Inman Contributor Rachael Hite wrote “I’m a real estate agent. You can’t tell me what to wear on the job” back in February as a response to an agent-broker perspective article. She couldn’t have predicted the outsized response that followed.

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Wow. I didn’t expect the response I received to my article, “I’m a real estate agent. You can’t tell me what to wear on the job.” The response missed the original point of the article, but that’s OK because the discussion that followed helped me to hone in on the vital part of what I was trying to say. 

I’ve re-written this article three times, once from a place of defense, once from a place of love and goodwill, and now a third time from a place of complete and total frustration. I want to thank Dr. Lee Davenport, who helped me with the interview portion of this follow-up article. 

Typically I let the comments, and the ridiculousness, roll off my shoulders. But when the comments dismiss real issues surrounding complicated problems, you can be sure I will have a few more things to say. 

What bothered me most out of all the responses was that a contributor, Byron Lazine, called me out by name on his weekly show, The Real Word. I enjoy his show; I’ve been following it for years, and for the most part, it’s fun and informative.

I was a little taken aback that he would use my article, which was written to call attention to serious issues in our industry, as an opportunity to write it off as a “racket” and that I was trying to be the most “woke person in the room” by writing it.

His co-host Lisa Chinatti seemed to get what I was talking about when she said she quit a brokerage that wanted her to wear skirts.

That’s what I’m talking about, Byron. The girls that get it, get it.

How it started

Finding the “right” team members to help make your brokerage a success is the revolving focus of many in our industry. Any broker in this market should be delighted to have two proven agents with an established list of clients interviewing to work for them. Right? 

Let’s start with the scenario that inspired the original piece. Taken directly from this article: Fashion victims? When broker and agent style choices clash  

This seemingly innocent piece caught my attention because the Contributor, Anthony Askowitz, writes the following:

The standard for appropriate business attire is always a moving target, especially in real estate. The traditional suit and red power tie for men and nylons with closed-toe shoes for women are rarely seen, as a more casual sense of style has become the norm.

But perhaps the line has shifted too far in that direction, with a growing disregard for any semblance of a professional dress code. How should residential real estate brokers navigate this ever-shifting playing field, one full of landmines in every direction?

Shifts too far?

Here is what I know about “traditional” standards: Many of these standards are based on old-fashioned and even conservative religious viewpoints. Much of what people think of as “the standard” has been handed down and influenced by European traditions hundreds of years in the making.

These original fashion standards were a way to show class and rank, and today our modern world still uses clothing to indicate whether someone is worthy of an audience.

People lose their jobs for wearing braided hair, long fingernails, large earrings, beards and tattoos or refusing to wear a suit and tie or make-up and high heels. In some cities, wearing sagging pants is a crime. And even when there are no written rules, implicit dress codes still influence opportunities and social mobility. – Richard Thompson Ford, Standord Law Professor

How it became even more cringe

Askowitz continues with the following scenario that brokers may find themselves “clashing” against:

I was excited to interview this new team, comprised of two agents with five years of individual experience. Both presented themselves professionally and were well-groomed, clearly knew the market, and had a good plan for reaching the next level of production.

But if I’m being honest, I had a hard time getting past their garish fashion and accessory choices, which seemed better suited for a local nightclub than showing property (much less a “first-impression” interview).

At this point in their careers, no one should need to be told that this look does not inspire trust and respect in a business where they will be dealing with a customer’s most valuable asset. I’m sure the hairstyles were the latest trends and took hours at a salon to create, their designer-name clothes cost hundreds of dollars, and their jewelry and make-up choices would be perfect in certain settings — but a real estate office is not one of them.

Wait what?

This is where I take issue with the whole “you must look professional to be a professional” argument. You have two agents who have a track record of customers using them, and they want to give you a portion of their business essentially.

Because you cannot get past your personal beliefs of how they should appropriately clothe their bodies, you are hesitating to hire them? Are you actually considering not working with them, or that they are a problem that needs to be on your “to-do” list to correct or fix with a dress code before they can represent you and your brokerage? 

What do you mean by nightclub? Come out and say it. Their clothing was too revealing for your personal taste and made you uncomfortable. This goes right back to the fact that how a woman chooses to dress is almost always a subject for group conversation and evaluation.

In 2019 at the height of the “Me Too” movement, the Huffington Post leaked a 55-page training document for women executives at a prominent law firm who were told how to dress appropriately for office so they didn’t scramble the brains of their co-workers with their short skirts. Not 1955; this happened in 2018. This garbage still happens today.

A deeper look into dress codes in the office and in schools shows that these codes are often designed to focus on women and people of color and to force LGBTQIA+ individuals to fall in line with “traditional” standards.

It’s complicated but we can do better

There is a beautiful theory in education about diversity and how it’s a critical part of our culture. Using the analogy of windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors, Professor Rudine Sims Bishop illustrates the importance of creating spaces in society where everyone could potentially see themselves as a valued part of it.

To dive deeper into this conversation, I have done two things. 

First, I interviewed one of the top experts in our industry about the issues women face when challenged with dressing professionally and many of the issues around “professional” dress codes and culture.

Dr. Lee Davenport, armed with degrees in business and legal studies, tackles tough topics that agents deal with daily while trying to help consumers. Davenport is an internationally recognized real estate educator (as well as a former RE/MAX managing broker and agent).

She has been recognized by Inman News and numerous real estate organizations as one of the top 30 U.S. real estate coaches. She was honored to be one of the inaugural coaches for the University of Michigan’s MPact DEI Certificate.

