Engineering a fashion sense

Engineering a fashion sense

I am seriously jealous of my male engineering colleagues: it’s so easy for them to pick out clothing, and they never have to worry that someone will assume they aren’t an engineer because of their attire.  I have decided that it is time for a serious wardrobe upgrade, and I am struggling to figure out what kind of clothes I can and should wear.

For years, I’ve been quite happy wearing jeans, sneakers and tshirts or sweaters depending on the weather.  This is perfectly acceptable where I work, as there really is no dress code.  Unfortunately, this more often than not has left people believing I’m a grad student, or more often, an undergrad…because that’s how a lot of them dress.

When I’ve tried to upgrade to wearing more professional clothes, I am assumed to be a secretary, except when I went to a conference recently.  At the conference, I was a grad student again.

This leaves me in a quandry.  The typical outfit for men that screams, “I am an engineer!” is the dress slacks with button-down shirt.  (Most of the engineers I know in person who wear this are in their 50s or later.  On the other hand, none of the younger engineers who have chosen to dress differently get confused with admin staff.)  But what do women wear?  Is there anything that women can wear to differentiate their role in an organization?  Or shall we always continue to be confused with students and admin staff?

Maybe I just need spectacles?


My “uniform” is slacks, a button down shirt and a v-neck sweater or sweater vest. As a woman with a fairly ample bosom, I tend not to trust button-down shirts by themselves, and most conference spaces are freezing. Since I’m still a grad student, I can’t say if it will get me mistaken for one, but it has gotten me mistaken for a professor? Also, I always confine my hair as thoroughly as my current length will allow.

However, more recently, I’ve started wearing more skirts and dresses made out of the magical fabric you can crumple into a wad and comes out totally wrinkle free. The other thing is that I always wear flats, and that may be the key to not looking like a n00b or a secretary: practical looking shoes.

I wish sneakers would be considered dressy and practical. I’ve started wearing dress shoes, and even the flats are murder on my feet.

Maybe it is the hair thing. I have hip-length hair, and I always wear it down or in a braid.

Polo shirts and khakis are the male engineer uniform where I work. However, for reasons akin to Miss MSE’s bodytype, polos are not very flattering on me. I tend to wear slacks, button ups/turtlenecks/sweaters, and nice practical flats. I think my button ups are sort of neutral gender so even when I wear a skirt I feel adds sort of a professional tom boy look. That’s the only way I’ve been able to avoid being mistaken for a secretary. Though for many years I dressed down for exactly that reason.

My norm is suit pants, button down shirt, and a tie (if I have meetings or am teaching that day). Sometimes, I’ll wear a full suit or throw on a sport coat. And even though I wear the “male engineer/prof outfit” around here, I routinely get mistaken for a grad student, someone’s TA, or even an undergrad. So in some ways, I know how you feel :-\ (no, I’m not adding leather patches to my tweed jacket)

With that said, I agree that you are in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Flats may help draw a difference between you and admins though. Not always, but I do definitely notice the difference here.

Hm. Especially now that I’m in a Sales role and not working on a manufacturing floor, I do love my skyscraper heels. Though not as much as I hate being asked to make copies, send an email for another Sales rep or do data entry…
I find that saying “No” when asked to do these tasks quite effective.

I generally wear jeans with shoes (no sneakers) and a nice top. To dress it up, I swap jeans for slacks (e.g. when I am giving a talk at a conference), but that’s about it for me as far as dressiness goes. I wear make-up and some jewelry (mostly long, somewhat bulky necklaces and/or bangles) and I wear a lot (A LOT) of black. Hair up/down about 50/50 percent of the time.

I also have “ample bosom” 🙂 and the first rule of looking good while “forwardly endowed” is that your shirt must not go up to your neck; rather you should have more of a decolletage than a flat-chested woman. So I wear a lot of v-neck sweaters, although I like the boat and all sorts of oval and square-neck shirts. Of course a prereq for all this is a well-fitting bra. (I can feel guys squirming uncomfortably…)

For really comfortable shoes that don’t look secretarial, I love Danskos.
Having a nice-looking purse also helps. In black leather, of course.

I don’t think I have ever been mistaken for a secretary, but I have for a student. Getting older, fatter, and grouchier seems to be taking care of that though! 🙂

I can feel readers wondering if all female scientists and engineers have big boobs!
I like to wear odd, but fashionista clothing to work. Why should I dress like a guy just so that the world doesn’t think I’m an admin?
And why should Administrative help be saddled with the image of high heels and lipstick? It’s not 1950 anymore.
(God help the guy who assumes I’m not technical because of my shoes)

I found this article very relevant and a good conversation starter. I am a current student doing an internship for the summer. But I am a non-traditional student as I’m 28 and have one more year of school left. I like trouser jeans, a cute top, and a scarf since the office is so chilly. I pair this with sandals or boots (cowgirl boots, as I’m in Texas:) ). I like shopping at TJMaxx and Marshalls since I’m on a budget. They have a wide variety of clothing, and I look for tops that transition well from work to evening. Unfortunately, I think most women get viewed as the support staff, as that is the train of thought of most people. Correct them! Don’t keep helping out the stereotype. I agree with Sophi when talking about saying “No” to support staff tasks; not because they are “beneath” you but because you have your own job to do. Just my two sense….

