What the heck is ‘Business Professional’ attire?

If you peruse the collection of professional attire in my closet you will find- naturally organized in rainbow color order- a number of bright pink, floral, and sparkly things. There are neon blazers, polka dot dresses, and sweaters with ruffles and shiny buttons. I have no shame. I own so many dresses that I could wear a new dress every day for 68 business days without repeating. You will find a blue skirt with tigers and a red shirt with small white hot air balloons. I think it's fun.

But it's taken a long time, the weathering of some sexist remarks, and the encouragement from women who paved the way before me to develop the confidence to bring my feminine style into an industry dominated by white men in white shirts and blue suits.

It's challenging for women in today's professional environment to understand what "business professional" dress even means. Most other industries have moved on from the horrifying women's pant suits of the 80s and 90s and have developed fusion fashion that includes terms like "smart casual" and "sophisticated day wear" - whatever those mean. But financial services often saunters lazily behind these positive fashion steps.

For men, it's easy. You go to any men's department in literally any store, and you can choose from any number of suit pants, suit jackets, collared button-up shirts, and ties. It's a simple formula for a business professional.

Business professional = suit and tie

Business casual= take your tie and/or jacket off

There's no wondering if you are dressed appropriately for any event ever. And it's been that way for the past 60 years. Perhaps men used to wear hats more regularly, but everything else is exactly the same as it has always been. And, likely will continue to be for the next 60 years.

In addition to that, men rarely face any scrutiny over their clothes. Running our intern program for 3 years, only once can I remember a time when one of the young men was criticized for the clothes he wore.

Yet, the young ladies at every possible opportunity were told to dress more professionally, to wear suits, not to wear flats (yeah, that one still confuses me), to look more mature, and to consider the lengths and tightness of everything that they chose to wear.

I'm not here to say let's all switch to wearing crop tops and mini-skirts in the workplace. There's a fine line between what looks professional and inappropriate for a business setting. But, since when do "heels" versus flats make you more professional and therefore more equipped to do your job?

I can't understand this double standard that we are held to and I refuse to continue to subject the women in our industry to this confusion and burden.

The best advice I can give to women in this industry- wear what you want. Be yourself.

Your style and personality are a huge part of the reason that your clients and your company want to work with you. You must understand, however, that the harsh reality of the financial world is that this means that some people will not want to work with you because of how you look. The sooner you can accept this fact, the better. Break out those sparkly flats or your little black pantsuit and make some waves in whatever way is most authentic to you.


Alanah Phillips
Recruiter, Speaker, Troublemaker

Let’s connect on LinkedIn | Listen to my podcast Next Gen in 10 | Or book time with me here!

Originally posted on WIFS website August 31, 2023

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