Wednesday, January 23, 2013

My Theory on Women's Wages

We've all heard that women earn less than men. On average, women earn $0.80 for every $1.00 that men earn. A quick search on the internet yields articles that discuss obvious theories: women don't negotiate salaries and wages as well as men, women take time off for motherhood, gender bias, and women often go into lower paying industries after college.

As BusinessWeek put it, a recent study by the American Association of University Women found the following:
"One year out of college, female teachers earn 89 percent of what male teachers earn. In sales jobs, women earn 77 percent of what male peers earn. Women who major in business earn, on average, just over $38,000 the first year after graduation, while men earn just over $45,000."
I don't believe that entry-level employees have much negotiating room when it comes to starting salary, and I certainly don't believe time off for motherhood plays a role so close to graduation. And, industry differences were controlled in the study I quoted above. So why is there still such a big difference in salary between men and women?

I want to propose a completely different theory of why women earn less than men: the interview suit. The better and more put together one looks at an interview, the more desirable that candidate is to the employer. The more the employer finds the candidate desirable, the more likely that employer believes other potential employers will believe that other employers will find the candidate desirable. Thus, the employer will offer the candidate more money in order to entice the candidate to work for him/her over another employer. In other words, the better you dress, the more money you will make. This holds true throughout a career. And what looks best is a well-fitting, 100% wool suit with a great dress shirt, one that is generally white, 100% cotton, collared, and button-down. In other words, the women's clothing equivalent of what men wear to interviews.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that many women tell other women they do not need to wear a suit to an interview. Let me make this clear, ladies. YOU MUST WEAR A SUIT TO YOUR INTERVIEWS. OK, I'm pretty sure I made that clear. And please stick to solid black, navy, or dark gray (charcoal). Others colors, prints, and patterns aren't professional enough for a first-time meeting.

Now, most of you are probably thinking that you DO wear suits on job interviews and most women wear suits. But I ask you, what kind of suit are you wearing? What are you wearing as a shirt or a shell? And did you get it tailored to fit you?

I bet if you look at the label on your suits, most of you have suits made of materials other than wool. And if you have a suit with wool in it, most likely the material is no more than 50% wool. If your interview suit is made of 100% wool, congratulations. You either looked really hard to buy a 100% wool suit or you stumbled into the right store at the right time.

And what shirt do you wear with that suit? Is it a button-down collared shirt? If so, is it 100% cotton? If so, is it so sheer it requires a shell that then can be seen through your shirt while you're wearing your suit? If you managed to find a 100% cotton button-down collared shirt that is not sheer, congratulations. You either looked really hard to find it or stumbled into the right store at the right time which was most likely not the same store where you bought the suit. And if it's white, too, you really hit the dress shirt jackpot.

Once you purchased the suit and obtained the shirt, did you get them tailored to fit you? Most women don't get any of their clothing tailored, so it's also likely that the vast majority of women don't get their suits tailored to them prior to a job interview. Men also know to get all their suits tailored to fit their bodies to a T. Women should do the same.

So now let's compare what an average woman would wear to a job interview and its male clothing equivalent.
  1. A woman wears a nice cardigan or shirt with a skirt. A man wears a dress shirt and pre-hemmed dress pants, maybe a tie, but no jacket.
  2. A woman wears a polyester or poly-blend suit with a shirt not made of 100% cotton. A man wears a polyester suit with a 50/50 blend dress shirt and a cheap tie.
  3. A woman wears a 100% wool suit with a 100% cotton collared button-down shirt and an appropriate necklace that ends about 2.5" - 3" below the collarbone. A man wears a 100% wool suit, a 100% cotton shirt, and a good-quality silk tie.
I ask you ladies: can the man get away with wearing anything less than the third option to an interview? No? Well, then why do women wear anything less than the third option, too?

Why? Because it's nearly impossible to find 100% wool suits for women and equally hard to find 100% cotton button-down collared shirts.

I spent several hours last Thursday night searching online for a proper interview suit for a friend. My online search provided my fodder for Sunday's blog post, but note that I recommended the featured suit for travel. I did not recommend it for interviews. (Based on my experience with the Jones New York Collection brand, I believe the white shirt featured in the post should be appropriate for interviews, however.)

The search did lead me to recommend my friend and I drive an hour to a Pendleton store. Last night I called the store to make sure they had the items we were most interested in seeing. We went this morning, and she decided to purchase their Seasonless Wool (Two-Button) Suit Jacket and 25" Seasonless Wool Madison Skirt in Charcoal Mix for her interview. The pieces of the suit are below:

Seasonless Wool Suit Jacket

Seasonless Wool Madison Skirt

But... wait! You're thinking that I broke the blog's rules about not posting untznua skirts. You're right, I did. My friend is lucky in that she wasn't requiring her skirt to be at least 27" long with no slits. If she did, she wouldn't have found an appropriate interview suit without having it custom-made. And it's not surprising given that I have never found an appropriate interview suit with a tznua skirt off-the-rack at any price point.