I’m an undergrad engineering intern, and I had the problem with trying to find what to wear because there are zero female engineers where I work! There are maybe 7 females that work here, but they are all secretaries, sales people, etc., and they all dress differently. Nobody outside of the engineering part thought I was an engineering intern either when I started; they all thought I was a sales intern!

OK girls, mind if I put in two cents worth of engineering testosterone? No one in the engineering section cares what you wear, unless it is a distraction. Your worth is not in your looks, but rather your abilities! Men in general and engineers in particular could care less about designer footwear and handbags. Most engineers don’t even know you have feet. I would bet money that you could wear one red shoe and one blue shoe and no one in engineering would even notice. The guys in marketing might make fun of you, but we all know, both male and female, that they are scumbags in general. Of course about 5% of the guys in engineering are scumbags too, but they can be safely ignored.

So the distractions I mentioned? Miniskirts: a no-no. Engineers should never look slutty (actually no working women should either). Low cut shirts: another no-no. For you large breasted ladies, men will look at your boobs cause that’s the way men are wired, and that’s the way women are built. But you have no need to keep them out on display. Makeup: keep it simple and natural. Here again you likely were not hired for your photogenic persona.

How I dress at work (partly cause I’m the boss man). Flip flops, shorts, and a button down shirt with mandatory pocket. No, not for a geek pocket protector, but for my pack of smokes, lighter, 0.5mm mechanical pencil, and pen. (The 0.5mm lead measures my frustration level. Really. It is an important tool. When I start snapping leads, it is time for a break.) I think I got my last haircut 7 to 10 years ago. If I do have to meet with any customers (once every couple years) I wear a dark suit, silk tie with Loony Tunes characters, my hair in a pony tail, dark western boots, and a new white Panama Jack hat.

And the worst turn off I have witnessed is a female engineer with a vocabulary worse than a Navy Chief. Possibly she did it feeling she would fit into a “man’s world”, but she fit into no ones world.

My advice to anyone is to do the best job you can do everyday, continue to learn, and be yourself – for yourself. Good luck to all of you.

Unfortunately, this advice doesn’t deal with the original question: how does a female engineer avoid being mistaken for something other than an engineer? I can and generally do follow those guidelines, but, as I mentioned in the post, I am very often mistaken for either students or admin staff.

I think that Canada has a nice system to help identify engineers from non-engineers.

All Canadian engineers who wish to partake in “The Calling of an Engineer” are given an Iron Ring to wear on the pinky of their working hand. The Iron Ring is very symbolic and dates back to 1922.

However, for engineers and non-engineers alike, the ring is an easy identifyer that states “engineer.” This way, regardless of what clothing or make-up is worn, people can plainly spot an engineer from a non-engineer.

Unfortunately, I can think of no comparable item in the United States. Maybe the engineers at this blog could pioneer something?

My school, the University of North Florida, gives those same rings out to its engineering graduates. We take part in a ceremony of The Order of the Engineer, that stems from the original Canadian ceremony.

I am a government stormwater engineer. My unit consists of mostly women engineers. We wear dresses, tailored skirts, or chinos or dressy pants. I meet with the public regularly. They are mostly male.

It’s how you carry yourself that says “I’m a no nonsense, kick butt engineer. Mess with me and you get the engineering scale in the shins.” (Just kidding about the violence.) In the field i wear jeans or khakis and boots.

Btw i am 5’6″ tall and curvy.

Here’s an advice from a Chem. Engineer who graduated in 1966-era of micro minis, see-throughs and such! Manufacturing environment requires SAFETY first and foremost. Have a drawer where you can keep steel-toed protective shoes, safety glasses (not scratched), and clean, unwrinkled white lab coats, hard hat, etc. Dress conservatively – this prevents the co-workers from being distracted and concentrate on the issue at hand and not on your cleavage! Wear comfortable pants (not pajama bottoms, well-hemmed and not dragging on the floor), clean buttoned-up shirts, jackets and/or sweaters that cover your derriere. I personally stay away from dark, blue pants – the normal wear on the floor. Should you have a long hair, put it up on a bun away from your face. Remove any jewelry, especially dangling earrings, necklaces as they can easily get caught in moving machineries – same as ties for male engineers. Thanks God for pants, I am able to hide my rhinocerous legs! Remember that when you interface with co-workers, customers, management, etc, they see your face and overall personal presentation. Clean face, minimal make-up, well brushed hair will compliment you engineering know-how and won’t distract your audience. Impronto meetings require that you may have to change to close-toed, leather shoes, a jacket, perhaps some jewelry – stud earrings, powder etc.
In summary, your objective as a female engineer is to be taken seriously as one who has this technical know-how and is able contribute to the company’s mission.


I’m a structural engineer. Work wardrobe is a problem for me too, because our work includes both on site time and office time.
I’m not sure I made the right choices, but this is what I wear:
– at the office: dark wahed jeans + blouse/shirt/t-shir + jacket/blaser/sweatter + heels/wedges/flats + watch/long necklace/cocktailring
– on site: same as the above, but I change the shoes for boots, lose all the accesories except the watch
-conferrence/important meeting: suit or
suit pants/skirt+blouse/shirt+jacket/blaser+ flats/heels/wedges+watch
Work-dress (black/gray/blue/camel/white) knee length, usually made from textiles that don’t wrinke + blaser/jacket +heels/flats + watch

PS I keep a gymbag in my car’s trunk where I store my boots+socks+my protective helmet + umbrella+ jacket for going on site visits

Well, that’s it.

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