The Pantyhose Standard, and Related Sunday Ranting

pantyhose junction logoI do think the What Should Candidates Wear survey is the silliest of the Hiring Librarian surveys. For one, the response choices are a bit flippant, “poor attempts at humor.” I am also not someone who thinks very much about clothing, and I don’t particularly notice what others wear unless it’s arty or shiny.

Nevertheless, I’ve been interested in the responses, and the responses to the responses.

People who take this survey invariably feel that candidates should dress “professionally.” But, and I say this knowing that my mother sometimes reads my blog and hates this kind of language, what the fuck does that even mean?

Is it ok for a professional librarian to wear a fedora, even if they are not a YA librarian? Will your choice to get full sleeve tattoos, or dye your hair blue, make you less professional? Can you be a professional librarian without dressing like a certain kind of white lady?

These are some of the less subtle questions, but there are many details to worry about, in deciding if your interview outfit is “professional.”

“Professional” is not a term with a standard definition. It’s more like pornography, in that the eye of the beholder and the “average person, applying contemporary community standards” are integral to defining it.

You get what I’m saying? It’s subjective. It’s not a good instruction to give someone who doesn’t know you very well.

When my mother was my age, a woman’s professional outfit always included pantyhose. Is this still true? That’s why we ask about pantyhose. Not because we’re trying to convince women to wear it, or that it matters to us personally, but because we want to know if it does still matter to other people. People who might have a say in whether or not someone gets a job.

In the survey I just posted, the respondent took issue with three questions. The first was the true/false:

Bare arms are inappropriate in an interview, even in the summer.

The respondent says,

I have always thought this was a very sexist question and wonder why you continue to include it

What does this have to do with sex? Both men and women wear short sleeve or sleeveless shirts sometimes, particularly in the summer.

The second is:

If a woman wears a skirt to an interview, should she also wear pantyhose?

The response is:

again, why do you ask this kind of question? do you care what kind of socks male candidates wear?

Personally, I don’t care about men’s socks, but neither do I care about pantyhose. I don’t wear skirts to interviews, so this isn’t even something I care about when dressing as a job hunter. But I don’t hire so my opinions don’t really matter in this context. I’m curious if others are still measuring “professional dress” by the same pantyhose standard of previous decades. And in fact, 34% of people who answered this didn’t consider pantyhose a dealbreaker. (We didn’t provide an “I don’t care” option for this one, unfortunately. Hindsight.) Isn’t it nice to know that’s it not particularly a requirement for a “professional” women’s outfit?

And the final question and issue is:

Women should wear make-up to an interview:

likewise on the sexist side

13 respondents (5%) think that women should “always” wear make-up to interviews, and I inevitably hear from disgusted job hunters when those surveys are posted (usually via Tumblr. There are a lot of gender activist types on Tumblr). Is it sexist to think women should always wear make-up? I don’t know. Is the question itself sexist? I don’t think so. Even if you think “women should always wear make-up to interviews” is a sexist statement, why would it be sexist to ask whether or not people think that?  Is it sexist to ask, “are you sexist?”

These last two questions, the pantyhose question and the make-up question, get the most flak.

Here are some thoughts. Many, perhaps even most, people would hold men and women to different standards when deciding if an outfit is professional. There are a lot of different kinds of women who are or want to be librarians, and some (many?) of them might be waffling about pantyhose, or makeup. That’s why we asked the question. Women who want to dress on the feminine side for an interview might be interested. In case that’s you, I hope this helps.

But women, and men, and people who don’t particularly identify as either, I hope you will feel free to ignore those answers and dress by your own standard of professional. Just as I hope you will feel free to ignore any answers you find on Hiring Librarians that won’t work for you. It might help to look through the Stats post here and look out for all the people that choose “I don’t care” as an answer. Getting hired isn’t about doing a majority rules thing. It’s about finding the people who run the kind of show you want to be a part of, and giving them your best.

Here is what I’m thinking about now. I run vanity searches for the term “hiring librarians” on Twitter, and I ran into the post “On Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Librarian Image” and some tweeting by Cecily Walker, the woman who wrote it. On Twitter, she talks about how some of the Hiring Librarians posts make her feel “squirrelly.”

Now, I’m a white lady librarian, and it’s only a matter of ticking minutes before I become a white lady librarian of a certain age. I’m pretty sure Jill, who co-wrote the survey, is also a white lady librarian (although I don’t know, as we’ve never talked about her race and never met in person – I’ve only ever seen a photo of her).

So while I say and mean very strongly “women, and men, and people who don’t particularly identify as either, I hope you will feel free to ignore those answers and dress by your own standard of professional,” I am who I am and I know that there’s at least a soupçon of white lady privilege inherent in my own perspective, and in this survey (white middle class lady, no less).

I would like very much if librarianship was less of a white lady profession and more of a all-kinds-of-people profession. I think the work we do is too important for homogeneity.

Here’s another point – I generally know very little about the identity of the respondents – nothing about biological sex parts, or gender-identification, or race, or class, etc. etc.

The most recent respondent said,

honestly I think you need to drop the questions about makeup and pantyhose.

So I’m considering – should things be rewritten? I have about 100 unpublished responses, should I still put those up? Are the responses harmful, or hurtful? Or merely occasionally annoying?

