Image: Inez Sainz
Bill Kostroun  /  AP
Mexican sports reporter Ines Sainz on the sideline during the second quarter of an NFL football game. Sainz recently got raked over the coals for wearing form-fitting outfits on the job, prompting players to make rude comments.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/21/2010 6:30:43 PM ET 2010-09-21T22:30:43

Too sexy. Too frumpy. Too conservative. Women can’t get a break when it comes to what they choose to wear to work.

A female sports reporter covering the NFL, Ines Sainz, was recently raked over the coals for wearing form-fitting outfits on the job, prompting players to make rude comments. Hillary Clinton and her colorful pantsuits became the butt of late night talk show jokes for months. And did you see what the Wall Street Journal offered up during Fashion Week as “wearable” for the average women?

It’s enough to make any hard-working gal a little gaga, but please, not Lady Gaga. People are still tweeting about the meat dress she wore to the Video Music Awards.

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So what the heck is appropriate female work attire? The answer is more than just a matter of fashion faux pas. What you wear to work can impact your career and whether or not you get a job.

The boss is watching what you wear. Turns out, 93 percent of managers said how you dress at work influences an employee’s chances of a promotion, according to OfficeTeam, a staffing agency that polled senior executives at large corporations. And one third said work attire “significantly” impacts your chances for advancement.

While men also face this issue, fashion and workplace experts said, it can be harder on women.

“Professional women are expected to find a subtle and elusive balance between many different elements of their look,” said Christina Logothetis, an image consultant and blogger at The Style of Politics. “They face criticism if they are too frumpy — Janet Reno or Hillary Clinton — or too sexy — Maria Bartiromo. Their clothes can’t be too expensive — Sarah Palin — and they can’t be so attractive that they are accused of making their appearance their most salient characteristic — Kirsten Gillibrand.”

Women also have too many fashion choices, while men typically have their man-uniforms including a dark suit for those days the boss is in the office, or for job interviews; khakis and a polo shirt for casual Fridays, said Nancy Keene, executive recruiter who writes the blog “The Perfect Fit.”

And women are often scrutinized differently when it comes to what they choose to wear. If an outfit is too revealing, suddenly they’re the office slut; but too buttoned up and conservative can mean she’s not hip, or worse, a bitch.

“Women send messages through clothing.” Valarie Birk, a Ball State professor who specializes in fashion and advertising. “It's referred to as ‘the silent language’ and there are feelings that are often attached to what they wear.”

Unfortunately, many women are constantly trying to figure out what that silent language is actually conveying at work and it can be a big expense, both in time and money. According to a 2008 consumer spending survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women over 16 spent $597 a year on apparel, compared to $344 for their male counterparts.

Megan Masoner, CEO of reFINEstyle.com, an online fashion consignment shop, knows her company benefits from the fashion treadmill working women are on these days, especially in a recession when people are often changing jobs.

“When you invest money in a work wardrobe it’s costly,” she said. “And then if you have to change careers, maybe you’re going from a very casual environment to a Fortune 100 company. Women are trading up and trading down.”

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And women are often pressured to take their cues from the trend of the moment. Take the popular series “Mad Men,” which is bringing back retro and vintage, she pointed out.

Victoria Tillotson, a New York jewelry designer, a professor of entrepreneurship and consultant for a fine arts auction house, loves fashions but she’s sick of having to figure out what to wear for her many professional roles.

At the auction house she tries to be more “conservative-profession.” But, she said, with jewelry design “you want to look young. I’m 42 and I need to look fashionable and keep up with the 25 year olds.”

Sometimes that means showing a lot of skin, something Tillotson admitted she’s not totally comfortable with.

Indeed, one of the biggest issues for women in the workplace is coming off as too sexy.

There are even products out there geared toward trying to help you figure out your sexy clothing conundrums. An infomercial about the “Cami Secret” offers women a way to cover up their cleavage at work with a little piece of fabric that attaches to your bra.

“You love that low cut top for going out at night, but in the office it’s just not right,” the announcer says.

While the ad is sort of amusing, the problem of figuring out what’s too provocative for work (and what’s just flattering) is anything but funny.

Some research shows too much sex appeal undermines a women’s authority.

“The male brain and female brain are wired differently,” said Shaunti Feldhahn, author of “The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace.”

“When a man looks at a women who is dressing in a way that is emphasizing a good figure — low cut top, fitted skirt — he automatically thinks she’s saying ‘come get it,’” she explained.

Most reasonable men, she said, try to suppress those thoughts and focus on what a woman is saying instead of what she’s wearing. But during that battle in a guy’s brain, the men end up missing about 25 percent of what the women says, according to research Feldhahn conducted.

This fact is partly why Lizandra Vega, author of “The Image of Success: Make a Great Impression and Land the Job You Want,” tells women they can never be too conservative.

“You’re trying to sell your intelligence, your capability, your education,” she explained.

You can be artsy and trendy, she said, but err on the side of caution during an interview by wearing a traditional suit. Once you get the job you can be a bit more creative, she added.

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It’s incredibly important for women to “manage how they are perceived,” said Feldhahn, or they risk being disregarded by men, who still make up the bulk of the top leadership positions in the workplace.

“Yes, it’s easier for men than it is for women,” she said, “and that’s unfair.”

It’s yet another reason to get more women into those corner offices. Then we can wear whatever we want.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

Vote: Vote: Do you deliberately dress more conservatively at work?

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