The Engineer’s dilemma: What to wear?

What do engineers wear?  There are seven people in the above photograph, all dressed a little differently to one another.  Importantly, they’re actually dressed in their work attire.  Here’s the question:  Which one of the seven professionals above is the structural engineer?   Scroll back up and have a look.  Go on, I’ll wait.  Using your best judgement and no doubt some extrapolation, look over the seven and tell me which one is the engineer?

Have you made your decision yet?   Now think about what yardstick, values, or personal projections you drew on to arrive at your decision.  The truth is, you made some judgements.  Now let’s play the game of averages and guess your process of elimination:  Engineers are professionals, so you probably discounted the guy in the T-shirt first up.  The guy in the business suit and tie looks more like a banking/finance professional, so you probably discounted him early on as well.  The man on the far left looks like he’s either a web designer or he runs a trendy café.  Strike him out.  The woman on the left is dressed more like a chartered accountant or perhaps a lawyer, and you’d never wear an outfit that nice to a construction site.  You’ve narrowed down the field a bit, so let’s keep going:  The tall guy at the back looks more like a creative type, right?  Particularly with the scarf.  So perhaps he’s an architect and not an engineer?  And the woman on the right is dressed a bit more for lab work – perhaps she’s a pathologist? Which just leaves the guy in the middle who’s dressed in what might be described as “business smart casual” with the chinos and collared shirt.  Was he your choice?  (Odds are, yes.  11 out of the 16 people I showed this to whilst preparing the article picked him!)   Okay, so which one is it?  Let’s do the reveal.  Will the real engineer now please stand up…..

The answer is:  It was a trick question.  It’s all of them.  They’re all structural engineers.  In truth, and on reflection, there’s nothing in any of the clothing choices above that should define an engineer.  And, yet, armed with no other information about each person, you judged them on their clothing and appearance.  Hmmmm…..

It was actually Shakespeare who expressed this human trait in words.  In Hamlet, Polonius advises his son, Laertes, to dress well because “apparel oft proclaims the man”.   This has become modernised as the common adage, “clothes maketh the man”.  Ignoring the gender attribution of this and running purely with the principle, people will make snap judgements about you based on your appearance and the clothes you wear.

So it begs the question:  What do engineers wear?  Alternatively, what should engineers wear?  What should be our workplace attire? And, more importantly, why is this an issue?

Clearly, your workplace attire should be fit for purpose.  Ignoring high-vis or safety gear, you’re not going to wear an expensive suit and your best leather shoes when on a dirty, dust-blown construction site.  But, for the consulting engineer whose work revolves mostly in and around a professional office space, there’s a huge degree of choice between “jeans and T-shirt” and a formal suit.  Where in that range should engineers be putting themselves?

Some professions have it easy:  You can recognise a chef by their chequered pants and special jacket. You can recognise a military officer by their uniform.  You can recognise a high-flying lawyer by their attitude silks and wig.  How do you recognise an engineer?

Most white-collar professions have a “look” and usually there’s a specific reason or intention behind that look.  For example, finance professionals, television newsreaders, lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, etc, are usually sharply dressed in professional attire to convey the appearance of being successful, being an authority in their field, being reliable, educated, and professional.  These are all traits and attributes that, one assumes, most engineers would also like to convey.  And yet…..

Generally speaking, it would be fair to suggest that workplace attire in the consulting engineering office has been getting more and more casual over the last few decades.   For the men in the industry, a tie was very much de rigueur through the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  In the 2000’s it started to become optional, and in the twenty twenties, a tie is now a very rare sight indeed.   For the men’s lower half, formal trousers / suit pants were expected into the 2000’s, then “smartwear chinos” started to find favour.    In the last five years or so, denim jeans have become the legwear of choice for many, both males and females.   Collared shirts / blouses gave way to polos, and – in some of the smaller or more casual consulting firms – the polo even gave way to the collarless T-shirt.

Any situation or arrangement has its pros and cons, and whilst there are obvious positives and wins in employees being able to be more individual, express themselves, and feel more comfortable in the workplace, is it possibly doing other aspects of our industry and profession a disservice?  What needs to be weighed up?

Think back to the examples given above.  We won’t go into the psychology and social conditioning behind it all just now, but in those other occupations and professions, the attire is chosen to convey more than just professionalism. It’s also to convey knowledge. Expertise. Authority.  Success.  Reliability.  Trust.  “Trust me, I’m an engineer”.  Our appearance – and thus our clothing – must reflect this.   If a major crack or defect suddenly appears in a building, or there’s a safety concern about a suspended structure and you’re called out to assess the situation and give direction, how do you think you will be perceived if you turn up in jeans and a T-shirt?  The judgements you made at the start of reading this article are the same that will be applied to you. Your identity as an engineer and your level of professionalism may even be questioned.

(True story: I was once commissioned and engaged on a $30 million development and took over the project after the previous consulting structural engineer was effectively fired off the job.  Amongst the complaints levelled against my predecessor was the comment, “He looked bohemian and did not inspire confidence.”)

Long-time engineers often lament that our profession doesn’t receive the respect it deserves.  The more senior engineers who’ve been at the coal face for a few decades will observe that our fees are getting squeezed and aren’t what they used to be; that we can’t charge what we’re worth; that other professions seem to charge more money for doing less and having less responsibility; and that the authority we used to have in the building game has been eroded over the years.  It’s not necessarily nostalgia or a “things were better in my day” mentality, and even younger engineers will concede that our salaries and remuneration could be better.  But there’s a mild hypocrisy and disconnect in wanting to be treated more professionally whilst simultaneously dressing in a way where you’ll be perceived as being less professional.   There are real dollars, pounds, and euros at stake here:  Your clients aren’t going to understand or see value in your $50,000 design fee if you turn up for the pitch looking like a $5,000 consultant.

The same lament is often expressed by those in our sibling profession, architecture.  I know plenty of architects who complain that they’re underpaid and not afforded the respect or authority their profession once had, and yet they turn up to site meetings dressed and looking anything but business-like.  Cause and effect is at play here.

What do engineers wear? Two women wearing different work attire
Engineering Consultant A and Engineering Consultant B.
Ignoring the hard hat and the roll of drawings, if both of these engineers turned up to pitch for a project, which of the two do you think a client is more likely to trust and engage for a higher fee?


There’s another adage here that’s relevant: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”.  And so, by extension, if you want to be treated and paid as a knowledgeable, authoritative, and successful professional, then you need to dress as one.   And, if you’ve any doubts, you can play this one out yourself:  For the male readers, walk on to a construction site wearing suit trousers and a tie and observe the assumptions made and how differently you’re treated, compared to if you walk on wearing jeans and a casual shirt. The difference is tangible.  Female engineers have an even tougher time of it as they battle assumptions made along gender lines before they even deal with the assumptions made by clothing.  (A female colleague of mine commented that she would often be mistaken for the architect, or for a member of the public who’d somehow stumbled on to the site.)

Sadly, it’s not necessarily a matter of fashion, or being up with the times.  Engineers sometimes have to play to the lowest common denominator and design for the worst load case.  Which, in this instance, is the fickle and occasionally misplaced perceptions of the general public.   Maybe it was Roxette who sang it best:  I’m gonna get dressed for success.


PS…once you’ve answered the question “What do engineers wear?”, you might consider “What makes a good engineer?

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