"A woman's only aesthetic responsibility in a professional workplace is to look professional" ... Clementine Ford, feminist commentator.
A friend working at a top-tier investment banking firm recently phoned me to discuss a training seminar that the women in her office had been required to attend. While the men went about ''business as usual'', the women traders were pulled aside, sat down and told how to dress, what shoes to wear and what body type each woman had.
Advice included that women should wear lipstick (specifically not lip gloss) at all times and they were encouraged to wear high heels to meetings. They were told to update their hairstyle at least once every six months to keep ''on trend''. Everything from earrings and handbags to makeup and perfume choice were covered.
The question put to me was this: where is the line between offering employees practical advice on ''dressing for success'' and outright sex discrimination? Are image consultants helping women by offering fashion advice, or is this practice legitimising a boys-club culture where women - regardless of their occupation - are expected to doll themselves up as office decorations for the men? And isn't there something a little bit patronising about a company that trusts you to manage multimillion-dollar deals but doesn't trust you to pick out your own earrings?
In recent years, image consultants have become popular, particularly within the legal and banking fraternities. One self-proclaimed ''image expert'' boasts clients including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Barclays Capital, Westpac and Mallesons Stephen Jaques.
The justification offered by those who run these courses usually goes something like this: when a woman walks into a room, her outfit is the first thing she says, even before she opens her mouth. First impressions are powerful, so why make a bad one? And why let something as ''simple'' as appearance hold you back when this is something that can be relatively easily altered?
It's a seductive argument because it appeals to the self-preservationist in all of us. But there is a vast difference between mandating a level of professionalism in appearance and mandating a level of femininity. Requiring all employees to look neat and well groomed is one thing. Pulling just the women aside to tell them to conform to a particular feminine aesthetic that involves lipstick and high heels is quite another. It's the difference between expecting all employees to be punctual and professional in meetings, and expecting that the women should also be willing to flirt with company clients.
Another problem is that appearances are only as simple as the appearance politics of the culture we inhabit. And right now it's a messy affair. Women may have fought their way into the workplace, but in some quarters they are only there on the conditional basis that they manage to satisfy an unspoken yet deeply ingrained expectation of providing some eye candy for the boys. And we won't change this culture by telling women to change their hairdos every six months.
In some jobs, such as modelling, the expectation that one should look alluring is explicit and women are compensated accordingly. But in other jobs, such as banking or the law, there can be no overt expression of such a requirement and employers realise they could be in hot water were they ever to explicitly state as much. Indeed, image consultants admit that part of the reason they are being hired by major firms is because employers are too afraid to broach the subject of female dress lest they be pulled up on sex discrimination grounds. In effect employers are outsourcing this risk to the stylists who they can distance themselves from by labelling them as ''independent consultants'' who are ''expressing their own views''.
Then there is the issue of pricing. In her bestselling book, How To Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran argues that the cost of dressing as a corporate woman is far higher than that of a man, with haircuts, makeup, shoes, dry cleaning bills and accessories quickly adding up. While men's suits may cost more than women's suits, women's fashion cycles are far shorter meaning that, overall, women are expected to spend more time and energy keeping up with current trends.
In effect this means that the ''admission'' and ''maintenance'' fee to the corporate world is far higher for a woman than for a man, and yet women are offered no additional compensation. Instead they earn 17 per cent less than men.
The feminist commentator, Clementine Ford, agrees that there is a problem. ''A woman's only aesthetic responsibility in a professional workplace is to look professional. That [a woman] is being required by her employers to look sexy is just further evidence of how women's engagement with the public sphere in this country is granted conditionally on their willingness to look good. What does it say when we look to a woman's heels rather than her brain for her worth? It says that we still have a long way to go.''
Nina Funnell is a freelance writer and social commentator.