dress, jacket, suit – what’s in a name?


The first writing from the initial women and wardrobe survey has now been published. We called our book chapter Manufacturing the woman leader, with a nod here to the idea of fabrication and construction, but we didn’t try to do anything really clever with the idea of clothes themselves.

Perhaps we should have.

Amanda’s university press office covered our publication and came up with a great wardrobe oriented title – Hanger management. Their press release was picked up by a few journalists – one of whom headed her piece Suiting the part.

We are aware of how many clever and/or groan-worthy titles might be made about our project.

There’s still more to do with the word suit. Who is suited for leadership? is probably a title that we will use at some point. Such a title will allow us to write a paper about the overt and hidden selection criteria that are used to recruit and appoint people to the job. We do have some information about this and we would certainly like to collect more.

We often think about the publication that might go with a title like Leadership as straight jacket – rather than straitjacket. This title might help us to talk about leaders having to walk a straight line enforcing government policy whether they agree with it or not. Perhaps this title gives us a way to come at the kinds of restrictive expectations that seem to sit around the leader role. The straightjacket title would give us the option to talk about leaders’ autonomy, what freedoms are possible, and what aren’t. Importantly, the double meaning also provides a way to talk about the gendering and de-and re-sexualising of leadership – and what is sometimes called “heteronormativity” in the leadership and organisation literatures.

Then there’s the possibilities of dress. We think of the notion of add-dress. A paper on add-dress might talk about the career pathways to leadership, and being “called” to the job. An add-dress paper could talk quite literally about what the position is called – I had someone use the term headmistress to me just the other day, so gendered titling has not entirely vanished. Or perhaps we could use the notion of re-dress to think about the ways in which the job might be redesigned, how discrimination in recruitment and promotion might be got rid of, how past injustices in the system might be recognised.

Titles of papers are always a bit of fun. But playing with words has a serious side. Word play allows us to think about the ways in which we can come at our/your data to write something that is important about women in leadership positions.


Photo by Amanda Vick on Unsplash


looking ‘professional’


We have started to analyse the women and wardrobe survey data. While the survey is still open for further responses, we have already downloaded the first 300 surveys or so worth of data.

One of the things that struck us immediately was how many respondents said that women leaders both wanted and needed to look professional.

So we have begun to think about what this term ‘professional’ means. And like good little researchers we ’ve been having a bit of a look at what other people have said.

There’s a distinct idea in the texts we’ve read of a managerialist professional. This is someone whose work is primarily about, well, management above all else.  So while all leaders have to ensure that their organisation runs smoothly, managerialist leaders are those who think and act as if management is all that counts.

Managerialism is often said to produce a ‘low trust’ organisational culture, through multiple forms of regulation via documentation and monitoring, regular auditing of various forms of performance measures, tight control of staff and a heavily hierarchical structure. Decision-making is carried out separate from staff who are expected to implement those decisions. Feedback is often through highly formal processes.

Managerialist professionalism is contrasted with democratic professionalism where a high trust culture is developed through flat organisational structures, ongoing discussion and collaborative decision-making. Activist professionalism goes further, suggesting a role and responsibility for the professional in advocating for the profession and its wider concerns.

Many books and papers about educational leaders suggest that the very idea of an educational professional has changed over time to now mean a managerialist. Where an educational leader was once thought about as a caring, knowledgeable teacher, they are now thought about as someone who manages, is entrepreneurial and business-like.

This view is challenged by other researchers who say that there is no sharp boundary between managerialism and management, and that life in schools is just messy and complicated. In this context, being a professional means managing the complexity without letting staff and students suffer the worst effects of externally imposed policies.

So what might this all mean for our survey and “looking professional” in schools? for wearing clothing that signifies the wearer is a professional?

Is “the jacket” the symbol of an expectation that today’s educational leaders are inevitably business like and managerialist?

That they are interchangeable with any other leader in any other occupation?

