Over the last few years, there has been a subtle but important change at professional conferences around the country. Unless you are a woman, you might not have even noticed. But, in my unscientific poll of women in my circles, this shift has led to much angst.
Years ago, when conferences were held in frigid, windowless hotel ballrooms with hundreds of your closest colleagues, participants would sit in rows facing a stage arranged with a row of skirted tables and a set of chairs. There were no armchairs, no couches, no stools and no coffee tables. There were no fake fireplaces, no screens behind and to the side of the panelists emblazoned with larger images of the presenters.
And herein lies the hidden challenge to women leaders: what to wear when on a panel that does not have a skirted table?
Seems simple—business attire should be all you need to know, right? Hardly.
Even the most experienced women can make poor wardrobe choices or have wardrobe malfunctions when it comes to the seemingly simple act of presenting before an audience. Earlier this year, I went to a high-end, flashy conference in New York City, which included all of the bells and whistles of a Broadway show. There was intro music, colorful lights to denote different types of panels (intimate interviews, panel discussions and keynote presentations) and, of course stools and comfy armchairs on a raised stage.
During one of the intimate interviews, a news anchor of a major outlet walked out onto the stage, which extended out into the audience. She was wearing a perfectly professional suit dress and heels. Looking confident, she sat down on one of the simple chairs next to the well-known politico she was to interview. Everything was going smoothly until she sat down and realized her skirt was just a tad shorter than she must have thought.
While she still seemed confident, she wiggled distractedly trying to ensure that she was not flashing the audience sitting just below her. She even went so far as to take her folder of notes and place it over her thigh. Her uncomfortable position made it challenging to focus on the discussion. For some, like the man sitting next to me, it seemed to inspire some Googling of a less than professional sort. (Yeah, ew.)
So, when I was asked to speak at an energy-related conference in San Diego a few weeks ago, the first thing I thought about (even before the presentation!) was format for the panel and appropriate attire. Most of the conferences I attend these days have an attendance of about 90 percent men. When I choose clothing I think about how to stand out as a woman, without distracting from my presentation, but also ensuring that I am comfortable and confident.
Since I have not been to a conference in several years with the old-fashioned skirted table on a stage, I now assume there will be slouch-inducing chairs and a coffee table—or worse, stools. Nine times out of 10 this means that you will see me in the dreaded pants suit or otherwise wearing slacks when speaking. I dread seeing women on raised stages in upholstered armchairs in skirts or dresses. They look fantastic standing up, but most women end up looking awkward or uncomfortable when seated with bare legs and heels and no skirted table before them. Besides the fact that the men on the stage have covered legs (presumably wearing a suit), crossing one’s legs before a crowd on a raised stage is a sure way to show more thigh than most of us probably want to.
Further, so many conferences these days are webcasted or at least have cameras so as to project your image on a screen for those in the nosebleed section. Not all of the angles from those cameras are the most complimentary when wearing a skirt, but it is for this reason, too, that we must think carefully about the top we wear. Bold prints on camera can look crazy, while whites or pastels can wash out a face.
So what’s a woman to do?
1. Ask questions about the format of the presentation, so you are clear not only on what content you will need to prepare but also on how to dress appropriately. You wouldn’t pack for a big trip without looking at the weather—consider this much the same.
2. Pack a few outfits for your business trips. You never know which mood will strike you the morning of the presentation. Give yourself options so you can walk out on that stage confident and ready to impress. If you are lucky, it’s a two-day conference and you are speaking on the second day so you can scope out the stage and how you will be presented on those video screens.
3. Assume pants for most presentations where you will be seated on a panel or in an interview format. Just remember to carefully consider the top you choose too. Nothing too low cut, but a v-neck style can help differentiate you from the men on the panel who will be buttoned up with a tie.
4. A standing lecture is a great opportunity to show off that new dress and heels. If you do decide to go with a dress for a panel, make sure the hemline is on the longer side. A good point of reference is knee-length or just above. Shorter dresses can be entirely professional, but when seated before an audience may be distracting to the audience and uncomfortable to you. Ask a trusted girlfriend for advice if you need.
5. Sit up, be confident. More than 50 percent of a good presentation is attitude. A confident presenter can hold an audience’s attention captive. Sure, those comfy arm chairs encourage you to sink in for your panel chat, but don’t let the furniture swallow you. Sit up and scoot to the edge if you need to. Get comfortable but don’t slouch. This is especially important if your presentation is being video taped or webcasted.
With these simple tips you should be able to effectively avoid any wardrobe malfunctions while being a confident expert in your field presenting to your colleagues and professional peers.
Good luck out there!