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The subtle sexism of hoodies: Women in Silicon Valley have no idea what to wear to work

AP/Jeff Chiu
Keeping it casual.
  • Aimee Groth
By Aimee Groth

Journalist, Author, Strategist

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There is a distinct dress code for men in Silicon Valley, thanks in part to the iconic Mark Zuckerberg hoodie. Each “tribe” subscribes to a slightly different code, but all collectively fall within the same realm of attire. For the women of Silicon Valley, however, the dress code is less clear.

Cindy Chu, an engineer at social e-commerce site Polyvore, told Read Write that “tech tries to be very meritocratic, but sometimes it gets taken a little too far. People are often suspicious of others who dress nice.”

The fact that a distinct style for women hasn’t emerged is a reflection of their place in the ecosystem—ambiguous. In a network where culture fit is especially important, adapting to social norms is integral to success. In order to join a tribe, you’ve got to dress, talk, and act similarly. Power is being able to operate outside its norms and still be accepted by the group.

Jeff Chiu/AP
Mark Zuckerberg sports a suit for a meeting with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Research from Harvard Business School has found that nonconformity signals increased status. This explains why Facebook CEO Zuckerberg wore his hoodie during the Facebook’s IPO roadshow, and why Box co-founder Aaron Levie has a penchant for bright-colored sneakers and socks (something that Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick also sported at a recent conference). As of late, Zuckerberg has been wearing more suits to meet with heads of state, a signal that he’s trying to be part of another exclusive “tribe.”

Beck Diefenbach/REUTERS
Box co-founder Aaron Levie is known for his signature colorful sneakers.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has become the most visible arbiter of female fashion in Silicon Valley. Her decision to pose for Vogue (and wear a blue streak in her hair at the Met Gala one year) was refreshing; she affirmed the links between personal style and power.

But many women in tech aren’t afforded the same opportunity.

Cristina Cordova, who manages business development at Stripe responded to the Quora question, “What should women wear at a Silicon Valley startup?” with the following: jeans and a t-shirt is acceptable for female engineers, but those on the business side should seek to dress in a way that reflects who they are meeting with on any given day. She described the dress code for women as “creative casual,” and linked to images of dark-washed jeans, a nice blouse, and a casual shirt dress. (Cordova didn’t respond to follow-up requests for comment on the topic.)

Robert Galbraith/REUTERS
Inside Twitter, a woman wears a common uniform in Silicon Valley: jeans, a basic top, and flats.

Many women in Silicon Valley simply don’t want to talk about fashion, likely for fear that it will detract from their professional achievements.

Shoptiques founder Olga Vidisheva told Quartz that she didn’t consult anyone for advice when she decided on jeans as part of her outfit to pitch investor Andreessen Horowitz and other VC firms. “It’s such a personal thing. … And in my experience, they’re so focused on results—if you’ve achieved your milestones.”

In 2013, Diana Tkhamadokova, who previously worked at Goldman Sachs, launched the fashion app I Style Myself. As part of her research she spent several months in Silicon Valley, where she is now based, observing what women wore. She told Quartz: “If you look at the women in Silicon Valley, I’ve never seen less confident women. They think they need to look a certain way. Compared to UK, French, Italian women, there’s such a stark contrast.” Thkamadokova explains that in Europe especially, women dress more boldly as a symbol of self-expression and power. She has yet to come across that same level of confidence in Silicon Valley.

But others think the dress code for women in Silicon Valley shouldn’t be over-analyzed. Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, a retail analyst with Forrester Research, told Quartz: “Who wants to wear the same thing everyday or be known for wearing the same thing? I don’t think any woman deliberately tries to be unstylish. Same doesn’t apply to men. Perhaps some of that is because of social constructs we grow up with as girls. We wear flats to work to flaunt convention. Not hoodies.”

Frank Masi/HBO
Suzanne Cryer, who plays one of the lead female characters on “Silicon Valley,” says her character wears “neutral” clothing.

Suzanne Cryer, who plays Laurie Bream on the television show Silicon Valley, tells Quartz that her character’s apathy toward stylish clothing is a sign of power, too. Her character, who is based on a composite of female and male figures in Silicon Valley, runs a venture capital firm and wears relatively neutral clothing. “She’s not on trend, not savvy. … I don’t think the way that Laurie Bream dresses is indicative of how all VCs dress. She can’t be bothered and shops at Ann Taylor.”

However, Cryer says she occasionally receives emails from people in the Valley saying that they recognize her character in someone that they know. ”I’ve looked at pictures of VC women at board meetings wearing these cowl neck sweaters and ponytails,” Cryer tells Quartz. “At first I thought, ‘Did you check the mirror before walking on stage?’ But thank God she didn’t. She’s the boss, she’s fucking smart, and she’s not trying to get a date. That’s the message that she’s delivering. … I think Laurie is trying to neutralize herself. Her clothing isn’t a point of discussion.”

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