I’m interested in your thoughts.



Filed under Op Ed

14 responses to “The Pantyhose Standard, and Related Sunday Ranting

  1. I’ve been going off a mile a minute on Twitter, but instead I’ll point to this post as an example of why questions about appearance can be areas of tension/discomfort for some people:

    The money quote: “The message is: you need to be comfortable with who you are. If you’re butch, go butch. If you’re androgynous, go androgynous. If you’re femme, go femme.”

    Now that I am a hiring librarian, the only thing I’m interested in appearance wise is that the person is clean, comfortable, and confident.


  2. Jennica

    I personally really appreciate those questions… Like you said, some of the ANSWERS can be sexist, but during my job hunt it’s been incredibly useful to see that certain types of libraries (public or academic) in certain parts of the country do seem to prefer women with covered arms or pantyhose… Which means I probably wouldn’t apply somewhere that might fit that criteria because that’s not the sort of environment I want to work in. Another thing that I think is kind of a silly point is saying “would you ask men about their socks?” Well… if their socks showed, then I think that would be a useful question! Since they generally don’t, I don’t see why that would be relevant. I love your surveys and want as much detail as possible so I can make informed decisions about my apparel during the job hunting process!


  3. I don’t think those questions are sexist. I think it IS sexist for hiring managers to expect pantyhose or makeup, but asking about it is not sexist. Those expectations still exist, sexist or not. Remember the studies that came out just a couple years ago that showed that women wearing makeup were perceived as more competent than women without makeup? I’d be interested to see questions about male-specific topics, though. I’m not sure what those would be. Hair length on men, perhaps?


  4. Sara

    I find the makeup and pantyhose questions to be helpful. I personally do not wear makeup or pantyhose (despise them both) but am interested in the view of people who hire. I’ve been searching for a job for over 4 years after getting my MLS. I have experience in all public library depts and currently work full-time plus part-time gaining as much experience as possible in three libraries. I enjoy reading the posts and advice hiring librarians have to give!

    As far as eliminating the questions, maybe you can change the format for the future? Like an additional section with “check what you think is necessary/helpful” instead of a direct question? Honestly, most librarians I know are females so I don’t know why they would think this is sexist. I can see if your questions asked only about females — but they don’t. Personally I think guys do have it easier when dressing and am jealous that they don’t have stereotypes against them as far as makeup and pantyhose go.

    Good luck! And thanks for all that you do to share the information with us newbie librarians trying to find a job!


  5. Kristen

    I think the fact that it is such an outrageous idea makes it very helpful and relevant to include the question.

    You’re letting candidates know — especially those coming just out of college who don’t realize that the rest of the world is a little behind the times — that some employers do still have that attitude.


  6. I think it is very valuable to recognize that the stereotypes are still out there, sexist or not. Regardless of if we WANT to live in a society where women and men (and people of different races) have different standards for “professional dress,” we DO live in such a society, and questions about those standards are necessary for us to even recognize those double standards. If you hadn’t asked such a question, would people even recognize that there are double standards?


  7. Kacie

    I think these are still relevant, and people should be aware that they really are personal views of interviewers. You never know who you’re going to interview with, and if pantyhose, makeup, jewelry, etc. will be some sort of weird deal breaker for an interviewer. These are things that job seekers should hear, because there’s a real chance you could not get hired due to these little details. (Although I would argue you wouldn’t have wanted to work there if that’s the case.)

    These questions have hit the Ask A Manager blog over the years, and the answers are always contentious. Do a search there for “makeup” or “pantyhose” to read the comments.

    Personally, I wear a pantsuit to avoid the pantyhose issue. 😛


  8. Pingback: Counting Readers: Hiring Librarians 2013 Blog Stats | Hiring Librarians

  9. I realize my reply is a bit late to the party… but I wanted to let you know that while I was job searching over the past year (I was hired to a FT professional position in October), those questions were very helpful for me. I usually wear a little makeup, and I wear pants instead of skirts to the interview… but knowing what hiring managers are saying about this was helpful so I felt more comfortable about my choices. Thanks!


  10. Thanks, everyone, who replied! And Sarah – you’re not too late at all – comments are always welcome.
    I’m going to continue posting the responses I’ve received (I’ve got about 100 still to go up). I’ve closed the survey so that it can be re-written. I think that there will still be make-up and pantyhose questions, but hopefully in a way that more clearly indicates that this is just one expression of womanhood. All of the responses I’ve seen indicate that this information is helpful (with the exception of this, which indicates it’s boring), so I’d like to keep it in. However, I don’t want to cause harm with this survey. So, hopefully we can find a better way to ask these questions.
    This will also give us a chance to tidy up response language and add a few of the suggested questions. If you’ve got something you think should be added, let me know.
    (I also talk about this on the 2013 Blog stats post).


  11. Angelynn King

    For the record, I don’t think there’s anything sexist about the pantyhose or bare arms questions. My personal criteria are the same for all genders: if you wear a skirt, you should wear hose or tights. If you go sleeveless, you should shave under your arms. It’s not the beach.


  12. Pingback: As a female I wish I could wear Doc Martens to interviews | Hiring Librarians

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