This discussion is hosted on my very sparse YouTube space, but if you like a good discussion about current events, feel free to enjoy it. It is a great conversation, and Dr. Lee Davenport is an incredible woman with fantastic insight. 

For women, there have always been written and unwritten rules about dressing professionally, if you wear pants, you’re too masculine; if you wear a dress, you are not powerful enough; there are all of these rules and codes we are being asked to follow. -Dr. Lee Davenport

In our discussion, we chatted about questions and issues about dressing professionally for women and even generational differences in dress preferences.

Davenport shares stories about her father’s experience with dressing in IBM blue, offers important insights about choosing to dress up or dress down, and speaks about the numerous safety issues that women run into on the job and why it’s important to be dressed in a way that could allow you to escape your predator.

Second, I’m providing additional education for anyone who wants to argue that it’s just “easy” or the “right thing to do” to dress appropriately and respectfully. 

The argument vs. the education

Let’s be real; Many real estate agents (for example, the agents who consistently discriminated against consumers in Long Island, New York) were dressed professionally. Still, they were not ethical, so the argument that clothing is essential to showing your community respect doesn’t really hold up.

Agents can show their communities respect by helping advocate for fair housing, volunteering with charities and showing up in town halls and zoning meetings. It goes far beyond just selling homes.

Here is a short educational list of why getting dressed as a woman is not an ‘effortless task’

1. Vanity sizing: No one brand carries the same sizing, so you have to guess what size you need, and some brands are off the table altogether based on your height, weight or body shape.

2. Pink tax: Generally, grooming, hygiene and clothing cost more for women to look socially acceptable.

3. Cosmetics: Women who wear makeup earn more money. The overpriced beauty industry has rebranded as “self-care” and it is still failing and excluding women in many different cultures and colors with limited and overpriced alternatives. Not only do you have to buy it, but you need to invest hours learning how to use it.

People who are physically attractive tend to be viewed as more competent and earn higher salaries than their less attractive counterparts — a phenomenon known as the “beauty premium.” New research published in the Journal of Economic Psychology provides evidence that the use of makeup can be used by women to gain access to the payoffs that are associated with this premium. -Eric Dolan, Editor of PsyPost

4. Weight stigma: Your weight is a group project and everyone has an opinion. Too skinny, too fat: Don’t worry, there is rhetoric around all of it. Every bite you take has either internal or external dialog. See No. 1, as this will also influence how society views you and chooses to work with you.

5. Strict dress codes: These cause more harm than good. Based on your chosen clothing, your audience can assume that you are good/bad/slutty/dumb/virtuous/lazy/have your life together. Purity culture seems to be on the rise, and again women are being told to “cover up” because it makes others uncomfortable.

It’s not about dressing professionally: It’s about control

Perhaps my biggest gripe with the reactions to my last article is that I had way more comments on how to dress professionally than any of the other serious pieces I have written about how dangerous it is to be a woman in America.

 More comments about what’s on the wrapper than the actual safety and well-being of the human. More comments about what’s appropriate to wear than how to improve mental, emotional and physical safety in our industry.

All of this attention our culture currently puts on the way someone is dressed, the way they choose to live their personal life and relationships, and the urgent need to tell someone that what they are doing is wrong has resulted in a world that isn’t very welcoming for anyone who doesn’t fit in the accepted box of the majority.

Suicide is the 12th-ranked reason for death in America right now. Think about that against the viewpoints you share and continue to push that someone is right or wrong based on their appearance or their personal life.

Consider how hard it is to meet those heavy societal expectations and how we value success and vanity metrics over humans. You are not getting the big picture if you think this statistic isn’t directly related. So much of why people are so hurt is because they feel the world doesn’t accept them as they are. 

We still have stories of men using their positions of power inside franchises and brokerages to prey upon and sexually assault women at networking events; we need to keep talking about “what’s professional” and what really matters.

Think about how hard it is for all of us and why we wouldn’t be jumping at an opportunity to create some relief for the people around us. Call it virtue signaling, gaslighting or woke mind virus; I don’t care. I will continue to ask for better policy, question the “standards” and push for more equality in all spaces. It’s not about the blazers, friends. It never was.

I will keep speaking out about these issues because our industry is riddled with problems, and many of them have to do with these expectations created years ago by people who no longer live and work in this world. I will do this even if the loudest people in the room continue to echo that you have to look “professional” to be professional. 

Managing DEI Pushback

Asking for equity, policy change and more inclusivity does not detract from others. It only makes those who feel left out, excluded, or discriminated against actually be seen and heard and respected by their peers. 

People who push back against Diversity, Equity and Inclusion typically do so because they feel that it poses a significant threat to them personally. 

When individuals from dominant groups feel shamed or blamed for DEI efforts in the workplace, they can be motivated to respond defensively to restore a positive sense of self. This defensive posture may manifest in pushback. -Trisha Rai and Caitlin Dutkiewicz, HR Experts

The bottom line

Every human has worth and value, and how you look and what you wear shouldn’t impact that value. And if that statement makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps it’s time to take a long look in the mirror and ask Why?

You are an independent contractor, wear what you want and work where you want. Brokers, I hope you took good notes.

Rachael Hite is a former agent, a business development specialist, fair housing advocate, copy editor, and is currently perfecting her long game selling homes in a retirement community in Northern Virginia. You can connect with her about life, marketing and business on Instagram .

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