Karl Stefanovic, an Australian morning show host, wore the exact same knock-off Burberry suit for an entire year and no one noticed. In the video showing his year in the suit, his Today Show cohost Lisa Wilkinson's wardrobe changes dramatically. She only repeats a couple of outfits over the 365 days, and her apparel choices range from bright reds to subtle black dresses.
Stefanovic told Fairfax Media that he did this experiment to call out the unfair emphasis placed on women's appearances. "No one has noticed; no one gives a shit," Stefanovic continued. "But women, they wear the wrong colour and they get pulled up. They say the wrong thing and there's thousands of tweets written about them."
While Stefanovic's prank is funny, it also shows the inequality women face in the workforce everyday. On television, as in every workplace, women are judged more harshly than men on their appearances and less on their actual work.
Men and women are both judged on their appearance
First impressions matter. Empirical evidence suggests that people who are more beautiful are more likely to be hired and more likely to be paid more, according to a study of 180 job applicants. This study found that how a person dressed for an interview had a consistent influence on interviewers' perceptions of employability." This wasn't solely based on natural beauty, though. Researchers have found that appropriate dress had a larger impact on interviewers than genetic advantages.
A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management displays some of the subtle ways that clothing impacts our perception of both men and women. For this study, 300 adults (both men and women) were shown images of a man and a woman for just three seconds before being asked to make snap judgements about them. In some of the photos, the man wore a tailored suit that fit him very well, and in others the man wore an off-the rack suit. The suits were controlled for color and fabric, and the faces of the models were pixellated so that genetic beauty had no impact on the viewers initial impact.
What the research revealed was that people viewed the man in the better suit more favorably as a person, not only for the clothing he wore. People perceived him as more confident, successful, flexible, and higher-earning in the tailored suit than in the other suit.
Women are judged more harshly than men
Stefanovic, then, might have been judged by viewers for the quality of his suit initially, but he was obviously not being held to the same level of criticism as his female host. Stevanovic's claim that women are judged more harshly than men for what they wear was probably based on anecdotal evidence; there are studies to back him up.
In the same study as the tailored-suit scenario, the researchers investigated how large of a role appearance played on how competently people viewed a woman. The researchers tested this with 129 female participants who rated images of faceless female models on six competence based dimensions: intelligence, confidence, trustworthiness, responsibility, authority, and organization. Consistently, participants rated the more conservatively dressed women higher on every dimension, particularly for women they were told held management roles.
What's particularly frustrating about this dichotomy is that how women look is often more important to society than how good they are at their jobs. Stefanovic noted this, too, when he told Fairfax Media, "I'm judged on my interviews, my appalling sense of humor — on how I do my job, basically — whereas women are quite often judged on what they're wearing or how their hair is. ... That's [what I wanted to test]."
In her article Work Culture and Discrimination, Seton Hall University Associate Professor of Law Tristin Green identifies work culture as a source of discrimination and suggests that many of the problems associated with appearance-based policies stem from cultural and structural dimensions of the workplace. Because the standards of the dominant group (white, heterosexual men) determine the standards of appearance, Green writes, appearance culture puts women and people of color at a disadvantage.
Ritu Mahajan wrote an article The Naked Truth: Appearance Discrimination,
Employment, and the Law for the Asian American Law Journal that dissects the effect these disproportionately high standards have on women in the workplace:
Appearance regulations maintain the sexual subordination of women by taking advantage of and repressing expressions of female sexuality; these regulations also punish deviance from male expectations regarding appropriate female behavior. Through such regulations, employers capitalize on women's sexuality in order to attract customers on the one hand, and restrict female dress choices on the other.
Not only do appearance standards restrict female dress choices; they also cause women to be more harshly criticized than men for how their hair looks instead of how good or bad they are at their jobs. Stefanovic's prank may be funny, but it also does a damn good job of showing just how heavily society criticizes women.