Meghan Markle had barely stepped off Elton’s John’s private jet when she shared behind-the-scenes pictures of herself working on her latest charity clothing range. The luxury family plane ride sparked significant controversy with detractors hitting out at the royal family for their carbon-emitting holiday.
Ms Markle’s new venture with the Smart Works charity, which provides clothing and support to women hoping to get into the workplace, received less attention but also needs to be looked at with a critical eye.
Supporting women to enter, or even re-enter the workforce after breaks to care for children or elderly relatives, must be welcomed — but why the focus on their attire?
Is providing women with a snazzy outfit really the right thing? Does it not just feed into stereotypes and a bias where women are judged on their looks and appearance rather than abilities? By dolling women up to go into an interview are we simply not just reinforcing outdated notions?
Ms Markle has managed to get a number of retail giants including Marks & Spencer and John Lewis on board for her initiative that will operate on a one-for-one model — for each item purchased by a customer, one is donated to the charity.
The collection promises to feature “classic options” for women entering the workforce, including a black dress and a crisp white shirt. In 2019 should there even be a “classic” dress-code for women who simply want to earn a living?
Applying for a job is stressful enough without having a toxic pressure to be pedicured, manicured, pinned in and dressed up. And if the outfit you wear is such an important aspect of the interview process, why are men also not assisted with this?
If we really want to support people who have been out of employment for a protracted period or wish to help those struggling to pay for expensive work attire should such schemes not be also extended to men?
If feminism is about equality should we not be striving to introduce equality for all, why are we blocking an entire cohort — men who feel blocked out of employment opportunities because of their economic standing or background?
Earlier this year a list of female politicians backed a similar campaign as part of a week-long clothing and fundraising drive for the Dress for Success organisation. Dress for Success — even the name is slightly problematic.
Founded by broadcaster and fashion designer Sonya Lennon, the charity promotes the economic independence of women by providing career development tools, a support network and of course a wardrobe of donated clothes.
Their achievements are considerable. Since 2011, Dress For Success has supported more than 2,000 women with the professional clothing, skills and development opportunities they needed to secure employment and achieve success. They state on their website that 57% of the women who come through their doors go on to secure employment, and 75% are where they want to be, whether that’s working or in further training and education.
The organisation offers “suiting sessions” which give women one-to-one styling consultations to help them learn how to dress for confidence and professionalism. For the interview suiting sessions, women receive an outfit which makes them “feel and look great and prepared to meet potential employers”.
The organisation also extends this service for those who have been offered a job and require a number of outfits suitable for the workplace until they receive their first pay cheque. Men, it seems, have no problem in knowing how to “feel and look great” for interviews, nor are they stuck for a few bob before their first payday and don’t need help with stocking up on suits.
The organisation does, however, also provide coaching on interview skills, mock interviews, and assistance with putting together a CV and learning about being strategic in the job-searching process. Arguably all of these are far more important, or should be for those conducting interviews, than a designer handbag and expensive frock.
Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee, a supporter of the Dress for Success campaign, said the clothes are only a “tiny aspect” of what the organisation does, but argues that this element is needed.
“It’s primarily women who take time out of the workforce to mind children or care for older members of the family. If somebody is off work for 10 or 15 years all they might have in their wardrobe is jeans and leggings and they might not have €200 or €300 to go out and buy a new suit.”
She said mothers are often cautious of spending any money on themselves and instead prioritise their children, which poses problems when they want to return to work and have no appropriate office clothing.
The gender pay gap is real and needs to be tackled. Research carried out by recruitment company CPL showed that Ireland saw its gender pay gap widen from 12% in 2014 to 14% in late 2017.
Labour senator Ivana Bacik has pointed out that the pay gap means that Irish women work for free for around one month of every year. In April, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan published the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill, however, this has yet to pass all stages of the Oireachtas to allow the President sign it into law.
The new laws will initially require firms of 250 or more employees to publish information on the differences in pay between female and male employees. This threshold will reduce to 50 when the legislation is fully operational.
The regulations may also require the publication of information on employees on temporary contracts, the percentage of employees in each of the four pay quartiles who are men and who are women, and the publication of information by reference to job classifications.
However, Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin and others have said the legislation alone will not be enough: “Measures to increase the number of women in senior and better-paid roles, improved childcare provision and
dealing with gender stereotypes all need to be undertaken in tandem with the legislation.”
Other efforts have also been made. Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the minister of state for higher education, last year created 45 female-only professorial posts within universities and institutes of technology, to address gender inequality in senior appointments.
“I have made the issue of gender equality an essential part of my duty as the minister for higher education,” said Mitchell O’Connor.
“There is no reason why a woman doing the same job as a man should be rendered a lesser person in the eyes of the employer and thus paid less. This is essentially what the gender pay gap is doing, undermining women, their importance and value in the workplace.”
Women need support, encouragement and training when it comes to both entering the labour market and rising through the ranks of the workforce.
But focusing on getting women dressed up for a job, turns it into some sort of “lovely girl’’ competition where ladies in sponsored gúnas are simply are judged on their looks.