One of my clients (named after a certain Brat Pack movie about a princess, an athlete, a brain, a criminal, and a basketcase in detention) retained us a few months ago to find someone to launch their operation in Baltimore. This organization is essentially "a live version of LinkedIn." An "exclusive chamber of commerce" would be another way to describe it. At least, those are the weak-ass catch phrases we have used to convey the concept to candidates for the job. Basically, this job will build the membership base or network in Baltimore and manage monthly networking events. It's sort of interesting but nothing I would ever want to do. For one, I hate sales, and I think I have documented how much I loathe networking events. Ick!
In any case, they recently decided that they only want to interview male candidates. This is not the first time a client has used us as a vehicle for thinly-veiled discrimination. It happens all the time when companies use recruiting firms to do their dirty work. I should point out that I've also had a number of clients specify, not in writing, that they want to hire a woman. For that matter, our diversity practice specializes in hiring, well, diverse candidates. All by way of saying, this shift in scope did not come as a shock, but it did irritate me because it means we have wasted time (which equals money) interviewing and processing female candidates.
In terms of principal, I completely disagree with them on this matter because I know many executive women, my wife included, who can walk into a room and command respect, attention, and power, regardless of the old school, conservative proclivities of the men with whom they will interface. I am unfortunately bound by the "client is always right" rule, so I have to roll with this change in direction.
Interestingly, there is a woman from the last block of interviews, prior to this shift, who somehow made it to the final round. She will be meeting the client tomorrow and, perhaps due woman's intuition, senses that they might prefer a "tall and athletic man" for this job. On a call during which I prepared her for this interview, she posed a wardrobe question to me. (How could she possibly sense that I am an man of style with a specific interest in business suits on women?) Basically she wanted my opinion on whether she should rock a pants suit or traditional skirt suit. As a rubber-necking guy, I always dig the skirt suits, but her question pertained to the message either might send. In other words, she wanted to know how the president might perceive a pants suit (too modern?) versus a skirt suit (too traditional?).
Immediately I thought of my friend and emailed her for her style advice. She is a high powered attorney at a top firm here in DC -- one of the top 50 female partners in the country in her specialty -- who interfaces regularly with conservative, old boy network types. Here's her reply:
yikes that is a toughie. I think most people, particularly in the South, consider the skirt suit to be the most formal (with pantyhose though - I think the skirt suit with bare legs is considered less formal although I never wear pantyhose b/c I think they're ridiculous). but - it's sort of tricky b/c the skirt suit can also be more sexy. this is a dinner meeting, so there is already going to be a looser atmosphere (probably will have wine, chat about life, etc.). if it were me, I would choose the one I felt most comfortable in and the one that made me look best so I felt confident and not worry too much about the formality of skirt versus pants. If I had two that were equal and both nice, both looked good, etc. I would probably go skirt. but not because it's more traditional, because I think they look most put together and the most 'powerful' if that makes sense. I hope she gets it!
I relayed this to the candidate and added a new bullet to my resume: fashion consultant. I really hope she gets the job too. When it all boils down, it will have little to do with her suit, but it provided a good splash of color on an otherwise bland day in the salt mines.