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You Can Be Feminine and Fabulous AND a Great Leader!

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Tuesday, March 8th, 2016
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It is 2016, and women still face gender bias when it comes to being taken seriously as a leader. Not only do gender biases against women leaders arise from how women actually lead, but also from how women appear. While the business suit for men is a clear-cut symbol of professionalism for men, the norms around women’s dress in business vary from flowing dresses, dress suits, trouser suits and an abundance of accessories. Just as they face double binds with balancing assertive and accommodating leadership styles, they also face the dilemma of being too masculine or too feminine. Being sexually attractive can diminish the perception of a woman’s competence and professionalism. Not only are women criticized for being too feminine, they are criticized for not being feminine enough. If she looks too masculine, she is threatening. If she is too feminine then she is not taken seriously. What????

Along with whether they are too assertive or not assertive enough, their choices of fashion are heavily scrutinized. Women leaders are often criticized for their sense of style and are often pressured to comply with norms of etiquette around appropriate attire. It is often considered an anomaly to conform to a stereotypical feminine image while simultaneously serving in the role of an assertive leader. High heels, make-up, and long hair can be inappropriately sexy. Talking about fashion with your co-workers can be considered frivolous and “un-leadershiplike” while talking about fantasy sports leagues is not.

Additionally, women are often examined on the basis of their maternal and marital role rather than their academic attainment, professional background or experience. Women leaders who are unmarried or have no children are often questioned for their choices to not have a family. “What’s wrong with her?” Women who forgo more feminine fashion choices and choose conservative or even androgynous fashion choices are subject to criticism as well. A woman who acts “too masculine” is relegated to being categorized by names that question her sexual orientation or derogate her assertiveness.

Even the media focuses on women’s clothing color and style in comparison while hardly mentioning the fashion choices of male leaders. The media perpetuates gender bias against women’s ability to lead by persistently emphasizing women’s femininity as a contrast to their leadership. This contrived distinction reduces women’s leadership skills and accomplishments as accessories to their outfits and perpetuates the belief that women leaders are inferior because they are feminine. The media also promulgates other images that impact women’s self-perceptions, especially images regarding female beauty standards. The media seemingly has a fascination with the relative thinness of women–leaders or other wise. Exposure to mediated thin images negatively influences women’s self-esteem, self-consciousness, body-related anxiety, and distress. Extreme cosmetic surgery is promoted as a transformation for women to become “better”, to improve their personalities and to elevate their position in life, perpetuating the myth equating physical beauty with success.

I love pink! It is one of my favorite colors. But I quickly learned that it was a liability to my leadership competency. Many years ago when I was still in the corporate world, I began buying this wonderful quilted pink and green patterned luggage and bags. I had totes, the garment bag, wallets, toiletry bags, eyeglass case–each month I would add to my collection. I even got them embroidered with my initials. Eventually, I added a laptop bag to my collection. It was so awesome! I got it embroidered with my initials and used it for work. I never thought once about my pink accessories and thought I was quite stylish!

One day, I was in a conversation with my outside counsel, an elderly white man who has been practicing law longer than I have been on the earth. We were discussing the status of pending cases. At some point, he began to discuss a case that had a woman as opposing counsel. The conversation shifted from the quality of the legal defense to her personal appearance. Apparently, she had an affinity for pink too. I remember how he described in condescension how she had her “little” pink legal pad, her “little” pink briefcase, her “little” pink pen, her “little” pink post-it notes… He went on to insinuate that no one took her seriously because she had pink accessories.

I shrank in my chair worrying about how my embroidered pink laptop and matching tote might be diminishing the impact of my professionalism. Being the only woman lawyer and female executive at the time, I allowed this exchange to get to me. Soon after, I abandoned my stylish computer bag for a black leather bag that brought greater dignity to my profession (insert eyeroll). In many instances, femininity and leadership are felt to be incongruous. Women leaders are often expected to mask or downplay their femininity to be accepted as an equal among leaders. Too much pink and her intelligence quotient is immediately reduced and her ability to lead is significantly discounted.

There is a difference between distinguishing a woman by her appearance and defining her. Women are fabulous! We can change our hair, our clothes, and accessories and completely transform our look. But that is just what is on the outside. What we adorn our bodies with does not determine our level of intelligence. Certainly, we do not become less competent if we write on a pink note pad rather than a white one.

I should not have allowed my outside counsel’s remarks to deter me from my fashion choices. I should have continued to carry my pink laptop case. I was a walking campaign for the power of pink and I allowed a chauvinistic remark to shut me down. When we succumb to the pressures to conform to the idea of the masculinized woman leader, we dilute the potency of being feminine while leading. When we accept that there is a dichotomy between being feminine and being strong, we perpetuate the myth that a powerful woman is an anomaly. Imagery is powerful. The more the world sees women in power, the more natural the image will be. Whether that woman is in pink or navy or taupe, she will be a great leader and an inspiration to other women. She will be an inspiration to other leaders. Women should not have to balance between being a woman and being a woman who leads.

Women in pink unite!

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