Is the jacket a managerialist mask that is taken off when the most judgmental observers are not looking?

Does wearing corporate clothing make a school leader become more managerialist – do the clothes begin to wear them and not the other way around?

Or something else entirely, none of the above.

Welcome to our ambiguous world of interpretation!

If you have any thoughts on what ‘professional’ means to you, we’d love to hear from you.


Some of our reading:

Gary Anderson and Michael Cohen 2018 The new democratic professional in education Teachers College Press

Kathleen Lynch, Bernie Grummell and Dymphna Devine 2012 New managerialism in education. Commercialisation, carelessness and gender. Palgrave Macmillan

Judyth Sachs 2003 The activist teaching profession Open University Press



Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Word up, get a lapel.


We have been asked a few times whether our contention that there is a kind of leadership ‘uniform’ is justified.

So, here’s a bit of evidence – and you can find heaps more if you just google. There is no shortage of advice telling women what to wear if they want to lead.

From “The Executive Woman’s Dress Code” – here’s why clothes matter

If you are serious about being promoted … then take heed.

There is one problem that career women face that often goes unaddressed. It is what it means to be wearing the right clothes.

A woman’s wardrobe is an essential component of her presentation. It is as important as her handshake, her eye contact and her attitude.

The faux pas many women make is that they believe their wardrobe is a reflection of who they are. They are attempting to project their distinctiveness and their individuality. Others prefer to wear what is comfortable thinking that this is appropriate since they’ve noticed others in the office also dress this way. And then there are those who want to be known for their style and creativity. They want to stand out from the crowd.

All these women, instead of sending the right message they are signaling to those above that they are not a team player, that they are not ready for promotion.

The mistake is that they don’t view the clothes they wear to work as their corporate uniform.

If you’re like most women, this is eye-opening. Don’t lose the point that the real purpose of “the uniform” isn’t for erasing your identity; its purpose reflects the symbolism that “you’re part of the team.” It creates a visual representation of a common goal and a shared purpose.

In the corporate world, the business suit is still viewed as the uniform.

This means that, when its leaders are representing the firm, others are not distracted by what they wear but rather the intent is to keep them focused on the message.

But wait there’s more.

From the Globe and Mail, an item called “Dress your way to leadership success with these three pointers” – advice given in the piece suggests:

  • Choose clothes that reflect leadership traits— e.g. don’t wear a 10-year-old suit if you’re a young, forward-thinking leader.
  • Being comfortable in your position doesn’t mean yoga pants and tank tops. Women can be most comfortable by choosing professional clothes in the right fit for their body. For an executive, a well-tailored jacket allows for individualization and comfort — without completely ignoring the industry uniform.
  • Details matter. If you’re a leader who encourages and embraces creativity, pay special attention to the details of your personal style — wearing the same “uniform” of black pants and blouse every day doesn’t communicate adventure, risk or creative style.

And even more.

From Forbes Magazine, “ How to dress like the boss” comes the advice:

“Women should invest in basic pieces that can be mixed and matched,” says Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress For Success. No matter the career, building a professional wardrobe starts with the basics—but doesn’t have to break the bank.

“Splurge on the staples,” says Coles. “You want to buy the most expensive, conservative suit you can afford that will be timeless and get you through every interview, performance review and client meeting.”

“Black is the workhorse,” adds Arroz. “Avoid double-breasted jackets (which can make women look boxy, particularly if they’re busty), but don’t shy away from a jacket with an interesting collar or feature.

And finally,

Five Power Dressing Tips To ‘Boss Up’ Your Wardrobe And Empower You In The Workplace – their tips include:

  1. Develop a routine
  2. Go with a blazer
  3. Consider a wide shoulder
  4. Have fun. Personalise your suit.
  5. Go monotone

In these four articles – and all the rest that you can easily find – the suit, or at the very least the jacket, is the go.

This is DATA for our research. Early analysis? Have lapels, can lead. That seems to be it.