Sex and the Citi

Last week, Debrahlee Lorenzana, a banking manager, was fired from her job at Citibank allegedly because she was too attractive.  Citibank was upset because they felt that Ms. Lorenzana was “distracting” in her wardrobe choices.  Ms. Lorenzana stated that bosses told her “as a result of the shape of her figure, certain clothes were purportedly ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues and supervisors to bear.”  They further contend that the male staff were not able to “concentrate” or “work effectively” because of her outfits.  As a result – she was told because she was tall and had a curvaceous figure that “she should not wear classic high-heeled business shoes, as this purportedly drew attention to her body in a manner that was upsetting to her easily distracted male managers.”  The managers also gave her a list of things not to wear, including pencil skirts, turtlenecks, and fitted suits while at work.

Initially, I was outraged when I read this story.  A fellow Twitter colleague alerted me to the story and I have to admit, my first reaction was, “You’ve got to be f%*#ing kidding me!”  But then, as often happens, after I cooled off I started to reflect a bit.  It was at this point I became concerned.   “Wait a minute,” I thought, “we have a dress code in my work environment – one that I put in place when I started here.  Am I being discriminatory by imposing a dress code, or is the dress code an attempt to establish an appropriate work environment?  Maybe that’s what these managers were doing?  Perhaps I should test this myself?”

So I did.  My plan – copy as many outfits as I could from photographs of Ms. Lorenzana, wear the planned wardrobe for a week, and then through various avenues determine if people were negatively impacted by my wardrobe choices.  As I planned out my wardrobe, I began to wonder how those at work would react to my new mode of dress. Would I be “too distracting”?  Would others be unable to control their reactions to my new style?  Granted, I realize Ms. Lorenzana bears considerable resemblance to Angelina Jolie and Eva Longoria Parker – a resemblance that I do not share.  I also realize she is 6 years younger than me.  However, if according to Citibank the true problem was her choice of apparel, then my age or difference in appearance to Ms. Lorenzana shouldn’t matter.  For their story to hold water, my clothing choices alone should cause such a significant problem at my place of business that the productivity and effectiveness of the department should be hindered.

I started by going shopping in my closet.  To my surprise, I had many of the same pieces in my own wardrobe.  I had black pants, a black pencil skirt, a suit jacket in pinstripe, a French blue button down shirt, white jacket, lightweight sweater sets, and many other items.  I also had high heeled black pumps, tan pumps and black peep-toe pumps.  I had similar jewelry, too.  I copied Ms. Lorenzana’s outfits in as much detail as possible so as to do the experiment justice.

On Monday, I went to work as I normally did, except for wearing a Ms. Lorenzana look-a-like outfit.  Aside from a few comments from colleagues such as, “You look nice today,” ”What, was it laundry day so you had to dress up?” and “Do you have a meeting with the Chancellor?”, work progressed normally.  Throughout the week, I continued my experiment and kept to my regular schedule (or as regular as any schedule is in student affairs).  I attended and led committee and staff meetings.  I held conferences with students, staff and colleagues.  I spoke to over 400 students and parents at one of our summer orientation programs.  I staffed a table during the orientation department fair.  I talked with parents, students, faculty, staff and community members.  I did everything I was supposed to do in my role at the office.

Each day, I found ways to gauge my effectiveness and the productivity of others in my workplace – either through reflection, journaling, direct conversations and/or observations.  I asked staff how their days were going, if they had been getting things done, if there were any unwarranted or unwanted distractions keeping them from doing their jobs.  I compared my “done” list from this past week to the list from the week before.  I counted the number of phone calls I returned, the number of meetings I attended and the number of emails I generated and the number to which I responded.

And I have to say – something strange occurred.

Unlike what Citibank purported would happen, people continued to be productive.  I got my work done, as did the rest of the team.  Students were served, families were helped, presentations went off without a hitch, and the university did not come to a screeching halt.

I was confused.  If a major corporation like Citibank could be wrong about this, what else could they be wrong about?  If the clothes weren’t causing a drop in productivity, or distracting others in their ability to be productive, then what was the issue?  I concluded the clothes themselves were not the problem.  In fact, the clothes Ms. Lorenzana wore at her place of work were very similar to the clothes we see worn in our various fields of works, on news anchors and morning talk show hosts, or in movies about business environments (for example, see Sandra Bullock’s wardrobe in “The Proposal”).  The clothes were certainly less ‘distracting’ than those found in the fashion magazines or in catalog pictures advertising same.

Now – let’s assume that Ms. Lorenzana’s claims are true – that she did her job, did it well, but that because of how she looked and dressed, she was given a stricter dress code than other employees.  Let’s then assume that Ms. Lorenzana asserted her rights and continued to wear appropriate clothing in compliance with Citibank’s dress code, but because she didn’t follow these ‘extra rules’, she was fired.  Should this be the case (and all facts and evidence in this situation do seem to support Ms. Lorenzana), then her managers did nothing more than discriminate against her and fire her for her appearance.  End of discussion.

This type of behavior on the part of the Citibank managers only perpetuates a stereotype that men are “helpless to control themselves” around a woman they find to be attractive, and it attempts to absolve these same men from any type of responsibility for their own attitudes and behaviors.  This is ridiculous – and blames a woman for the reactions of a man, as if she could somehow control the responses of someone other than herself.

Regardless of the motive, and all other things being equal, Ms. Lorenzana certainly has something to say.  And she should do it in front of a judge, with her lawyer, and with a judgment demand that will help Citibank understand that subjectively stereotypical decisions based purely on resentment, sexism and insecurity will always end badly – and expensively.

Thanks for your shining example of idiocy, Citibank. Trust me, we will all learn from you.