As she completes her outfit of a tank top, blazer and cigarette pants with black four-inch pumps, Tam Mara has a couple inches of cleavage showing and is the picture of both femininity and professionalism.
The 29-year-old, who resides in Toronto, is a business expertise advisor with the federal government and she believes that when portraying a professional image, there is no need to hide your femininity to be respected. And while some women believe showing some cleavage is no one’s business but their own, others say it could compromise one’s professionalism.
“When (you’re) in the office, you have to first and foremost be comfortable with what you’re wearing but you (also) have to respect your profession,” Mara said. “There’s a fine line between dressing inappropriately and
maintaining your femininity in the workplace.”
After a recent uproar in the media with B.C.’s Liberal Premier Christy Clark receiving ridicule from former MLA David Schreck for showing a few inches of cleavage in the legislature, professional women across the country have been taking a second look at their choice of attire.
Mara, who admits to sometimes showing a bit of cleavage at the office, says women should take a number of factors into account when dressing.
“If you want to show a little bit of something based on the design of your outfit it shouldn’t take away from your professionalism or your capabilities,” she said. “Not every style is appropriate for every body type, so what might be a little bit of cleavage for me in one particular outfit might be extremely revealing for somebody else based on their body type.”
While Mara strongly believes a small show of skin should not compromise a woman’s professionalism, Michelle Gallant, CEO of Looks Image Consulting, says a woman must cover up while at work to avoid distracting others.
“You want everybody to pay attention to what’s coming out of your mouth and not to be distracted by anything else on your person,” Gallant said. “(Cleavage) is one of the biggest sexual beacons, so I believe it is distracting.”
Gallant says femininity and style don’t have to be exchanged for professionalism and in some fields, such as marketing and advertising, it can be beneficial to be trendy. In other fields, such as government, law firms and banks, it can be detrimental. She adds.
“Some fields are (extremely) traditional and conservative,” she said. “If you’re too edgy it takes away but it really depends on what kind of field you’re in. However, in terms of cleavage it’s always a no.”
When making a first impression, Gallant says clothing is the single most important thing. The way a woman is initially seen will make a huge difference in her professional life and often that impression cannot be changed.
“You should eliminate anything that is going to take away from your work,” Gallant advised. “That could be crazy makeup, crazy hair or a really short skirt … people will pay more attention to that and it will distract them. It’s like having a big piece of spinach in your teeth as you’re talking.”
Dr. Marilyn Johncilla, women’s studies professor at the University of Toronto, says the notion of women having to cover up in order to be taken seriously is an old one. She says this type of body politics is part of western society’s patriarchal history.
“Women have always been asked, or told to, wear clothing that does not expose their bodies,” Johncilla said. “(But) we still have to think about it within a different context … women are asked to cover their bodies, yet men still go to strip joints to see women naked.”
This sort of double standard has become the norm and Johncilla believes we need to question ourselves about what is deemed as appropriate, by whom and why.
“Women are not expected to be very sexual (at work) but at the same time, women are sexual beings,” she said. “They are not expected to show their sexuality within public spaces.”
Since women appear to be working on a tricky ground when it comes to dressing, Johncilla believes the present solution is to remain true to you.
“You have to be an authentic you,” she said. “You have to (stop) following this script for how you should dress and how you should detach yourself from your femininity.”
Mara agrees that women should remain true to themselves when stepping into the public eye and likens covering up cleavage to asking a man to hide his masculinity.
“If a man is walking with a bulge nobody says, ‘he should cover that up …’ so I think it’s a double standard,” Mara said. “Women are judged way more than men when it comes to image and body … and it’s really sad.”