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Hanger management: Women leaders judged by wardrobe choices

The wardrobe choices of women leaders are being judged more than ever before, a new study by Monash University and The University of Nottingham shows.

⦁ Women regard the blazer as a “suit of armour”, but express frustration at the cost to “look the part”.

⦁ Survey participants say they’re conflicted between trying to look good and being respected.
We have all heard the proverb ‘clothes maketh the man’. However, women feel their wardrobe choices are being policed more than ever, with the humble blazer seen as a “suit of armour”, a new study by Monash University and The University of Nottingham shows. 

Continuing research by Dr Amanda Heffernan from Monash University’s Faculty of Education and Professor Pat Thomson from The University of Nottingham’s School of Education highlights the ongoing judgment women educational leaders experience with their clothing, makeup, hair, accessories, perfume, tattoos and piercings.

While the mental health and psychosocial impacts of gender discrimination are well documented, researchers wanted to explore how the selection of garments and accessories continues to disenfranchise women educational leaders compared to their male counterparts.  

They found the blazer appeared to be a marker of identity for women leaders, such as a school principal, and a mainstay for women as part of their wardrobe identity. Women surveyed regarded the blazer as a “suit of armour” – a power-dressing move that instilled confidence in those leadership roles. 

Nevertheless, women also described the financial investment required to “look the part” was exorbitant, especially for those in new leadership roles. Women also expressed feeling a sense of injustice at the energy and effort required to “meet expectations of appearance” in their jobs, compared to their male equivalents.

More than 400 women leaders from Australia and across the world have so far shared their insights and experiences about their wardrobe identities.

Taylor & Francis Group published preliminary findings in the book Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research.
“While women are disciplined to focus on their appearances, their energy and effort are being funnelled into directions that distract and deplete them, rather than help them advance their work and careers. We can see these frustrations reflected in our research,” Dr Heffernan said.

“In the time that it takes to find the right items of clothing: the significant investment into ‘smart’ and ‘professional’ jackets; the time that it takes to achieve and maintain the ‘right’ hairstyle; and the choice one participant made in the mornings between a long relaxing breakfast or spending more time applying makeup.

“We also see it in the pain, discomfort, and restriction of movement described by participants when referring to their wardrobes. As one participant commented: ‘I am torn between wanting to look good and be respected, but also angry that I have to do this a certain way’.”

Researchers found women in academia reported a need to replace or update their wardrobes when moving into leadership positions, to assist in creating an image and identity to reflect their authority and professionalism.

Others found their body shapes and personal appearance didn’t suit corporate wear, and felt physically restricted by tightly-fitted clothing, compared to men’s clothing which rarely causes pain or mobility constraints. 

When asked whom they considered when making wardrobe choices, women said parents, staff and students in that order.

Professor Thomson said the concept of corporate attire for women, as well as entrenched characterisations and perceptions of women leaders, needed to be revisited if women were going to seek and achieve full potential in their careers.

“Bodies are most often seen as sites of struggle and illness. We learn about leaders who are stressed, not sleeping, anxious and overworked,” Professor Thomson said.

“More attention needs to be paid to the physical toll that leadership of today’s schools takes on head teachers and principals, which is significant and it impacts on their longevity in the job.

“While wardrobe isn’t the sole determining factor of being a successful school leader, this research offers new insights about the experiences of leadership, life trajectories and the ongoing objective discrimination women face going for and within those high-level roles.”

To download a copy of the report, please visit:

For more information about the project, and to contribute to the global dialogue on ‘women, wardrobes and leadership’, please visit: