What you wear reflects who you are, or who you want to be. It's why you should "dress one level up" for a job interview. That means if you're applying for a job in a business-casual environment, you still wear a suit to the interview, whether you're a man or woman.
But once you leave the suit environment, dress codes for men and women vary a great deal. Not because the dress codes themselves are written differently. In fact, a good dress code is gender-neutral. For example. HR expert Susan Heathfield states in her sample business casual dress code,
Because all casual clothing is not suitable for the office, these guidelines will help you determine what is appropriate to wear to work. Clothing that works well for the beach, yard work, dance clubs, exercise sessions, and sports contests may not be appropriate for a professional appearance at work.
She then goes on to give details like, "Any clothing that has words, terms, or pictures that may be offensive to other employees is unacceptable." And "Slacks that are similar to Dockers and other makers of cotton or synthetic material pants, wool pants, flannel pants, dressy capris, and nice looking dress synthetic pants are acceptable."
Everything is very clearly equal between men and women. Even when she mention of no cleavage, she also includes a reference to no visible chests, either. It's a fantastic dress code, and you'd be wise to follow it.
However, while an official dress code can be written to legal perfection, does an unofficial double standard dress code exist? Are men judged differently than women?
When a man alternates between two different pairs of dockers and shows up every day in a blue button-down shirt, no one says a thing. But if a woman wears the same clothing two days in a row, people talk.
Women tend to like more variety in clothing than men do, so our culture reflects that. But is there more to it? President Obama wears almost the same outfit every day. He explained his reasoning in an interview in Vanity Fair:
"You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
Is it possible that our quest to hold women to fashion standards that we don't apply to men actually inhibits a women's ability to rise? Not only do we have to determine proper clothing, but we have hair, makeup and accessories to worry about. But for men, if it's business-casual, throw on the Dockers and buttoned shirt. If it's formal, get the dark suit, white shirt and tie. No big decisions involved.
Mark Zuckerberg, Bono and scads of tech execs wear the same or similar outfits all the time, and no one cares. But People magazine regularly runs a feature called "I really love my..." that points out (usually) female celebrities who dare to wear the same outfit or carry the same bag twice.
I guarantee if Sue in accounting starts alternating exclusively between a grey skirt and sweater and a blue skirt and sweater, it will hurt her career. People will start to think she's a bit strange.
But if John in the neighboring cube follows the president's example, no one will give it much thought at all.
That's a double standard we could do without.