I was scrolling through LinkedIn this morning (which happens to be Dr. King’s birthday) and an article popped up on my feed about women in the workplace, so of course I clicked on it. The article by Sallie Krawcheck, founder of Ellevest, is well-written and has some interesting points, but what immediately jumped out to me was that one of the very first comments on this post was from a woman questioning why Krawcheck chose the outfit she is wearing on her book cover, which is a photo of her in a vivid red dress and black pumps (no cleavage and the dress falls below her knees). Further down the chain, another woman replied that she would not be buying her book because her outfit on the proves that she wants to be seen as a “pretty thing” and not a “smart or competent colleague.”
The initial comment wasn’t a blatant insult, but it was kind of a dig and it bothered me. Further, it opened a topic completely unrelated to the article, diverting the conversation away from the well thought-out points it brought up. I was not miffed so much at what the original commenter said per se but the fact that she brought it up at all.
A few months back, I watched one of the most brilliant documentaries that I have seen, called Miss Representation, about gender stereotypes among girls and women (they have one for boys too called The Mask You Live In— both are on Netflix now). The ninety minutes takes you through a number of jaw-dropping statistics and eloquently unpacks different ways the media relates to women and attempts to define standards for her worth and beauty, which we as a culture have in large part accepted and integrated into our belief systems, operating as if these ideas are truth.
One point that really struck me was the treatment of women political and business leaders by the news media. We are all used to (and I daresay numb to) the off-color remarks here and there, the little snippets, comments, side remarks made all the time in the news media, sometimes by the most esteemed journalists. But seeing them strung together, one after another after another, paints a picture of a clear culture of sexism that remains free flowing within our society as a whole, and that picture is sickening.
Frumpy power suits: still newsworthy.
Think about the women leaders in recent world-politics alone. Whether you’re Angela Merkel ( Forbes, even after naming her the second most powerful person in the world in 2015, the top woman on the list, found it perfectly acceptable to comment on her “frumpy power suits” and her “silly pageboy haircut”), Hillary Clinton (and the non-stop pantsuit conversation) or Sarah Palin (who is particularly famous for the blow-up doll mass-produced in her image, one of the more disgusting examples), it’s an ugly situation. Just being a woman who put herself out there made these and many others fair game for low-blows and frivolities: extra noise that watered down her message. Her personal style choices easily became hot topics, drowning out the issues of incredible social, economic and political importance that these women were taking on.
This impacts all women, even the best of us. Sallie Krawcheck has one of the most impressive resumes in the financial world, including CEO of Merrill Lynch, CEO and CFO of Citi Wealth Management and CEO of Smith Barney. She’s a tough cookie. One can only imagine what she has endured as a woman in the back-slappin’, dirty-joke tellin’, whiskey drinkin’ old boys’ club that is the upper reaches of investment banking.
Look at what happened after ONE person commented support for the fashion comment:
Now, I’m sure Krawcheck is just fine and will continue to crush it because clearly, that’s what she does. But it’s worth noting that she was impacted enough to reply. The pricks that these girl on girl jabs cause, starting in the playroom and continuing to the boardroom, never quite lose their sting; their nature so personal that even the most accomplished woman is not immune. How much better off would we all be if women like Krawcheck didn’t have to deal with personal insults and could use this energy to keep promoting her amazing message?
Listen to the message. Evaluate, discuss, wrestle, question, debate, decide. File under “Rational & Informed Decision Making” in brain.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying that image is unimportant. We are by nature visual and we interpret so much about our world visually, consciously and unconsciously. But we must be vigilantly aware of what we assign value to when assessing matters of importance. Sallie’s red dress or Hillary’s pantsuits have no impact on their message or ability to get the job done. This kind of thinking feeds right in to the great social lie that rules our culture that how a woman looks on the outside provides some kind of definitive measure of her value or worthiness of our attention.
This needs to end. It’s bad enough that we (women) are constantly objectified and judged by the men in the workplace (and everywhere else) based on our clothes, our weight, our looks, we women don’t need play into the misogyny. We need to direct the conversation, to be conscious of which factors we put weight on when forming an opinion about one’s message and identify what data is completely inconsequential. The importance of these superficialities is a lie that we are being served everywhere we look and until we become aware of the nonsense that we put so much weight on, we will waste precious time and resources saying yes or no for the wrong reasons.
Let’s leave the fashion policing to E! and focus on moving our society forward. If equality is the fight here, let’s let women dress in a way that they deem appropriate, and keep the conversation going about the real issues. In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, maybe we can start choosing to evaluate a woman based on the content of her character and not the color of her pantsuit.