I was interested and disappointed by the focus on Hillary Clinton’s appearance during the campaign trail and recent TV debate. It seems that if she looks a little tired, has a bad hair day or is just not looking as impeccable as usual, people feel it’s okay to comment on that rather than her policies.
So is this a US or TV phenomenon or does it happen elsewhere too?
We all recall the interest in Theresa May’s shoes both before and after she became prime minister. We’ve also heard about employment tribunal cases when female employees have had remarks made about what they should or should not wear.
A case around high heels was one of those that made headlines recently. You may also recall female TV presenters suggesting that they are subject to a greater scrutiny and are ‘retired off’ much sooner than their male counterparts.
Is this sort of judgement made by men on women, or are we as women encouraging this focus and can we do more to re-balance such discussions?
I’ve overheard women describing female colleagues as professional and talented and then ending with a comment about “and she dresses beautifully”, or “and she has an amazing figure”. The comments are genuine and warm-hearted but may accidentally be allowing this language to seem appropriate.
I’ve never heard a male colleague say about another male that they are “super-efficient, clever and have great hair”.
Maybe this focus on what women look like is an easy diversion from some of the more positive studies about the impact women can make in the workplace, whether it’s the White House or a FTSE 100 company.
For example, I recently happened to revisit the 2008 research from Mickinsey and Co, which suggested that women more frequently display key leadership traits seen in successful business environments than their male managers.
The study found they display key traits more often in relation to developing their people, acting as role models and setting expectations and rewarding. They also marginally beat male colleagues on being inspirational and using participative decision making.
I have been fortunate to have worked both with, and in, organisations that value many of these traits and have seen them displayed by senior leaders of both sexes.
I know that when we use them to reward and recognise all talent, not just women, they can make a dynamic difference to how a business performs.
About the author
Valerie Owen is chair at Swan Housing. An expert in economic and sustainable development, she is a multi-disciplinary property professional – a Chartered Architect, Chartered Town Planner and Chartered Surveyor. Prior to setting up Le Vaillant Owen Consultancy, Valerie was Managing Director of London First, delivering economic development programmes in Sustainable Development, Housing, Regeneration, Health, Sector Development & Business retention in collaboration with national and regional governments.