Clothes make the woman (stand up and change the world)

The author, left, with Dress For Success Worldwide CEO Joi Gordon, following her Regents Award at the University of Oklahoma.

Women who need a hand up (not handout) getting back in the workforce get help with Dress for Success Worldwide.

I met its CEO, Joi Gordon, a brilliant, gorgeous, statuesque Amazonian (ala Wonder Woman), at the convocation of Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She spoke to the students about having confidence and making a difference in the world.

Now why did I describe her focusing on her amazing physical traits? Isn’t that what writers always do when talking about women? Yes, and that isn’t lost on me. I did so because her organization, Dress for Success Worldwide, has a unique mission. From its website: “Dress for Success is an international not-for-profit organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.”

And it all started making women look good enough to get a job. That’s not all they do, surely, but it’s where the organization began — taking donated suits and helping one woman at a time.

Why focus on career clothing to get a job? Let’s be honest. If a woman (or a man) doesn’t look good — or look the part — most companies won’t hire her. It has been cited in research, such as physical attractiveness theory.

The Penn State PSYCH 424 blog provides some insight for this social judging, referencing Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems.

“The biggest issue regarding the effects of physical attractiveness theory is the inaccuracy of judgement towards people. There is no evidence which suggests more attractive people are “better,” but that does not stop employers, and other individuals from perceiving that they are. This cognitive error likely has evolutionary roots, because generally there is a preference for attractive qualities when choosing a mate, reasons of fertility, etc.”

Different but related research from Rice University discovered that interviewers recalled “less information about job candidates with facial blemishes or disfigurements in job interviews. This consequently negatively affected the way these candidates were seen in the evaluations of interviewers.” In an interview with Business News Daily, Mikki Hebl, professor of psychology at Rice University and co-author of the study described why this can be damaging.

“When evaluating applicants in an interview setting, it’s important to remember what they are saying. Our research shows if you recall less information about competent candidates because you are distracted by characteristics on their face, it decreases your overall evaluations of them.”

The work of Dress for Success counters this very human predisposition to judge. The global organization, 21 years old this year, is in 160 cities (including Oklahoma City) in 30 countries around the world. Said Gordon at the convocation, “We have helped more than 1 million women get back to work.”

A graduate of Journalism and Law from the University of Oklahoma, it took a little while to figure out what she was meant to do.

She told her story to the roughly 200 Gaylord graduates: a naive young woman who went into law so she could become a “nicer, sweeter Nancy Grace,” soon found that she was not suited to practicing law in her entry-level job as an assistant district attorney in New York City. She was one of 450, and managed 90 cases a month, many drug-related cases.

She joked that she became known as probably the worst assistant DA in the Bronx criminal court system. But it was because that was not what she was meant to do, she said.

“I had this gut-wrenching fear that in some horrible way, I was either gonna let a bad guy out of jail or I was gonna put a good person in jail.”

Her life changed when she watched a news report on a new organization created to help women find jobs. She planned to donate one suit, but found herself on the board of directors, and later, leading the home office.

She told the students not to be discouraged when plans don’t work out.

“Your life may not necessarily be a straight line, it may be a dotted line … The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”

Her why wasn’t to practice law, she said. And more than 1 million women can be thankful that Gordon was a bad lawyer. Her heart wasn’t in it.

It’s in doing good. That was her message to the students.

“I needed out. I needed to find a way to do what I went to school for, which was to make a difference in the world.”

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Walker is the host of Positively Joy, a multicultural podcast that takes a mostly Christian look at the search for light in all seasons. www.positivelyjoy.com

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Yvette Walker of the Positively Joy podcast

Yvette Walker of the Positively Joy podcast

Walker is the host of Positively Joy, a multicultural podcast that takes a mostly Christian look at the search for light in all seasons. www.positivelyjoy.com

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