The other day, I received an email for a women’s event that prominently featured a high heel shoe in its design. The mailing was for an event organized by The Center for Women & Democracy (a great organization) honoring top women in business. The ad featured an exaggerated high heel- a really sky high ankle-breaker. It struck me as an odd symbol for an organization and event meant to promote women being taken seriously, having power, and being treated equally.
So, that got me thinking about high heels as symbols, in general, and the shorthand they represent for women. I quickly realized that I am part of a “high-heel” women’s running group, and that logo is a cross between a high heel and a treed mountain side. I also follow an organization called the Red Shoe Movement that is focused on women empowering women in business, and they too use a high heel as their symbol. In short, high heels are everywhere. There is even a woman in the UK getting ready to run a marathon in high heels (she is a plain fool, in my view- even if she is raising money for charity).
Women’s feet and what they symbolize have been on my mind, in part, because I recently finished reading a wonderful historical fiction novel called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, that centers on a woman in China in the mid 1800’s, when foot-binding was still common practice. Like most, I’d seen the pictures of grossly deformed feet and heard the stories of the erotic appeal of these tiny “golden lilies”, but had never read a vivid description of the incredible bone-breaking torture that went into making that peculiar fetish an irreversible reality for women. I can’t imagine the suffering involved, much less having the will to inflict it upon your own daughter. And yet, it was a significant symbol of status and refinement for the women who were lucky enough to survive it (some estimates suggest 20% of girls died as a result of the gruesome process), despite being crippled for life.
Although high heels are not agonizing torture (at least not beyond the stretch of an evening out), they do share some characteristics with foot binding. High heels make your feet look smaller, sexier, and they limit your mobility. Yes, I have danced the night away in them, run after a taxi, and probably even carried groceries- but in real, measurable terms, they limit your mobility – and the higher they are, the sexier they are, but the more physically limiting too.
High heels also represent a right of passage into womanhood. High heels are inextricably linked to sex. Certainly when I was growing up, young girls and what we’d now call tweens weren’t allowed to wear them because they were perceived as “too mature” (which is just parent-speak for sexy), though the unfortunate trend to sexualize girls at ever younger ages is also breaking down this once clear delineation.
So, it’s fascinating to me that this conveyance of sex appeal & physical limitation is one that many women have chosen to embrace as central to their professional identity. Why have we done this? I have an amazing friend who leads both professional & women’s events and she always wears the most spectacular high heels- the kind that make my palms sweat just watching her walk around balanced on about 2 1/2 square inches of leather. I know women who would feel naked without their heels- it would be strange to them NOT to wear them.
This leads us with an interesting paradox. While it is true that high heels makes you physically less mobile and more vulnerable, wearing them makes you feel strong and empowered. Put heels on and you feel a surge of confidence and desirability. A good pair of heels, and you could walk- no, strut, into a room with serious swagger. A special outfit just isn’t complete without killer shoes to complete it- and killer always means heels. You need to rock an interview or presentation? Wear your most kick-ass heels and it’s like a power-up in a video game. You. Are. Invulnerable. No mousy ballet flat is going to cut it.
Despite my own love of a swagger-inducing pair of heels, something in me balks at it being such a prominent symbol of womanhood- particularly in a professional context. Yes- they are beautiful and sexy, but they are also confining, narrow, superficial. The desire to wear heels sets an often literally crippling standard that many women pay for with surgery later in life.
I have cast about for other symbols that are uniquely female. Bras, makeup, underwear, feminine hygiene products- oh lord, lets not go down any of those roads! It’s tricky, because ultimately, it’s our biology and physical attributes that unite us (or differentiate us from men, if you like). We definitely are different on the outside, and we can debate all day about what differences go deeper than that.
I am not arguing against the high heel or the feeling of empowerment that comes from wearing them, per se. But I do wish women had something else that symbolically united us. Something that speaks more to our hearts and minds. Something that does not have an explicit or implicit tie to our sexuality.
