I'm job searching again, which means attending job interviews again, which means I'm considering the questions of power and performance that comes from dressing up and looking the part.
In this process, I've been doing a lot of thinking. So like any millennial would, I took my thoughts to Twitter.
Me getting ready for job interviews: To what extent do I need to perform stereotypical femininity to have the best chance at getting this job?— Kylie Justine (@kyliejustine) August 1, 2018
You may read that as a snarky take on the intrinsically anxiety-provoking nature of looking for employment, but this question — how am I expected to perform this? — is something that affects everything I do. It's not nearly as simple as skirt versus pants, as many naïve men in my life seem to think. It's every detail of the interview outfit: Heels or flats? How high do I button the blouse in order to be approachable but not inappropriate? How much makeup? (How subtle is too subtle?) What color lipstick? (Red might exude confidence to one interviewer and scare another off.) How do I do my hair? (I'm starting to hate myself for cutting it short, as I only have so many options now.)
These are just a few of the unanswerables I have to ask myself in this process. Maybe some of this is just me, but I'd wager that a lot of women and femmes ask themselves this stuff all the time. How do I perform my identity to hit that mythical sweet spot? How do I present myself on paper? How do I make myself stand out as a candidate while not making myself seem intimidating? I find myself editing my resume obsessively, using extremely gendered, non-intimidating keywords to describe myself and my past experience. I'm pleasant! I love to connect with guests! I bend over backwards to meet people's needs, and I do it all with a smile on my face and a saccharine “have a great day!”
Then there's deciding what jobs I should even bother to apply for. Recruiters agree that a man of my age, with my education and experience, will apply for any job he wants and do so with relative confidence, whereas I'm more likely to take the “qualifications” section literally (rather than as a set of strong suggestions) and only send prospective employers my resume if I meet every single one. At the end of this exhausting process, once we're talking salary, I'm less likely than a man to ask for a higher salary than what is originally offered.
There are, of course, several anti-discrimination labor laws that attempt to regulate how these things go. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't fix the anxieties that most women face when they attend job interviews facilitated by men in power positions. And for those who face similar issues operating outside the binary, there are resources out there to help gender-nonconforming folks dress for job interviews and work, as well as style advice and brands like Qwear, a great resource for people with nonbinary styles, or clothiers like Haute Butch, VEEA, and GFW Clothing.
How do we as a culture move past this? I'm honestly not sure. Most “how do we fix this?” Google results are targeted at the employer, offering hollow “resolutions” to help employers dodge litigation by offering advice such as “don't use these gendered words in your ad,” “post on a variety of platforms to ensure you're reaching more people,” “use a standard template to evaluate candidates,” or the laughable “be objective.”
Is that the best we can do? I'm not sure. There seems to be no alternative for those of us who are stuck job searching in a deeply flawed system, other than to hope that the system fixes itself or that we get lucky and find the egalitarian needle in the job-search haystack.