How Does Wearing Yoga Pants Affect Women's Success at Work?

A new study weighs in on the debate about women wearing yoga pants at work.

Posted Dec 17, 2019

In a December 2019 Atlantic Monthly article, author Olga Khazan raises the question of whether it’s “weird” to wear yoga leggings to work. Khazan points to the many virtues of leggings versus regular trousers and describes her first day of wearing them to work as “magical.” She “felt freer, like I was dancing through my duties, rather than trudging through them encased in polyester and wool.” Yet, in her workplace, “leggings are not part of this world.” Noting the unfairness of this all, she goes on to comment that “Women already have to deal with a persistent pay gap, gendered stereotypes about our personalities, and expectations to apply an assortment of powders to our faces every morning. At least give us stretchy pants to endure it all in.”

Khazan’s articulate summary of the vices and virtues of leggings in the world of work may touch a resonant chord in you if you’re one of the many women who has struggled with this question. You may have decided to take the risk when hurriedly putting your outfit of leggings and a top together one morning, only to spend the rest of the day full of regret and embarrassment. As in Khazan’s experience, perhaps you made this choice on the very day that important people decided to drop in for a surprise visit to your unit. Have you put your professional image in jeopardy forever all for the sake of comfort?

To help guide you in such clothing crises in the future, consider the findings of a new study by George Mason University’s Veronica Gilrane and colleagues investigating what happens to women in the male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as they attempt to manage the impressions they make on their colleagues. Gilrane et al. point out that people hold “metastereotypes” about women, or “beliefs regarding the stereotype that outgroup members hold about his or her own group." Theoretically, leggings as part of such metastereotypes have the potential to create doubts within a women’s mind about whether she is looking too feminine by accentuating the lower portion of her body. What is particularly fascinating about the clothing choices a woman in STEM might adopt is that, at least in academia, there are very few prohibitions on the apparel their male colleagues might don. The guys might show up to work in “business casual,” but they are just as likely to either teach their courses or work in their labs in “weekend casual” without being viewed as less competent or unprofessional.

Female STEM faculty members, as Gilrane and her colleagues point out, have long been the target of gender stereotypes, affecting their earning potential, career advancement, and even ability to secure outside funding to support their research. Female STEM academics face struggles within their own minds as well between fulfilling the expectations by others that they be “feminine and warm,” but also to be “masculine and objective." Women who somehow manage to avoid being held back by gender stereotypes may be seen, the authors go on to note, as “highly competent, yet cold." One way that women can finesse this dilemma is to use impression management tactics in which they ingratiate themselves to others by being particularly nice,  a likely strategy if they hold the metastereotype that views women in STEM as being too “masculine.” If, conversely, their metastereotype is that they believe women in STEM are regarded by others too “feminine,” they will use the more masculine strategy of self-promotion to downplay the warmth and try to project an outward identity that emphasizes their competence.

Supervisors, according to the George Mason University team, also play a role in determining how strongly STEM women try to project images of themselves as competent vs. warm. As the authors note, women who take on stereotypically masculine tendencies in order to get ahead may “face repercussions for violating prescriptive gender norms." In a kind of no-win scenario, supervisor backlash can further complicate a woman’s career path unless she finds a way to thread the needle by attempting to appear both competent and warm.

Gilrane and her coauthors investigated the relationship between metastereotypical beliefs and impression management strategies in a sample of 174 women who enrolled in conferences for junior faculty in STEM fields. Participants, most of whom were junior tenure-track faculty, rated their beliefs about how women in STEM are perceived by men in differing levels of power (peer, supervisor, and supervisee). The research teams tapped types of impression management strategies participants used with scale items asking whether they used ingratiation (being nice to someone by seeming likable) and self-promotion (making people aware of one’s talents and qualifications). A subgroup of supervisors of the participants also provided ratings of the junior faculty member’s impression management strategies, along with how likable and competent the women seemed to be in the workplace.

The findings showed that, counter to expectation, women’s beliefs in the existence of stereotypes among their male counterparts had no effect on their impression management strategies. However, if they believed that their male supervisees (not supervisors) regarded women as less competent, they were more likely to engage in the competence-enhancing strategy of self-promotion. In other words, if they wanted the men who worked for them (i.e. their research assistants) to respect their competence, they made sure to draw attention to their knowledge and skills. The situation was different with respect to their own supervisors, who regarded the junior academics in their department as more likable if the women used ingratiation strategies that reinforced the traditional feminine stereotype. Conforming to “backlash theory,” women who used self-promotion had the opposite effect on their supervisors. As the authors note, it would seem that “certain types of self-promotion can annoy others and be seen as bragging,” leading women who use this impression management strategy to lose the ability to progress up the academic career ladder.

What, then, does this mean for the clothes that women wear to work, particularly those in male-dominated environments? Should women give in to the pressure to conform to these stereotypes in order to be liked and, more importantly, perceived as competent by their supervisors (and supervisees)? It appears that there’s no easy answer to the paradox that Khazan raised about yoga pants. However, being aware of the research on gender stereotypes in the workplace can at least make it clearer for women as they address the pros and cons of their sartorial decisions. Of course, as Khazan notes, if the past is any indication, it’s likely that the yoga pant pendulum will swing the other way toward some other fashion trend, though there’s no telling what might follow in its place.

To sum up, there’s no one simple answer to the question of what is and what is not acceptable workplace attire. Fulfillment in your job is a function of many factors, and deciding which strategy meshes with your own values and beliefs may be the best way to dress for your own success.

References

Gilrane, V. L., Wessel, J. L., Cheung, H. K., & King, E. B. (2019). The consequences of making the right impressions for STEM women: Metastereotypes, impression management, and supervisor ratings. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 7(1), 22–31. doi: 10.3886/ICPSR37314.v1 (Supplemental)