This post is part of the Executive Image series that Daria (aka @MominManagement) began a short while ago. I am honored that she invited me to participate along with her and five other amazing women. For more about the series, visit Daria’s website, MominManagement.
Let me ask you a question. When you think of an executive or a boss or a manager, what image pops into your head? Do you picture a man or a woman?
I like to think of myself as pretty progressive when it comes to gender equality. After all, I am a woman. I am striving to make it in a world that has heretofore been dominated by men. However, even I, coming from that perspective, have to admit that when I think of the “executive image,” I think of a man.
I’m not the only one
I decided to see how ruler of the world, Google, envisions the executive image. I did an image search for “executive image.” Here is what I found:
So what do we see here? Most of the images are dominated by men. Where there are women in the picture, they seem to blend in with the men, so it’s not even easy to tell, with a quick glance, that there are women there.
What is going on here?
There’s no doubt that women have made a lot of headway in the business world. There are a lot of woman-owned companies out there. Some of the most brilliant entrepreneurs are women. And yet, when we think of an “executive” we still think either of a man or of a woman who is dressed like a man. I’ve been thinking about this issue since the 2008 presidential election. Do you remember what a huge deal was made out of Hillary Clinton and her pant suits? Regardless of your politics, you have to admit that was a bit strange. Was she being chided for not being feminine enough? Was she being chided because it was perceived she was trying to give off the same power that men give off in their power suits? I struggled with that whole affair. I’m a professional woman. Are my fashion decisions being weighed that much? If so, are men undergoing the same ordeal? It doesn’t really seem like it.
Newsflash: Women, even powerful women, are not men
It seems to me there should be a widely accepted vision of what feminine power should look like, and it seems to me like the image of the executive female should be independent and different from the male image. After all, women are different. Many women approach leadership differently from men. Do women, do female executives, need to dress like a man to get their power across?
The minefield of women’s fashion in business
The decisions a man has to make to look “professional” or “executive” are fairly simple, really. A suit of some sort, a tie, maybe cuff links, maybe a vest. The general look has been established, as that image from Google shows. For a woman wanting to evoke power and femininity, the issue becomes pretty complex. Here are some examples.
The dress: If a female executive wears a dress, what kind of dress should it be? If it’s sleeveless, she may be perceived as being too flirty or too informal. If she is wearing long sleeves or a dress with a long skirt, the perception may be that she is kind of rigid and impersonal. Maybe she appears old-fashioned.
The skirt: Similar problems exist for the woman who is an executive and yet who likes to wear skirts. What is too short? What is too long? If a woman wears a skirt that is too short, is she trying to just show off her legs?
The pant suit: Okay, let’s talk about the pant suit. There are some pant suits that are kind of nice. Others are kind of atrocious. Some try to bridge the feminine and masculine worlds while others veer more towards the feminine. People may say, “Okay, what kind of message is she trying to send, anyway?
These are just the major facets of a woman’s wardrobe. A woman gets judged by her jewelry. Her lipstick may be too red, or maybe she doesn’t wear any. A woman’s shoes are perceived of as messengers. Why does one woman wear flat shoes while another wears high heels? What is that all about?
And don’t’ even begin the conversation about hair length, style, and color.
Is this a problem of male perception, female perception, or both?
What do you think this is all about? Is this all symptomatic of the fact that women are still associated with being “soft” and not powerful? Has the glass ceiling not really been broken, but only cracked? Should we begin to analyze men in a similar fashion (pardon the pun) to make things seem more equal, or would that just confuse things all the more?
As a woman in the business world, I have tended to gravitate towards the pin stripes. But it bothers me. Why does looking professional translate in my mind to dressing in a fashion similar to men?
What is your take on all of this?