Maybe the take-away from this is two-fold. First, an awareness and recognition that the high heel holds a unique and complex position in a woman’s life and in our culture. Just ask Cinderella. Whether you eschew or adopt them, there is a choice to be made about high heels. As a woman, you cannot be ambivalent in your relationship to them.
Second, let’s strive for something more meaningful to represent us. What image can replace the high heel on the next mailer for a women’s event? What shorthand can we use to represent women, particularly in the professional world- that doesn’t also have an undertone of sex appeal? That includes women who don’t wear heels? I think we can do better.
I’d love your feedback! Share how wearing heels (or not) has affected your personal or professional life?
Last week, after Satya made his disastrous, albeit insightful (into his thought process, anyway) comments at the Grace Hopper Convention, I had several folks reach out to ask for my opinion on the topic. Initially, I demurred, saying that everything worth saying would likely be said once Twitter was done with him, not to mention the New York Times, Time, Business Week, Forbes, TechCrunch, the Puget Sound Business Journal, and every other news outlet with a business desk.
But then I thought- am I playing into the stereotype by letting others speak for me? After all, I believe in speaking up! I believe in asking for what you want! I believe in asking for stretch assignments! I believe in being vulnerable and seeing what happens! I believe in taking risks!
My approach has worked… over the long run. I guess you could call that karma…. but it’s the kind of karma that has a lot of elbow grease behind it. Not to mention, that I have taken some pretty good sized hits because of it too. But getting back up has a virtue all it’s own. Just ask Michael Jordan.
I’d liken my relationship to karma to that famous quote by Jack Nicklaus, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Turns out- the more I speak up, the more ALL women speak up, the more likely we’ll be listened to. So, in that spirit, I will share my thoughts on #karmagate.
I was disappointed though not surprised by Satya’s comments because I think they are a reflection of his reality up to this point in his career. I certainly wish that “karma” worked as well as Satya believes (believed?) that it does! Unfortunately, history has shown that relying on karma is not a sufficiently robust “tool” for the management of one’s career- particularly if you are a woman, person of color, or an older job seeker.
My hope is that Satya’s comments and the subsequent firestorm cause him to reflect upon the unconscious bias and assumptions that have underpinned his views. In fact, I’d love to see him push his entire leadership team to reflect upon and uncover the unconscious/unintended biases that may drive their views and decisions. I hope with some study of the issue and a broader set of inputs- he’ll emerge from this as a more proactive advocate for change within Microsoft and the industry. As Nilofer Merchant said in her piece for Time, by putting the onus on “the industry,” he is distancing himself and Microsoft from taking a leadership role in fixing this problem. I’d like to see him commit to putting Microsoft front and center in the drive for gender equity in the workplace.
His biggest takeaway from this experience may be that bias is a sneaky adversary. You may think you are taking a very clear-eyed view of an issue, only to get smacked in the face with a Mack truck of unconscious bias. I hope he dedicates himself to watching for bias in his views and pushes his team to do the same. He made a strong first step by admitting fault (though his carefully worded response was a little protectionist).
One of my favorite sayings is “It’s not the mistakes we make that people remember, but how we recover from them.” So, here is his chance to make a memorable recovery. A single step doesn’t note make a journey, and we will all see where this leads him.
The other thing I think is interesting out of this debacle is how Satya’s comments (and that view about speaking up generally) intersect with other women’s/gender issues. In my blog post on Emma Watson’s speech at the UN, I took issue with what I thought was her overly conciliatory language. She “invites” men to join us in the quest for gender equity. “Invite” is about as passive and subordinate an action verb you can find. As much as I admired her making the speech at all, it left me wanting more.
In the business world, there is definitely a strong undercurrent that pushes women to minimize the use of strong (often code-worded as “inflammatory”) language. I have many times been asked to “tone it down”. And yes, it feels patronizing every time I hear it. The worst part about it though, is that statements like that are a subtle thief of an individual’s power because they take it away by degrees rather than all at once.
Satya’s gaffe has held up an important mirror that we can all reflect in. What biases are we unknowingly incorporating into the way each of us talks, thinks, and views the world?
