I remember vividly the first time I accompanied my boss some years ago now, a two-star flag officer, to his first official introduction office call with a three-star flag officer. I speak in terms of stars as not to confuse you with military titles and ranks.
I made a deliberate and intentional choice that day to wear my flower dress with lots of bright colors and heels, as God knows the defense and security sector can use some bright colors! I have been working with the military for more than seventeen years and my dress code has always been a struggle for others, not for me.
Btw, my heels never exceed 2 cm otherwise I will end up in the emergency room. Some women are catwalk certified, and I am not one of them!
My boss, the two stars, is a cool and easy going man and never had any issue with my external appearance nor did I ever feel uncomfortable. And trust me, as an emotional empath – we hear and feel the unspoken!
We entered the office after receiving the green light. There were four of us, the two flag officers, a military assistant and myself. I sat across my boss and the three-star. The three-star gave me one look and turned away immediately with his whole body posture pointing towards the two star, my boss.
Throughout the entire conversation, I felt like dust in the air. Now here it comes, the moment in which I became determined to never ever blend in because others are biased when it comes to their perception of the dress code.
The conversation went on, and the two star missed a piece of information at hand to answer the three star’s question. That’s where I come in you think! The atmosphere, however, was very hierarchical, and it felt uncomfortable opening my mouth and speak. The Dutch side prevailed as keeping quiet is and will continue to be a lifelong struggle! I would also never make my boss look stupid, that’s why he has me there in the first place!
So I spoke and provided the missing information both stars were looking for. The three stars turned his head in my direction for a brief moment and gave me a look in which I felt his unuttered words: Oh bless her…the flower girl can speak after all. .
And then he turned back towards the two stars and continued to ignore me.
Fortunately, I have always had plenty of military male advocates because I impress through actions and results, not words or clothes.
The two stars immediately included me in the conversation and thanked me.
I remember going back to the office and telling the story to my manager, who is a civilian with no stars but brilliant nonetheless.
Does he know you went to Cambridge? Does he realise the size of your brain? (Yes, he did say that!)
He was livid to my surprise as I have rarely seen him upset like this. I was flattered and touched of course. Although the whole ordeal did make me feel inferior for a brief moment, I reminded myself that people’s perception has no direct correlation to my self-worth. Unless they are God or my mother!
From that moment on, I made it my mission to embrace who I am when at work: a professional female in charge of all policy-military work strands on behalf of the organization I work for. My dress code does not diminish that in any way.
I went on and organized the visit of the entire military committee to our Agency and invited myself into the group picture in all my red glory. I am one of the few women in the room when all the stars gather to discuss strategic military matters, who stands out in style and flash. And I also became the “go-to” person of many stars in NATO when it comes to strategic engagement with my organization.
In the end, your appearance will always leave the first impression. What kind of impression you want to leave in line with your professional brand is ultimately up to you as common sense should always prevail.
Your actions and your work will eventually make up your professional brand in your line of work.
What I do feel strongly about is the freedom to choose how to express yourself through clothing instead of disguising in uniforms so you can blend in and conform with the male masses. When you are unable to express your authentic self, your work will suffer in the end as the negative energy flowing out of hiding will affect your performance and productivity.
A departing thought, inspired by General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s dress code of Dress appropriately; my slogan would dress your professional brand.