The Gainsborough Bath Spa hotel are currently running a great series of talks throughout 2018. The ‘Phenomenal Women’ series invites guests to a week-night/ after work talk which includes a fizz and canapé reception, followed by guest speakers – phenomenal women from a whole variety of industries who share their leadership journey to success, with hints and tips and advice to those who are developing themselves as leaders and mentors. After these inspirational keynotes, and in partnership with us at Bristol Business School, UWE, one of our leading academics presents a ‘thought piece’ based on leading-edge research and facilitates a short discussion and reflection session on a topic of interest to women in the workplace.
The first of these sessions included Liv Garfield, CEO of Severn Trent, as keynote. Liv gave a great talk on her leadership journey to date – she’s only 42 and is probably one of the youngest FTSE female leaders. Liv talked refreshingly about leading teams, motherhood and guilt, being nice to people you work with and above all honesty, integrity, and making sure you actually get to know the people in your organisation. I found the whole thing candid and it didn’t have any of the business jargon you might expect from a world leading CEO – it was from the heart, she meant what she said, and she was full of authenticity. An inspiring start to the Gainsborough series.
The second of these talks was held last week. Professor Carole Mundell was keynote. Carole is Head of Physics at the University of Bath and Professor of Extragalactic Astronomy – I know, what a job title! In 2016, she was named FDM Everywoman in Technology Woman of the Year and during her talk at the Gainsborough she explained how she navigates her way in a fiercely competitive environment and spends time supporting those who want to get on. For all women (and men) wanting to develop their career in science and academia, Carole offers an honest, straight talking voice that would undoubtedly encourage those starting out to embrace every opportunity.
I was honoured and fortunate enough to be invited to speak at this event, representing Bristol Business School. I was asked to speak about dress at work and how we use this material part of the workplace to help us navigate different identities and the roles we play. I talked about how dress can be used to control us at work; from a top-down perspective organisations can promote dress codes (like UBS and their 43 page document encouraging employees to wear certain shirts, scarves, heel heights and to put perfume on ONLY after a hot shower…!?), and how they encourage us to conform to the ‘norms’ of what a teacher, a hairdresser, a manager or a banker ‘should’ look like.
I also talked about how dress could be used to exploit us; organisations use dress and appearance as a resource to sell and promote the ‘right’ image and brand of the organisation. Some researchers talk about this as ‘aesthetic labour’ – just think about the cultivation of a sexualised feminine appearance that is prevalent amongst the retail and service sectors.
And I talked about the bottom-up perspective too; how individuals might ‘resist’ these uniforms and material forms of control – see Fleming and Spicer’s book on resistance in the workplace that presents the McDonald’s worker controlled by so many aspects of her work …‘But a smile comes to her face when she thinks about the ‘McShit’ T-shirt that she is secretly wearing underneath her uniform.’
Dress is also used as a resource to help us perform our roles at work and I talked briefly about impression management, Goffman’s’ work on the presentation of self in everyday life, and Rafaeli’s (and others) research on how we use dress to define our professional identities and how women use dress to navigate different roles in the workplace – dress for creating rapport, other clothes for asserting status ….and yet further dress choices for self-confidence. This interestingly tips into some fascinating research by Tsaousi and Brewis on women’s choices of underwear and their experiences of self-confidence.
What’s really great about these events is that they celebrate women and their achievements, and address the challenges we might face without being ‘exclusive’ to women or indeed drawing attention to women needing ‘special treatment’. These are events for women that welcome all others. The events are opportunities that allow women a free and comfortable space to network and talk about the stuff that matters to them. They are a place for everyone to think differently and reflect on the topics that we sometimes just don’t get time to do in our otherwise busy lives.
The next event is on Thursday 14th June at 6pm where Dr Jacqueline Cornish (OBE), National Clinical Director of Children, Young People and Transition to Adulthood at the NHS England, will be talking. Follow this link and book your tickets: