Why I dress up for my tech job
“He wore a suit to the interview — he can’t be that good”. Those were the opening remarks of a interview feedback session for a Software Engineer that I once sat in on.
The outside world sees tech and Silicon Valley as a bubble of 20-something year old millionaires in company logo t-shirts, and hoodies with white strings hanging down (à la Mark Zuckerburg in the Social Network) driving around in Priuses. This perception is not wrong. Walking down any street in SoMa, San Francisco (the Mecca of tech companies) past brightly colored logos on everything from socks to backpacks is a dizzying experience.
When interviewing at most tech companies, you will receive vague instructions about attire. Microsoft’s interview site reads:
What should I wear?
You don’t need to dress up to impress us. Wear whatever makes you most comfortable.
“Wear whatever makes you most comfortable”, may seem open and inviting, but is not to be confused with “wear whatever”. While you may not be judged on how much your suit costs, and the insignia on your cuff links, your attire will not go unnoticed.
Casual here is not to be confused with easy, and this applies beyond interviewing.
I’m a Solutions Engineer —a bridge between sales, customers, products and engineering. There is a fine balance to be struck: at the workplace among your sales people and among the engineers when you need to drill down, and in front of customers (both of decision maker and engineer type). Dress up too much and too formally — you will be asked “may I speak with an engineer”. Dress down too much, and you lose your authority, or won’t be seen as commercially minded. The perfect balance for a guy lays somewhere around jeans and a t-shirt. Jeans can be upgraded up to, but not beyond slacks. Shoes can range from Allbirds to Oxfords. Button downs are to be reserved for edge cases, like meetings with big stuffy banks.
Throw being a woman into the mix, and this dance intensifies.
The topic of women in tech has been written about at nauseum, but the problem persists: there are just too few of us.
With so few women in tech, there are even fewer models for what women in tech look like. Men get to play HBO-style multi faceted characters. In a place so saturated with engineers, there are engineers of every flavor. Many who do dress well and care about the latest trends and appearances, your typical fratty college bros, artists, Siddhartha quoting philosophers, athletes — the full rainbow. Women’s existence in engineering is still reduced to very few tropes. Female engineers whose existence we have accepted: The punk hacker girl with the colored hair and chokers (like Silicon Valley’s Carla and Mr Robot’s Darlene), and the tomboy frumpy girl that doesn’t get the guys (see Modern Family’s Alex).
A hashtag does not solve unconscious biases overnight. When I walk into a room alongside a male Account Manager, it is assumed that I am not the engineer in the room. Even after introductions, technical problems will get directed towards the male. I am assumed incompetent, until proven otherwise. Only after answering a series of in depth questions, I can gain the respect of the room. Many times, even after doing so, the conversation concludes on “it would be great to have an engineer at our next discussion so we can work out technical details”.
By contrast, my manager is a 40 year old white man. He is not without a sense of style — you will find him rocking subtly patterned short sleeve button downs, and thick framed hipster glasses. When he walks in the room, from chipper “Hi, I am your Solutions Engineer” his words are taken at face value.
It’s not uniquely tech that puts people down based on appearance. There is a reason for the dumb blonde stereotype: humans are a jealous species. It is hard for us to accept that someone can be both attractive and intelligent. If someone is succeeding at one thing, they must be failing at another. It follows that if a woman’s thoughts are spent on fashion, she must not have enough brain capacity left over for engineering.
I like fashion. I like dressing up. I don’t know how to define my style. I enjoy playful articles like clogs and overalls, or feminine ensembles like lace dresses and heeled boots.
Working in tech doesn’t put other societal pressures on pause.
I am subject to the same media as everyone else. Diversity-representing models (none with my body type) on Instagram introducing The Cabana Stripe Series of Active-inspired to vintage vibes bathing suits. The targeting on Facebook will then remind you the CEO of said bathing suit company is a woman “taking on swimsuit industry giant”. So if you’re not having it all, well, whose fault is that?
Reminded what I don’t look like, I still fruitlessly continue to work out 4–5 days a week (next bathing suit season is the one for sure). I carry around a Mary Poppins backpack of things I should be doing. That includes: my outfit for the day, a tupperware with lunch (which then lingers at the office for a few weeks before I bring it back), gym gear, a bike lock and make up (if I can fit it in). Note the list does not include hair care, as I have neither the room in my backpack nor the time for it. I have curly hair, which does not help with looking put together. The slightest bit of moisture, and I begin to look like Fran Lebovitz.
As such, my choice of minimalist fashion (read: what fits into my backpack) is more utility than statement. Function over form, though I do care about the form.
A co-worker of mine (whose style I truly admire) and I were discussing these struggles, managed to agree: we work hard, and we look good. We planned to start a blog, but time constraints and practicality argued against it. So we started an Instagram. Same place, same filter, no more than 20 minutes spent on it daily. You see, we woman engineers, or rather, engineers, are very practical. You may follow us here.