Is provocative dressing at work another manifestation of girl power, an invitation to look but don't touch? Or is it old-fashioned insecurity on the part of women who fear that, for girls, being clever just isn't sexy? Hester Lacey reports on the difference between dressing for sex, and success
ALLY MCBEAL, eponymous lawyer heroine of the latest US sitcom import, is less lauded for the admirable alacrity with which she dispatches her cases than for the negligible length of her skirts. The impact of these micro-mini pelmets has infuriated the American feminists who have spent the last three decades fighting the notion that how a woman looks in the workplace is as important as what she does; Elaine Showalter, the Princeton professor and feminist literary critic, has crisply described McBeal as "an anorexic, self-indulgent little munchkin".

Meanwhile Jockey, best-known to date as manufacturers of quite dull mens' underpants, has branched out into tights and stockings. The stars of the $15m US ad campaign they have commissioned are, they proudly explain, "real women"; female bankers, brokers and traders who have been persuaded to pose wearing just their business jackets over a selection of titillating hosiery plus stiletto heels. With its implication that, however businesslike a woman is on the outside, she is still a sexy plaything on the inside, the ad is unfortunately resonant of a similar feminist bugbear of the Eighties: remember "Underneath, they're all Lovable"? American women's groups are not amused.

The new wave of feminism in Britain is a tolerant one. Natasha Walter in The New Feminism asks: "Can a woman dress like a mannequin and be a feminist?" The answer is yes, says Walter; feminism is more diverse than ever before, because the only credential needed is commitment to equality. In fact, younger feminists, alienated by the crops-and-dungarees stereotype of their mothers' generation, are only too keen to raise the hemlines and bring on the slap.

But author and journalist Linda Grant writes on the subject of the Wall Street babes: "Why should women think that they will be treated with respect while wearing skirts halfway up their arses? Men conform at work, why do women think they don't have to? The difficulty that these women have got themselves into is that deep down they still believe the male propaganda - that female brains wipe out sex appeal."

So, is being intelligent and successful not enough on its own, if you can't be attractive and sexy as well? Although we in Britain have yet to see businesswomen stripping off to advertise underwear, it seems that wanting to look attractive is a very basic desire. In creative industries in particular, looking the part is essential and that means more than simply being clean and tidy. "It's a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't," according to Rebecca, a 33-year-old journalist. "For women in creative professions, there is a pressure to look sexy. Looking sexy says you are successful at being a woman, it says you're on-the-ball. At the same time, this means that in a male-dominated environment, you are always at a kind of disadvantage, always emphasising your difference and setting yourself apart."

The rules are different in more traditional professions - but the same feeling that attractiveness is important still exists. Judy, 29, a solicitor, works in an office with a strict, though unwritten, dress code. "We can't wear trouser suits, however smart, skirts much above the knee would raise eyebrows, flesh-coloured tights only - it's a very conservative place," she says. "But I feel very miserable if I think I look like an old bag, so I make sure that my suits are very well-fitting and sleek and since I started working here I have spent loads on my hair; it's the one thing that can be really individual so I've started going to the hairdressers once a week. You do have to feel that you look good or it wrecks your confidence." And, she adds, the confidence to charm is a vital part of her job. "I don't want to say that I flirt because it sounds too bimboish and flipperty, I prefer to call it charming. But it really oils the wheels and looking pretty is part of it. People don't want to be round machines or automatons who are totally focussed on the job, they want to be round other people who are pleasant to be with and pleasant to look at."

Richard, 32, also believes that looks are important. "In my office there is one woman who obviously takes no interest in her looks. She is really overweight and frumpy. She is just like a brain on legs, there is no point of contact except what she's working on. I'm not saying I only want to work with beautiful people but you feel there is something missing when people don't care at all." His remarks, of course, beg the question, would a male colleague, an overweight man, say, with bad taste in ties, be criticised on the same terms? Hardly, one suspects, if he performed well at his job.

Dr Sandi Mann, research psychologist at the University of Salford Management School, believes that dressing for work is a difficult balancing act. "Women want to be seen as a person and a colleague, but they don't want to be seen as too masculine." Using a toned thigh or ample bosom as a workplace weapon is, she says, a risky strategy. "It can work if there is substance there as well, but you certainly can't use it all the time - particularly, of course, if you work with women colleagues. It doesn't always work with men either. While they might say of a woman 'Phwoar, I fancy that', fancying someone is not the same as wanting to work with them. If they are looking at the body instead of the person, they might well think 'Can a pair of breasts do the job?' "

But where once a short skirt and a sexy image would be seen to undermine a woman's credibility and prevent her from being taken seriously, in the age of girl power, an overtly sexual look can be seen as a statement of power. Olwyn Burgess, director of career management at Cepec Consulting, believes that women dressing sexily goes along with a kind of female laddishness. "Ally McBeal and Anna in This Life are women dressing how men think they would dress if they were women; a kind of living fantasy," she says. "They are saying 'Look at me, I'm a woman, and this is what you'd like to do if you were me'. I can see why it's happening; if you were a woman of 22 or 23 and all the media culture round the professions was talking about throwing off old traditional culture and showing all the stuffed shirts that women are just like blokes you might join in. The notion is to succeed in that culture you have to be a lad and this is the woman's version of laddishness." However, she warns, "People take each other very much on face value. The reality is that you want your words to carry the most weight, and not be detracted from by your cleavage and thighs. If a client came in wearing a short skirt that revealed stocking tops, I would expect her consultant to ask her what image she was trying to put across."

Mary Spillane of CMB Image Consultants, believes that it is easy to strike a balance. "Women are worn out from this very dated notion of professionalism - stuffy, armourplated and asexual," she says. "Work is life these days and if you don't bring out your feminine side you feel stifled."

Feminine, yes, but overtly sexual? Unless you're actively trying to pull, the combination of the erotic and the professional can be rather unsettling. They may look uptight, but men in sober suits benefit from the clear line drawn between their work and casual selves. Flaunting your sexual self is the physical equivalent of wearing your heart on your sleeve, and leaves you vulnerable - to lewd comment, misreading of your motives and questioning of your competence. Just like Anna, girls with legs who decide they can't resist using them may find themselves walking out of the door.