The casual dress environment favored by many local companies often puts women in an uncomfortable spot. How casual is too casual?

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In a previous tech job, the company’s team-building manager pulled me aside the day before our off-site.

“Just wanted to let you know tomorrow’s activities require some running around. You’re always so well-dressed, but it will be a jeans-and-sneakers type of day,” I was advised.

Within my first week of working in tech, I knew my dress-and-heels staple uniform was completely out of place. Before then, I had worked in New York, London and Singapore, which hadn’t prepared me for the hoodie culture I encountered here in Seattle. All previous jobs I’d held prescribed typical corporate attire.

Since moving here, I’ve heard from multiple women about the challenges of navigating “casual dress code” office environments. How casual can we really go? To be sure, the topic is controversial, yet one that affects office-goers on a daily basis. Would we accept Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg if she wore the hoodies favored by her boss, Mark Zuckerberg? Could women executives at Microsoft get away with wearing jeans like the ones we’ve seen donned by male leaders?

“Men and women are both more influential if they dress well,” says Komal, who has worked in tech for nearly two decades and asked not to be identified by her full name and company. “But the difficulty is that the bar for ‘dressing well’ is so much lower for men than women, and especially in tech.”

There’s also the question of cost. Glamour found that on average, it costs at least 2.6 times more for women to get ready for work compared with men.

I couldn’t find any recent data linking women’s attire to their perceived competence, but there’s research to show women are more respected when they wear makeup to work. I’ve relied on anecdotal evidence to highlight some challenges women face with regards to dressing for work.

The double bind: Women face a double bind with their sartorial choices in casual environments, Komal tells me. Dress too casually and you’ll be seen as less competent, but dress too well and you could also get negatively judged. A woman she manages has a “different hair color every month and I know there are peers who perceive that as she’s more interested in her appearance than her job,” she tells me. As the woman’s manager, Komal says she’s taken it upon herself to shoot down biases as they arise, while encouraging the employee to express her individuality.

There’s a way to dress well: “There are plenty of ways to be fashionable and professional without wearing a suit or the equivalent,” says Lydia Frank, VP at PayScale. “There’s a way to wear a T-shirt and jeans that still looks a bit polished versus not. I don’t care who you are — if you look like you just rolled out of bed, people will take you less seriously.” If you care a little bit about your appearance – no holes and stains – you’ll do just fine in the tech industry regardless of gender, she adds.

The Seattle Times Jobs columnist Ruchika Tulshyan. (Courtesy of Jama Abdirahman)
The Seattle Times Jobs columnist Ruchika Tulshyan. (Courtesy of Jama Abdirahman)

Find a sponsor: Komal recommends more women find a senior advocate within their company. “Building a relationship with someone so that they get to know you can often minimize differences such as how you dress,” she says. Having leaders across the organization vouch for her has been one way she’s continued to dress without conforming to any particular dress code, she says, while still being able to advance to managerial positions.

Comfort matters: We know widespread disparities exist in the way men and women are judged on their appearance. But both genders are considered less trustworthy when they’re perceived to be inauthentic. To that end, the women I’ve talked to have said it’s more important to stay true to your own self, than force yourself to be someone you’re not. “As I’ve gotten to more senior roles, I’ve found myself dressing the part a bit more, but it’s still about what makes me feel confident and comfortable,” Frank says. Komal adds that while the casual environment posed a conundrum earlier in her career, being comfortable at work “is a boon” that she’s started to embrace as a woman in tech.

Ruchika Tulshyan is a journalist, speaker and author. Connect with her on Twitter at @rtulshyan or her website rtulshyan.com.