Advice from a D.C. Power Player: Could Rethinking Your Wardrobe Help You Get Ahead at Work?

Being a small-statured Asian woman in the workplace, I face what I call the “triple bias problem”: As a woman, I’m challenged with maintaining a professional image in the workplace, particularly in leadership positions; we’ve all heard enough of women being labeled as “too emotional” or “too cold and bitchy.” Height-challenged women, in particular, struggle to project competence when their heads barely reach the chest of their male cohorts. Finally, professionals of color have to prove they are not the token minority and have the skills to do their job well.

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This means that I, and many others, have to work extra hard in order for coworkers to cast aside biases, and to be seen as a dynamic contributor and leader in the workplace on par with Caucasian colleagues. One way to do that, as superficial as it may sound, is to think very carefully about that work outfit.

If attire can help us get an edge in a critical negotiation, then why not include that in our career toolbox? I recently facilitated a meeting of community leaders about a very sensitive issue. One of the longtime executive directors was an older Asian female who has managed her nonprofit for more than 20 years. She has Asian features and is less than five feet tall with heels. On the day of the meeting, she arrived in a deconstructed kimono dress with majestic black sleeves and red brocade trimmings. Did she look comical or over-exoticized? No. She looked regal and masterful—and she facilitated a critical session in which she would convince every single partner in that room to work with her on a controversial initiative.

You could argue that her dress gave her extra stature and allowed her to more strongly project her wisdom and experience. Of course, clothing alone will not secure us a spot in the C-suite. And depending on your industry, not all Asian-inspired clothing will work. But done right, it’s another tool with which we can neutralize the triple bias, so that our talent shines through.

So how do you do just that? Be sure to keep company culture in mind. If it’s a company that has a strict dress code, figure out your most flattering cuts and colors while staying within code. If the environment is more casual, feel free to experiment with outfits, like the aforementioned executive director’s, that pack a stunning punch. Here are the three rules of thumb I follow:

  1. Put your money into investment pieces. A deconstructed kimono dressfrom Neiman Marcus will speak volumes. The high quality and cut of the fabric will immediately project class and taste. Work in a more conservative environment? It’s all about good tailoring that’s perfect for your body shape. Which brings us to…
  2. Invest into pieces that will mitigate your weakest points. Have short legs? Invest in high-waisted silk trousers that will lengthen your gams. Have a square figure and hoping to commandeer a team to do your bidding? Try an Asian-inspired jacket that cuts a svelte silhouette.
  3. Support your local Asian/Pacific Islander-owned small business.There are many small Asian designers who make gorgeous, customized API-inspired clothing. One we love is Anne Namba Designs. Kill two birds with one stone by supporting the community as you go about looking your best.

Tuyet Duong is a senior advisor for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.