21 September 2016 By Northern Lights
The news this morning that 28 per cent of women have been asked to change their appearance at work to be ‘better for business’ has provoked a lively debate in our office.
I am feeling sensitive because I have suggested a few times that women should change their appearance to have more impact at work. Never to flash flesh (actually, completely the opposite with one young intern) but I have suggested a chief executive should wear make-up and that a member of my team at EY needed to smarten herself up.
Is it wrong to comment on someone’s appearance at work? Some of our team here are adamant that we should all be allowed to dress as we want at work as long as it has a smart appearance and it is sexist to get women to wear make-up and high heels.
My view is a bit different. I’ll use two examples to explain.
The first female had taken over as chief executive from an extremely dynamic and charismatic predecessor – who had stepped into the chairman’s role, so was still around. The female, let’s call her Jane, was actually a far better business leader in every sense and turned the business around to be a great success. But she felt she lacked a presence – in her mind comparing herself to her predecessor (let’s call him Richard) or allowing him to dominate in the room if they were together.
Jane was extremely pretty – a natural English beauty – and I rightly guessed that she didn’t want to wear make-up because her husband liked her looking natural. We talked about her confidence and if a different look would help her to have more impact – even if only in her mind. Reluctantly she went to her hairdresser to give her a sharper cut (apparently the Frenchman was furious at some English woman suggesting he hadn’t given her a good enough cut – did the trick nicely!) and she started wearing subtle make-up.
The difference was small but huge. She looked like a leader – and had more presence. Of course make-up alone is not enough. I helped her with speeches and how to enter the room with a smile and be a leader in the room – that is about taking control of the room.
In the second case, let’s call her Rebecca, I had rung round the various partners she worked with to get feedback for her appraisal. They were all men and the feedback wasn’t great – she looked messy and couldn’t run meetings very well. The two should have been unconnected but I think any man could have had the same feedback.
When I discussed some of the feedback with Rebecca she was hurt (I didn’t tell her the worst comments). I can remember the conversation now – and still feel uncomfortable at the memory. It is not easy as a boss to give this sort of personal feedback.
However she did say that she didn’t think she was respected or taken seriously in meetings – and that gave us a starting point to help her.
I tackled a couple of points – her long, curly red hair always looked messy and she said ‘oh I wash it in the morning and let it dry on the Tube’. Mmmm. Then we tackled her clothes – she was petite and pretty but wore clothes that swamped her. What we agreed was that the firm would pay for her to have help from a professional stylist and from her side she agreed to make suggested changes.
Wow. What a difference. She had her hair cut into a sleek bob, bought a couple of neat, boxy suits – I remember the one in a gorgeous soft green – and wore make-up that suited her complexion and brought out her eyes. She looked a million dollars. When she walked into a meeting she looked like the person who should be leading it. It boosted her confidence and changed how she was perceived.
With both Rebecca and Jane, my role was to help them address issues they themselves raised – they didn’t feel confident in meetings or weren’t making the impact they wanted. So I wasn’t telling them per se, you need to change how you look – I was helping them to be more successful at work.
Reading the Slater and Gordon research I wonder if the survey is actually reflecting the discussions. I can imagine Rebecca might fill in a survey and say she’d once been told to smarten up – when we were actually tackling the points she had raised about not having presence. I can also imagine many a male boss trying to deal with this sort of feedback and possibly making a hash of it – goodness knows, it was hard enough for me as a woman.
I am sure that there will be a few women who have been told to wear short skirts and high heels to win business from men. But I don’t believe that is really what is going on with this research.
Yes, in an ideal world we would all be accepted for who we are and dress would not matter for men or women. But in the real world, women are still struggling to win their place at the boardroom table and till we get more equality at the top, we still have to play some games to get there.
The theory of equality is great – but don’t we all (men and women) play games to get where we want?