March your way into Corporate America. Just wear the right shoes.
“Being short is probably as much of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African American.” – Malcolm Gladwell, Blink
We live in progressive times. But our psyche is steeped in tradition.
As women graduate college at rates surpassing those of men and as white-collar office jobs continue to dwarf blue-collar manufacturing, women continue to increase our presence within the corporate arena. Simultaneously, we’re still getting paid $.85 per $1.00 of our male counterparts, the same discounted rate as when I first researched the topic while at DePaul University, in 1991.
The professional options continue to increase and dress codes continue to evolve along the way. However, as recently as a decade ago while commencing my MBA at the Simon School, at the mandatory “Dress for Success” seminars, the now defunct Casual Corner reps came out to give us options. Pants? Highly discouraged, especially to women pursuing banking.
This floored me. It was 2001 and we were pressured into wearing skirt suits to interviews, not out of choice but because the banking sector expected this.
I purposely back-lashed against this devolutionary influence and, while I owned one good skirt suit and one good pant suit, I wore what felt right for the specific opportunity, based on mood, weather and what looked good that day. If I ever didn’t get a job because I went against the grain, that level of feedback was never provided.
The one fashion consistency that I did witness in my two decades in the corporate trenches is how much a good shoe matters. Specifically, the height and sophistication of the heel.
Because the heel adds height and height is perceived as power. And, in corporate America, it’s all about perceived power and the success this power signals.
According to the CDC, the average American man is 69.4 inches tall, while the average American woman is 63.8. In Blink, Malcom Gladwell adds, “In the U.S. population, about 14.5% of all men are six feet tall or taller… Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58%.” Height matters. And, if you’re a woman, the fight to the top looks grim. According to CNNMoney, “Currently*, 12 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, down from 15 last year, as three left their posts and were succeeded by men.”
We women, on average, are biologically shorter than men, earn less for the same job than men and have a much smaller chance of running a Fortune 500 company than men. This paints a rather skeptical present and future, but it doesn’t stop women from pursuing MBAs and corporate jobs. And, for those women who are in the trenches, competing for the promotion, the new client, the bonus and the visibility to one day manage a team, earn stock options and have some stake in the game, appearance is a critical component of that game.
Heels help provide this: we feel taller, we feel noticed, we feel a new found power that washes away the second we take those pressing and expensive shoes off our tired feet after a twelve or even sixteen hour workday.
For businesswomen, beyond the suit, the right pair of heels serves as the simultaneous protective shield and lethal spear that warriors wore in Medieval times. The right heels not only give us the confidence to walk with our head held a little taller but, also, to be able to look men — those making more than us — directly in the eye, as if to say, “We are not your daughters, we are your equals.”
I recall a petite female communications professor of mine telling us that during one moment, when she couldn’t get the attention of the room, she actually climbed on her desk. It took that extreme action for people to finally acknowledge that she had something to say.
Women do have something to say, as do men, and learning to truly listen to each other and to hear one another is the key, not only in a professional setting but also in a personal one. And, as many of my female friends will attest, their professions are far more conducive to comfortable shoes, where it truly is about function over form.
But, the reality today, in this schizophrenic and volatile economy, is that people want leaders who will solve problems, cut costs, recruit talent and, ultimately, deliver profits. And, as long as we think that the tall guy must be the smart one, the women have to wear their heels, one determined and painful corporate step at a time.
First written in August 2011.
*2011 CEO Figures
Reprinted with permission and gratitude from CoolCleveland.com.
Next CareerTOOLBOX Column: 10 Ideas to Help You Advance Your Career