Carrying a Purse to the Interview: Defining Professional Businesswomen

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young woman with bun and handbagMy younger cousin is preparing to enter her junior year of college this fall. And, recently, she called me frantically to ask a question about an upcoming internship interview.

“Should I bring my purse with me to the interview?” she asked.

Such a simple question, yet it left me completely stumped.

At first thought, this seems like a no brainer. Women typically take their purses with them wherever they go (often because they hold our “life’s necessities”) so why would an interview be any different?

But, when you keep thinking about it, a purse could become a distraction during the interview—for both you and the employer.

What if you set down your purse and the contents spill out of the bag? Nice first impression.

Or what if your phone vibrates? (An honest mistake because you were sure you’d turned it off.)

Or what if the interview space is nothing but a small room with you and the interviewer sitting at a small table? Surely, you don’t want to put your purse on the table distracting the both of you, especially a brightly colored or eccentric bag.

These scenarios may sound silly, but oftentimes women have to contemplate things like this when preparing for an interview. Do sleeveless blouses send the wrong message, i.e. too much skin? Will my skirt be considered too short or unprofessional if it has color versus the traditional black, navy blue and gray schemes? Are my heels too high? Does a bang take away from my face? And will a purse look tacky and/or unprofessional if it’s thrown over my shoulder as I shake hands with a hiring manager?

Cosmopolitan recently published a story, “10 Interview Mistakes Even Smart Women Make,” where it says 95 percent of recruiters say that dressing too sexy is a major turnoff.

And although written years ago, this article about mistakes women make during the interview process pretty much says the same thing, i.e. cautioning women to “tone it down.” Writer Jenna Goudreau pens:

With such a wide array of clothing to choose from, it’s easier for women to make a fashion faux pas when it comes to dressing for an interview. Appearance sends a message about your professionalism and personality, so dress appropriately. Keep colors muted, opting for navy blue, dark gray and black, and tone down jewelry and makeup. *bolded emphasis added*

There’s so much “advice” and “caution” thrown at women when it comes to interview preparation. I Googled, “interview mistakes women make” and the first page of search results listed 10 articles all geared specifically toward women’s interview mistakes—and many of them noted inappropriate dress.

Yet, I ran the same Google search for men—“interview mistakes men make”—and guess what I found? The first article was from talking about interview mistakes guys make, and point #10 dealt with “dressing down.” The remainder of the articles that appeared in my search results was about men AND women’s worst fashion mistakes in general and men’s mistakes in online dating/relationships.

What the…?

Women have pages and pages of information and advice on how they need to do this and that as women to be successful during an interview and all the facts about what they’re doing wrong and how to fix it, but men don’t?

And so, as women follow these societal standards (most often set up by men) of what is and is not a “professional woman,” do they then receive equal treatment in the interview process?

Check out this ABC story, “Women Endure Surprising Bias in the Workplace,” covering Yale University’s hiring experiment. Two candidates with the exact same resumes interviewed for the exact same positions. One was male and one was female.

In the video, the candidates (truly actors) read the same scripts, i.e. both said the exact same words and phrases describing their skills and talents. In the video, you could only see a head shot of both applicants, but it was obvious both the male and female had on black button up shirts. The female was dressed “appropriately” with no makeup, no jewelry and hair pulled back away from her face.

The results?

Sadly, both men and women viewed the female candidate as more aggressive, less likeable and less likely to be hired. Two men in the video even said that they found the male applicant to have better soft skills while the female applicant was arrogant and overselling.

ABC even noted a PEW Research Center study where almost twice as many women as men say they’ve been turned down for a job because of their sex.

The gender bias continues to permeate so many different areas of business; I think women must continue to stand up for their right to define what is and is not a professional business woman.

When I go on interviews, I dress how I want to dress. I reflect my personality, taste and what professional looks like to me—and believe me, that’s hardly ever black, navy blue and gray.

As a woman, I like earrings so I wear them. Necklaces too.

My skirts are brightly colored, my hair is big and curly and if I don’t need a portfolio, a clutch is underneath my arm.

Who says professional cannot be stylish? Or colorful? Or chic?

I define what professionalism looks like for me. I have yet to be unemployed, but even if I did come across an employer who refused to hire me because my suit wasn’t black and my hair wasn’t straight, I’d count it a blessing because I have no desire to work for an organization that follows the old, outdated norms of what is and is not professional instead of defining dress codes for itself (and adjusting to the changing times).

A woman’s level of professionalism (and worthiness of a role) is not dependent upon whether or not she has a purse over her shoulder or color and designs in her attire. Her skills and talents will speak for themselves and her interactions with people and the lasting impressions she makes will reflect her true character, all of which can help shape what a professional business woman embodies to her.

Because my cousin is interviewing for an internship, I advised her to bring along a portfolio of her work. But if she wants to carry along a purse or briefcase, that’s okay too. Despite what the masses say, it’s truly her prerogative.

Read more in Best Careers for Women

Marks’ stories have also been published in a variety of newspaper, magazine and online formats including The Arizona Republic, The Daily Herald, Arizona Foothills Magazine and various classroom magazines of Scholastic Inc. Service is her passion, writing is her platform and uplifting and inspiring the community is her purpose. Marks received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University.
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