As rain pours outside on an empty Lincoln Square plaza, a group of senior high schoolers are nestled into the womenswear section of Brooks Brothers for a tutorial.
It’s not similar to any tutorial they will receive in their final year of school however, or in their future collegiate careers. In fact, this tutorial is about as rare as they come, and that’s why it’s so important. The girls wait tentatively for the guest speaker, and the delivery of a speech that will most likely stick with them for their collegiate years and into their first jobs.
"Clothing is your armor, it's your protection, but it's also a business tool."
The Principal Women's stylist of the 200 year-old company, Stacy Wallace-Albert is here to deliver the talk, dressed immaculately of course, and busying herself with the preparation of her props: a rail of Brooks Brothers fall collection.
The talk has been organized by Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, who began an initiative last year to encourage girls into STEM fields at an age when many begin to fall off that wagon, between age 16-18. Adding an element to the programme this year, the school organized this talk with stylist Wallace-Albert of Brooks Brothers in order to advise how to dress professionally, appropriately, and to impress. There’s a big difference between the woman and the man who can dress well for work, and Wallace-Albert stresses this throughout her talk. Men have a formula for success: tailoring, ties, trousers. Women on the other hand, very rarely get tailoring, have a wild array of accessories for an outfit rather than just the singular tie, and have to choose between different bottoms on different occasions because society has dictated this for years. The choices for women can be overwhelming, and hence the difficulty presented: when there is so much available, what to choose for your professional wardrobe?
Stacy Wallace-Albert. Photo courtesy of The Fashion Editor
One of the first things Albert says - “clothing: it can enhance who you are, but it can also distract what you do,” becomes a running narrative for the duration of the talk. Women, because of a multitude of factors; sexism, history, social standing - have to earn everything in business. They’ve to earn the right to a silent boardroom, a seat at the table, attention paid while delivering a presentation. And what’s the biggest excuse for distraction? Well, their looks, of course.
Photo courtesy of Brooks Brothers
Wallace-Albert went on to provide bullet points fr the girls to follow into their professional years. Get a staple white blouse. Invest in good, solid pieces. Don’t wear a skirt that will ride up under the table. Don’t wear a blouse with your bra popping out at the chest. Don’t give anyone an excuse to forget what you had to say because they were too busy looking at a stray thread or a bulging button.
"If something wrinkles (when you squeeze it) walk past it. You're sitting, you're commuting on subways, an you want to look good all day," says Wallace-Albert, who advocates heavily for the importance of investment pieces. When choice is so overwhelming for women - perhaps the best thing to do is to step back and remind yourself that if you buy this one expensive thing this one time, it will outlive all the lesser quality, less expensive items. It's a life decision, and a lesson every woman needs to learn, no matter what age.
But why is it particularly important for girls looking to approach the very heavily male-dominant fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?
"People's eyes go elsewhere," she says, continuing, "Listen to what I have to say! You want to walk into a room and feel powerful." There's more ways than one to command attention in a room, but looking polished and comfortable is perhaps the most powerful. Tammy Berentson, the Associate Dean of External Affairs for the college, agrees wholeheartedly with Wallace Albert's approach. "Girls in STEM partnering with Brooks Brothers has been very special because we realized that for some of the girls, it's intimidating walking into a corporate environment for the first time."
Having launched their inaugural year of the Girls in STEM initiative in 2016, Columbia plan to continue with the programme and continue with these alternative methods of getting girls throughout the country excited about STEM and about entering these fields with confidence.
SWAAY talked to a few of the girls in attendance about the importance of a professional wardrobe for girls hoping to get into and succeed in male-dominated STEM fields. Of this, Jasmine, 16, had to say "I think dressing well, especially in STEM, is very important because it's all about power, and being a presence - a dominant presence in the field, even if you might not be the dominant gender."
Beside her, Athena, 17, hoping to become a chemical engineer, posits that "when you dress in a way that makes you confident, you become more comfortable in your abilities. As a woman in STEM, it's important that you understand you're meant to be there and how powerful you are as an individual."
"Your clothes tell a story, and you can use your clothes to show your identity to the world,"
This type of seminar, a meeting of minds all hoping to succeed, all aspiring for great careers and a seat the table, was a real eye-opener. Not only were the girls engaged with the clothes but they were engaged with the clothes and their purpose, and their ability to change a perspective or opinion about the person wearing them. This type of information is invaluable and absolutely necessary for the rising generation of female leaders in order for them to further the professional possibilities for women everywhere. Props to Brooks Brothers and Columbia for the collaboration.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.