A New Look at Wardrobe in the Workplace

MJ Caldwell, the owner of Lady Jane Custom Footwear, participated in a Sexual Harassment
Seminar sponsored by the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. She addressed
the question of whether a woman’s attire can invite sexual harassment in the workplace. Here
are a few highlights of the discussion:

1) In the fall of last year, a large group of high-profile men were accused of sexual harassment in the workplace. Many women stepped forward to reveal that harassment continues to be a problem for American companies. Some well-known women, including legislators and a fashion designer, commented publicly that the over-sexualized attire seen on women at work invited sexual harassment. Those women were highly criticized, and forced to issue public apologies for expressing opinions that they clearly believed. They were accused of being “sexist,” and of “blaming the victim.” This shut down discussion of some important issues; but we believe the conversation should continue.

2) Behavioral science research is thin on this topic, but offers some insights. Sexual
aggression is seen as a continuum of behavior from mild harassment to assault and
rape. At the extreme, sexual predators seem to be motivated by factors such as a desire
to dominate, anger, revenge, and mental illness, more than triggers like the appearance
of the target. Yet, a common thread seems to run through the continuum; it can be
identified as sexual objectification. This refers to cues that turn the focus of attention
away from the personality and toward objectified body parts. Objectification facilitates
harassing behavior when the targeted person is dehumanized and seen primarily as a
sexualized object in tight clothing or high heels.

3) While your attire does not guarantee the outcome of others’ behaviors, it does signal to
others how you expect to be treated. Victims of sexual assault and rape no longer are
questioned in the criminal courtroom about their appearance at the time of the
incident. Yet, for a civil harassment claim in the workplace, the victim often will be
confronted about his or her clothing and the message it sends to coworkers and

Beauty AND Brains!
Beauty AND Brains!