For those of you who are not as vertically blessed as I am, you could consider Pendleton's 26" long Seasonless Wool Lana skirt, which looks like a pencil skirt from the front (similar to the Madison skirt in the picture above), but is an inch longer and has two kick pleats in the back with no slits. This will probably be the only time I'll post something on my blog that I would not be able to wear without pulling  my skirt every time I sit, but I think this issue is serious enough to break my own rules by an inch. Pendleton's website today introduced the 30" Seasonless Wool Slim Skirt that has a long slit in the front. While we did not see this skirt in-store today, I would think that, in theory, one could get the skirt hemmed and use the leftover material to fill in the slit. Pendleton also makes a Seasonless Wool One-Button Blazer that coordinates with these skirts as well. If any of these skirts work for you, I strongly recommend any combination of this suit. And their full Seasonless Wool collection can be found here.

After our fruitful trip to Pendleton, we were feeling pretty good, so we decided to look for a white 100% cotton collared button-down dress shirt at the nearby mall. We didn't really think anything of Pendleton not having an appropriate shirt in their store. We went to seven stores: White House/Black Market, Banana Republic, Talbot's, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Nordstrom, and Nordstrom Rack. None of these stores sold a white 100% cotton collared button-down dress shirt, and I honestly don't think any had 100% cotton button-down dress shirts in any color. And, most of the options they did have were completely see-through.

So then I hit the internet after I got home. I discovered that the two most reliable retailers for white 100% cotton collared button-down dress shirts are Lands End and L.L.Bean. Because Lands End merchandise is available closer to our neighborhood, I decided to have her try the Lands End shirt first. The first location I called did not have her size, but the second did. I put it on hold under her name, she drove to the store (20 minutes each way) and told me the shirt was perfect. (While it may have been possible to locate the JNY Collection shirt in a store, it would have taken a lot of calling around that I didn't necessarily desire to do.)

To recap, it took over 9 hours of driving, shopping, and researching to find a women's suit and dress shirt that were appropriate for a job interview. We did not shop for shoes, makeup, accessories, or undergarments.

Had the Pendleton suit not worked, the only other option I could find for her was J. Crew's 1035 Jacket in Super 120s and 27" Telegraph Pencil Skirt in Super 120s (which is only available online and has a slit), both shown below.

1035 jacket in Super 120s

Telegraph pencil skirt in Super 120s

I hate to say it, but I think we were lucky to find her an appropriate outfit in only 9 hours' time. And if she required that the skirt be 100% tznua, I would have needed to recommend purchasing a custom-made suit at a big expense.

A man can walk into the men's department of almost any retailer that sells dress clothes and be guaranteed to find suits that are 100% wool, dress shirts that are 100% cotton, and a tie selection that is at least serviceable. A woman, on the other hand, has to settle for whatever suit and shirt she is lucky enough to find after hours of searching.

The bottom line is that we're all told to "dress for success." It's intuitive that the better dressed you are at an interview, the more likely you are to obtain your desired position and be paid top dollar. So why is it that women's suiting lets us down so much? Why don't designers give women the same clothing advantage they give to men? And if there's a chance that clothing affects starting salary, then why isn't this publicized more to women and why doesn't anyone do anything about it?

If you want to join in a discussion on this topic, please feel free to leave comments below or on Tznua Fashionista's Facebook page.


  1. Im SURE that tznua women have it much harder than the rest of us. But i do have to agree with you, Allison. I was reading this and thinking back to my interviewing NIGHTMARE and maybe it was the fact that my suit was not tailored, not wool, and my shirt was colored(one dark color) and not white.

    Its so sad to see the message of "Dress For Success" when we have second rate options. I wonder what options are like here in Thailand (where a man can buy a tailored THREE 3 pc suits for $60 American)


  2. I have no idea why slits are so much more popular than kick pleats. It's barely any more material and it looks so much more elegant. What you said is one of the reasons I took up sewing again--ready to wear stuff is ill-fitting and poorly made. At least if something I make falls apart, I know whose fault it is and how to fix it.

    What's your opinion on interviewing in the creative fields?

  3. Jess, can a woman go to the same tailor and order a suit, too? I believe a lot of the tailors that travel stateside (with Hong Kong factories) manufacture both. Granted, you have to buy suits in bunches and they're probably $600 - $800 each, but that's still cheap in the US for a custom suit and similar in price to a RTW Hart Shaffner Marx suit for men.

    Samantha, I agree with you on kick pleats. They're also safer because there's no chance of serious embarrassment when skirts ride up a bit farther than expected.

    I would say that what to wear on an interview in the creative field depends on the company. Generally, companies and people in this field want to hire others who can individually create work that is cohesive with the whole. Thus, it is best to go to an interview wearing an outfit that conveys you can be a creative fit; i.e. something the others at the office would wear on the most businessy of occasions.

    If I was interviewing at Vogue, Marie Claire, In Style, etc., I may set my sights on any suit by Theory even though they're not 100% wool and probably go with some sort of shell (also probably by Theory). Granted, it would take a heroic effort to find a tznua Theory suit, but I'm going on the assumption there's one available.

    If I was interviewing for an artist, I would Google-stalk that person to figure out his/her sense of "business" style and wear something at least as business-like or maybe a shade dressier, but within the artist's range of style. If the artist was into wearing scarves, I may perhaps pair a scarf with a suit instead of a necklace. I would also experiment with a fun pair of shoes; patent leather and/or 4" or higher. And if the artist had a love for a particular color, I may wear shoes in that color, like cherry red.

    If the creative position was within a larger corporation that as a whole wasn't artistic, like an arts teacher within a school or an arts writer at a newspaper, I would stick with the guidelines for appropriate interview attire in the corporate world.

  4. On average, women earn $0.80 for every $1.00 that men earn. ...