-shirt so that he doesn’t have to waste time making decisions about what to wear every morning (“I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life,” he says); David Cameron’s former head of strategy, Steve Hilton, meanwhile, routinely padded around Number 10 barefoot, and in shorts and a T-shirt.
Unfortunately for those not at the top of the working pyramid, however, bosses’ preference for casual wear can feel like a sort of reverse powerplay: what is suitable for the chief executive can look sloppy on a more junior staff member. In other words: you need to be the one making the rules in order to feel comfortable breaking them.
For most employees, sartorial expectations these days tend to be more onerous and uncomfortable rather than less — and if you’re a woman, even being the boss may not be enough to exempt you. Those within your own office may not judge you, but if you are heading out to meetings with clients or investors, there is still considerable pressure to dress up, impractical as it may be.
So female bosses need to lead by example. My one sure-fire bit of advice to any woman in business is to ditch the heels and wear trainers. For a start, there are the physical advantages to consider. The fact that heels are uncomfortable (and it is a fact: according to the College of Podiatry, high heels start to hurt after barely over an hour, on average — and a fifth of women start to feel the pinch within just 10 minutes) is only the half of it. Women who regularly wear heels are also at risk of, among other things, shortened calf muscles, stiffened Achilles tendons, back pain, blisters and bunions (nine out of 10 bunion operations are performed on women). Plus, of course, if you can run, you’ve got a better chance of getting to meetings on time.
In the spirit of full disclosure, at this point I should probably admit to a height advantage: at 5’ 10.5”, the risk of being physically looked down on is less of an issue for me than it is for most women. But the notion that height, as delivered by heels, confers authority is a myth that deserves to be left, along with shoulder pads, in the 1980s. Authority comes from competency, confidence and calmness under pressure; altitude has nothing to do with it.
In the end, the only really justifiable requirements of non-uniformed workers is that they should be clean, reasonably fragrant, and not wear anything that would make co-workers and clients uneasy.
A nationwide culture of “comfortable and practical’ at work could see our productivity soar and our poor feet breathe a collective sigh of relief”.
Justine Roberts is founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, the networking site for parents. Her new column “Life and Work” will appear fortnightly