Monday, May 6, 2013

How to Choose Work Shoes

People say that straight men do not notice what type of shoes a girl is wearing. I’m here to tell you that at my company, that could not be more false. In fact a number of men came up to me my first week, to comment about the cute collection of heels I had painstakingly collected to match my wardrobe. They all had pretty much the same comment.

“Wow,” one of them exclaimed. “Those shoes are so... impractical! How can you walk in them?”

On one hand, I appreciate that he knows that walking in most three inch heels feels kind of like walking on a pair of stilts while a small child hits your feet with a mallet. On the other hand, I really didn’t need to be reminded of this fact when I had committed to wearing them for the entire day. Needless to say, I quickly gave up on the whole heels concept and switched to flats.
The decision of what shoes to wear to work for female engineers is not as straightforward as it perhaps should be. Most business casual workplaces specify that men wear something along the lines of this:
A single pair of relatively boring shoes that more or less match every outfit, are relatively comfortable, and are sufficient for most engineering activities. And apparently last up to TEN YEARS of daily use, compared to the mere months that women's flats last. 

On the other hand, female engineers have the dreaded moment when they look at their dress code and see a simple requirement to wear “closed toed shoes”. My past HR departments argue that this allows for freedom, but I’ve found that it really means that women are expected to wear any one (but not all) of the following shoes:
As you can tell,  there is a direct linear relationship between how practical the shoe is and how likely you are to be mistaken for a lesbian. But technically, all of these options are “close toed”. And if you are a woman in engineering, then you probably thrive on technicalities.

I made the “close toed” argument once when I was trying to pass off a pair of flats as close toed at a last minute client site meeting (which had worked countless times in the past). My boss had not told me that there were any additional protective clothing requirements, so I hadn’t brought anything special. My client pointed out that while my shoes were close toed, they were open footed- and therefore were not “close toed” per his definition.

I didn’t have any other options, so he pulled his extra pair of smelly, beat to hell, size 13 work boots out of the bottom drawer in his filing cabinet and slid them across the table to me. I, of course, was not wearing socks and I wasn’t about to put this 20 year old rank pair of boots on barefoot. So I wore the boots on top of my flats, and tied the laces around my legs like ballet slippers to try and secure the shoes while I took measurements. It turns out that it is even harder to walk in two pairs of shoes with varying sizes than it is to walk in heels. My clients have teased me about this ever since, with several clients offering me the shoes off of their feet before we go to work.

After this embarrassing mishap, I am happy to report I invested in a pair of steel toed boots, and developed a simple solution that seems to define what shoes you should be wearing: for presentations, I suck it up and wear heels; for computer work or work confined to a cube, I wear flats; for work involving dangerous chemicals, I wear “women’s loafers”; and for work involving heavy machinery I wear steel toed boots. There you go every HR department for every company I’ve ever worked for, was that so hard?




  1. Oh my gosh yes! This is the blog I have been searching for!! I am a female engineering student currently on co-op at a business casual company and I have been struggling so hard to figure out what shoes to wear everyday. I have resigned to keeping 3 pairs of shoes at my desk. Sensible heels, a pair of flats and my steel toes. Thus is the life of a female engineer.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your posts. Seriously thank you for creating this blog, it is so hard to find insider information like this.

    1. I'm so glad you've enjoyed our blog! And yes, the selection of shoes at your desk is definitely status quo for the job. Although, I'm finding less and less reasons to wear heals the longer I'm in the field.

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