Dress protocol in the office – an international view

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From a fiend of mine who wrote to me:

Thought this 1 minute 48 second video from South Korea might be of interest. It’s about a movement in South Korea to liberate women from cosmetic make-up and the patriarchy!

Prior to watching this short video, I hadn’t realised that South Korea is the plastic  surgery capital of the world, and that societal expectations of female beauty are so high, a third of South Korean women go under the knife!

I read years ago that a study in the UK found that in UK workplaces, women who wear make-up are (on average) better paid than women who don’t wear any make-up!

Like my now late mother, I only use make-up lightly, when at all. Also like my late mother, I never used red or any bright lipsticks, just pink – and I completely stopped using lipstick a long time ago (when in my 20s I think), as I could see no point in my wearing lipstick, and I prefer the natural look, as do members of my family.

Back in my auditing and international corporate troubleshooting days, my wearing only minimal make-up was a non issue (for me, for colleagues, for bosses and for the people I was dealing with professionally).

Reflecting back now, possibly my only ever wearing minimal make-up may have actually been an advantage in the corporate workplace, in that it may have contributed to the fact that I was almost never treated in any way lesser than my male colleagues in consequence of my gender.

The tiny number of dinosaur misogynistic males that I encountered in the corporate work-place were far more than compensated for by the men who recognised my ability and actively encouraged and championed me.

In one American multinational company, where I worked in the UK HQ of their international corporate audit team, I was the only woman in the department (other than the extremely competent and delightful secretary), and in the history of the department, I was the only member of the department to be invited to work in the company’s worldwide HQ in the US. The invitation was considered a great honour, but I declined it, as I was not prepared to move to the US to live.

I undertook my three accountancy qualifications in Australia as a young woman, and back then there were few women in the accountancy profession, either in Australia or the UK.

On one accountancy course, I was the only female in my year for all three years. On another of the accountancy courses I undertook, only 10% of students in the faculty were female, and none of the faculty staff members were female. On another of the accountancy courses I undertook (yes, I am a bit of a course junky, forever taking courses in all sorts of things!), I think the figure must have been less than 10% female (perhaps circa 5%), though I never heard or saw any statistics for that course – that was the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia’s own course, which was a post-graduate course.

In the firm of chartered accountants that I worked for in Perth, Australia, before moving to the UK, I was the first lady accountant that the firm had ever employed, so there were no guidelines or precedents for me to follow regarding workplace appearance (make-up, clothing, jewellery, hairstyle)! Accordingly, I made up my own rules. On any occasion where I felt in need of a second opinion, such as whether a particularly nice designer denim shirt dress was  suitable for the office, I used my mother as a sounding board. One of the secretaries (female!)  had seen it in a bag at the office after I purchased it that lunchtime, and said to me that I could   not wear denim to work, the partners of the firm would not allow it. As it was a particularly beautiful designer shirt dress, made from top quality cotton, with a smart business-like cut,  my mother said to me that she thought the secretary was just jealous of the dress, and that the partners would have no problem with it. My mother was right. I looked very smart and business-like in the dress, and there were no complaints.

I always felt sorry for all the men in the accountancy profession having to wear drab suits to work, while I was free to wear clothes that were were suited to the weather, such as light cotton dresses and sandals in summer.

In Perth back then, there was a convention that in summer, male chartered accountants could dress down, and, instead of wearing a business suit, they could wear smart dress shorts (which came to a bit above the knee), with a smart shirt, tie, smart knee socks and smart leather shoes, if they were visiting a client’s office and knew (for certain!) that the client would be wearing dress shorts rather than a suit in their office.

Accordingly, when the weather was particularly hot, my colleagues in Perth would have to engage in surreal discreet conversations with clients (who were invariably men) about what they would be wearing the following day, while I happily wore smart cotton dresses – or skirts and blouses – with sandals, that were perfectly suited to the hot weather.

When I moved to England and worked for KPMG (then known as Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co), there were a few other women in the office, but no guidelines were ever given or even hinted at. It was a subject that was not ever discussed; we each independently chose business-like clothing that was suited to the weather. In winter, as it can get very cold in England, I would wear smart tweed woolen skirts in winter, with matching smart cardigans, white blouses and a colourful designer silk scarf, and smart, knee high ladies leather boots. In summer, I would wear smart cotton dresses and sandals, as I had in Australia.

Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co (now KPMG) were at the time the number 1 firm of chartered accountants in the world (in terms of both worldwide revenue and prestige – the Queen being their most famous client) and there was a rigid dress code for the men; a black or grey business suit (never any other colour, other than possibly a very occasional dark navy!), with pin strips being favoured. The suit was always teamed with a white shirt, business-like tie, dark socks and black leather shoes. The bowler hat had been jettisoned before I arrived in England, thank
goodness!

On one occasion while I was working for the firm, I heard that an article clerk working for the firm, a very nice young Chinese fellow with excellent dress sense, was pulled aside and ticked off for having the temerity to wear to work a very smart jacket and a pair of very smart trousers, with a white shirt and a tie. He looked exceptionally smartly dressed, and to my eyes looked perfectly professional, but his crime was that his very smart jacket and very smart trousers did not constitute a business suit! That reinforced my view of the unfairness of the double-standards in operation within the accountancy profession, regarding attire, with women being given hugely preferential treatment.

One time I went to a new client of Peat Marwick Mitchell, to flowchart the operations in his business (document flows, controls, procedures . . .), and the client expressed himself astonished that I was a lady auditor. He was perfectly polite, respectful and cooperaive, but he explained to me that not only had he never before encountered a lady auditor, he had never even been aware of the existence of lady auditors, and had assumed that it was a male-only profession! LOL! He was awed rather than misogynistic, bless him!

A while ago, KPMG suggested doing a write-up on me (as an Alumni doing unusual things) in their in-house magazine. I will probably agree to this at some point, and tie the article in with the launch  of one of my books. IF all goes to plan [and I am very conscious of the saying “The best laid plans of mice and men . . .!], I am hoping to have two of my books completed and ready for publication next year, and another one completed and ready for publication either at the end of next year or some time during 2020. All being well, I anticipate a stream of books being completed by me and published in the next few years, on a variety of subjects.

How times have changed – these days when I attend events that KPMG invite me to, there are numerous other women present as professionals, ie., accountants, IT specialists etc.! This reminds me that there is an email in my intray today from KPMG, awaiting my attention.

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