by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Whenever I want to watch my students’ jaws drop down to their desks, all I have to do is tell them that the “safest” attire for women to wear on a job interview is a skirted suit and that pantsuits — while almost universally acceptable in the workplace — are still somewhat risky attire for interviewing.
My students can’t believe it. They are stunned that such a sexist double-standard could still exist in the business world. They are incredulous that they should be expected to wear attire that is so clearly gender-specific.
I can’t blame them. I can’t disagree with any of their protests. All I can do is prepare them for reality: That they might be perceived as less than professional and even lose a job offer if they wear a pantsuit to an interview instead of a skirtsuit. And that they can rarely go wrong by reaching for the highest standard of traditional dress — especially in such conservative fields as banking, investments, and law.
Some of my female students adopt the position that they wouldn’t want to work for an employer who would fail to hire them just for wearing a pantsuit. And that’s a perfectly valid stance. If you’re trying to find an employer that’s a good fit with your style, the acceptability of pantsuits can be a good litmus test. If your goal is to get a job offer, however, you may want to take the more cautious skirtsuit route.
Women should make their own choices about interview attire, but just as with any of the “rules” for dressing for success, they should make those choices fully informed about the risks and realities. Thus, we present the pros and cons of wearing pantsuits to an interview:
- If the pantsuit is widely acceptable attire in the workplace, it should be acceptable for job interviews.
- The idea that a pantsuit is unprofessional is outdated. It emanates from a male power structure that seeks to keep women in their place.
- Many employers (some surveys indicate the vast majority, in fact) say it doesn’t matter as long as the pantsuit looks professional.
- Many recruiters themselves wear pantsuits.
- If you are not comfortable or confident wearing a skirted suit, you might not interview well. You should be true to yourself, and your clothing should reflect your self-image and help you project your most confident self. Some women feel they look better in pantsuits than in skirted suits.
- Pantsuits may be more acceptable in colder climates.
- Some professionals view pantsuits as actually more professional than skirtsuits because they make women seem powerful and more equal with men.
- It’s better to be overdressed than under. Whereas you might go wrong wearing a pantsuit, it’s almost impossible to go wrong wearing a skirted suit.
- It’s not the pants that determine professionalism as much as it is whether the candidate wears a jacket (true of both men and women).
- Many experts say a pantsuit is OK for a second or third interview, but the skirted suit is still the best bet for the first interview. When Andersen Consulting recruits on college campuses, for example, the firm recommends skirted suits for the first two rounds of interviews, with pantsuits acceptable for the third round.
- Employers want to hire candidates who are a good “fit” with the organization; if you interview in a pantsuit in a company where all the female employees are wearing skirtsuits, you won’t be perceived as fitting in.
One study, albeit with a limited number of respondents, indicated that 25 percent of employers would think twice about hiring a woman who wore a pantsuit to a first interview.
With all these conflicting opinions, how can a woman decide? The best strategy may be to ally yourself with the assistant to the recruiter or hiring manager with whom you’ll be interviewing. Call up the assistant before the interview and ask about the company culture and whether pantsuits or skirted suits are the norm for interviews. If you really want to wear a pantsuit, but the assistant says it would be out of place, best to stick with the skirted suit. Consider regional differences also. If you’re interviewing in an unfamiliar area, be aware that the culture may be different from what you’re used to, and it pays to do some research.
A more difficult question is — if most people agree that the skirted suit expectation is outdated and sexist — what can we do to change this tradition? That’s a question that both women and men should be asking themselves. This is the 21st century after all.
Be sure to also read our article, When Job-Hunting: Dress for Success. Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms and by reading our piece on how to write a resume.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha).