Wearing High Heels to the C-Suite

Make no mistake: There’s a before and after Sheryl Sandberg’s book, "Lean In." Before, female politicians like Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council and mayoral candidate, would be criticized for losing her temper or being “bossy.” After, the media does a story about its own coverage of Christine Quinn and ponders its own fairness when covering men and women politicians. “Is she being called bossy because she’s a woman?” “Would we have asked the same questions of a man?”

Before, it was OK to take a perfectly objective article and insert a comment about a woman’s shoes, make up, hair, etc. After, it is an unacceptable way to put women down and to underhandedly plant a seed of doubt about their abilities and leadership skills.

So no, it’s not OK for The Washington Post to slip in a comment about White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler’s Manolo Blahniks or Christian Louboutins toward the end of an article about her being one of only a few women in President Obama’s inner circle.  How would readers react if, in the middle of a piece about Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, they were to learn that he wears Prada shoes or Yves Saint Laurent aftershave? Wouldn’t the professionalism of the journalist be put into question?

This kind of irrelevant information, which we keep on hearing about women in the middle of discussions of their careers, has the effect of undermining them in our eyes. This perception that the designer a woman favors defines who she is as a person and as a professional is preposterous. We know all about Michelle Obama’s taste for J.Crew, Narciso Rodriguez and Isabel Toledo. Now I ask you, when was the last time you heard who cuts Mr. Obama’s suits?

Unfortunately, every time irrelevant fashion details are mixed with career commentary, they are closely followed by actions that are detrimental to women and society in general. If you perceive that women are more concerned with their clothes and accessories than with the bottom line of a company you will probably think they lack the skills needed to lead an organization. Consequently, you would probably not choose a woman when your executive recruitment firm offers you a diverse slate of candidates for a top position. “She lacks executive presence,” will likely be your reason for turning her down.

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As the saying in Spanish goes, we are erasing with our elbow what we write with our hand (Borras con el codo lo que escribes con la mano). At a historical juncture when more and more energy, money and effort are being dedicated to opening up opportunities for women at the highest levels of organizations, allowing these kinds of inane details to be presented every time a powerful woman is in the news works against our common goals. It keeps an undercurrent of incompetence alive right under the surface. We can’t really see it, but it’s still there. And it’s very, very real for most women.

So let’s not stand quietly in the face of these small acts that collectively undercut 50 percent of our population.  Let’s bring them out and see them for what they are. Let’s challenge journalists to reconsider their words and characterizations of women every time they fall short. If we do this consistently and often, hopefully women will soon be able to wear whatever shoes they want as they walk confidently to the C-suite.

Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women's careers.

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