Melena Postolowski – Director of Internships and Employer Relations, Eckerd College
Winner of the highest rated session from our 2016 Annual Conference
I first entered the field of career coaching while I was in the process of completing my graduate degree in Counseling Psychology. At the same time that I was learning about the potential detriments of cultural assimilation in class, I was figuring out how to navigate conversations about professional dress with the clients I was working with on job search preparation. There was some obvious in-congruence between what I was learning to be “right” in the classroom versus what I was learning in my professional realm. This always caused internal tension for me.
One of my most memorable experiences was working work a bright, kind, highly competent international student from India. This particular student was a career coach’s dream: she always showed up to appointments with the utmost preparedness and followed all suggestions surrounding networking, following up and tailoring her resume to each job she applied to. The candidate had substantial past work experience, including running her own business, and an incredible transferable skill set. However, she continued to struggle with finding a job.
When it was time for the career fair, the student asked to meet with me to show me what she planned on wearing to the event. She arrived at my office in a beautiful, exquisite saree and I didn’t know what to say. The conversation ultimately resulted in encouraging the student’s freedom to choose for herself, but acknowledging that recruiters at the event would be expecting candidates to wear western style business suits. I went through all of the components of the outfit with her and even helped identify local shops where she could find something affordable. Days later she showed up to my office in the most typical, grey two-piece suit and my heart broke. I told her she looked great and wished her the best at the fair. Sure enough, she got a job offer almost immediately after the event and is one of the international students who was successful in remaining in the U.S. after graduation.
Was this candidate’s job search success solely based on whether or not she put on that grey suit? No one could ever be sure. But this experience, and my experience working with a variety of other students from different walks of life, really made me think about the concept of “professional dress.” Where do these ideals come from? Who are we helping by maintaining these ideals? Who are we hurting?
Obviously the student’s goal was to find employment and by those means, she was successful. I just wonder if her heart broke as much as mine did when she had to hang up the saree.
This past year I decided to start discussions on the topic of professional dress as it relates to diversity and inclusion. I wanted something to change in the way that we approach these conversations and the most obvious fix (to me) was beginning by removing the gender binary that is so often associated with this concept. Traditionally and typically in career services, professional dress is taught in a way that separates out what is considered appropriate male and female dress. Nonbinary students seeking career advice may feel limited by these explanations. Because research has shown that feelings of acceptance and belonging have a large effect on student learning, engagement and retention, updating professional dress materials to be more gender inclusive will allow for more students to be engaged in the professional development process. In turn, students will become more likely to benefit from career services offerings.
I presented on how to include the gender spectrum within professional dress educational materials at the 2016 FloridaACE Annual Conference and was blown away by my audience’s response. After the formal presentation, everyone in the room came together to discuss other ways in which diversity and inclusion are affected by professional dress standards and there was a call for a 2.0 version of the presentation. I had the opportunity to present again during the FloridaACE Drive-in Conference in the fall and included a variety of other recommendations based on the feedback I received from my industry peers over the summer.
Some of these additional diversity-related considerations are as follows:
- Within your professional dress educational materials, do you have variety in racial representation? It is important to feature models that reflect your student body, not just one particular type of student.
- Age may be less relevant for more traditional campuses, but there are plenty of blended campuses in which age diversity would be important to think about. Ensuring your veterans, for example, are feeling included as well as your more traditional graduate is something to keep in mind. Also, on the flip side – you can’t just have pictures of “adults” at work because younger students will not resonate with that.
- In regards to socioeconomic class, are you also offering tips on finding affordable professional dress options within your community? Some schools offer consignment clothing that students can borrow for an interview.
- Are you representing people with physical differences? Do students in wheelchairs have an example to look to? Also, in regards to body type, do all of your images depict GQ models? If so… you may want to rethink that.
- Have you ever thought of including professional dress images with someone wearing a hijab? How about a yarmulke? If not, it may be worth reflecting on why this decision was made.
The reality is that there are industry expectations and business suits are not going out of style anytime soon, but there are ways in which we can handle the concept with some more flexibility. I don’t have all the answers and I know that it would be a difficult task to ensure that everyone feels included, but I also know that we can all be better at making sure more people feel included. Regardless of our own personal belief systems, political affiliation or culture of origin, we work in an industry that serves people and each day we show up to work we act as role models for the next generation entering the workforce.
So, what message are you sending about professional dress? Make sure it’s one you’re proud of.