I appreciate your comments, shares, and feedback! Tell me what YOU think!
Wow- getting a lot of hits on your blog is AWESOME! I am thrilled by the reception my post received. A person could get used to being read! After my “Ballmer” post and subsequent interview by Emily Parkhurst with the Puget Sound Business Journal, I found myself confronted with the challenge of the “follow up” or second act, and as Sheryl Sandburg so capably talks about in her book, Lean In, women are often beset by feelings of “being lucky” or success being a “fluke,” which of course, is self-depreciation at its worst. Oh no. Not in THIS house- not with two daughters to be a good role model for. So I poured myself a stiff drink (at least, metaphorically), put those fears aside and decided to get on with my next post.
First, I’d like to thank everyone that took the time to read my blog- whether you clicked through from Emily’s article or were already a reader. I have appreciated the thoughtful feedback, the tweets, and the LinkedIn connections. I’m particularly grateful to everyone who took a few minutes to read a little deeper- whether my post on creating “church without religion” or an early post about my “super boy,” your feedback means a great deal.
Given my relative obscurity, the response has been phenomenal and incredibly positive! Whether the specific idea of a voluntary severance program caught your attention or just the chance to advocate for change, the consensus is obvious- something’s gotta give at Microsoft. Sadly, Steve hasn’t called to share his plans, nor has he asked me to consult on the reorg (just to be clear- I’d jump at a chance to help!), so we will all have to wait and see what the next step is. According to Kara Swisher’s AllthingsD post today, an announcement is coming- perhaps as soon as next week. Fair to say- I’m hopeful it will be more than just a new set of acronyms and team jackets.
The success of my recent post, due in large part to Emily’s article giving my blog visibility, has me thinking about the challenge of ensuring that diverse ideas and perspectives are heard and valued within large companies and other complex institutions. Taking your ideas to “the public” is not often a wise or worthwhile way to make your voice heard when you are still an employee and yet, an unsolicited email from an essentially unknown person is unlikely to capture senior leadership’s attention at a large company- trust me, I have tried!
So, how do companies improve the ability for diverse ideas to be heard and more importantly implemented? Especially the implemented part- putting feedback into a company survey or pitching an innovative business model is one thing but it’s not the same as having that idea put into action and tested for results. The most common method companies use to foster diversity is hiring more “diverse” people but this falls short on its own. Sure, hiring a diverse workforce is a good “blunt instrument” approach, but if that diversity is only “in the numbers”, the full benefit of those efforts are not being realized.
Getting to 30%, 40%, or even 50% women in the workforce is a worthwhile (and easy to measure) goal but the crucial question is, does that diversity extend to strategic thinking and decision making (much harder to measure and quantify)? Watch those stats deteriorate rapidly as you adjust for seniority. Microsoft is a long way from being there, particularly at the most senior levels, though the recent elevation of the extremely capable Amy Hood to CFO is a step in the right direction. And diversity is not just a gender thing- getting to a “50/50” female/male ratio does not guarantee diversity of thought. What about linear vs. creative, conservative vs. risk taking, short-term vs. long-term focused, customer vs. product? Xbox is learning these lessons real-time right now.
Would crowdsourcing help? Could there be a “kickstarter” model for ideas at a company? Seems promising on the surface- “let the people decide!” but the challenge is overcoming the politics that are part of the process of casting your vote for an idea. What if being known as someone who liked my blog was a liability within Microsoft? I think most people at Microsoft, even those who may have disagreed with me, are pretty open-minded, but the potential risk is there and it makes me even more grateful to those colleagues who shared it.
I don’t know what the answer to this question is- it has a complex set variables. Often, “out of the box” thinking or suggestions miss the bigger picture or may not take into account subtle but legitimate issues or constraints that only more senior leaders know about. I know I have been “schooled” in the complexity of an issue after presenting a neatly packaged solution as the “fait accompli”, only to learn about serious limitations or factors that I hadn’t accounted for. I’d leave the meeting or presentation wishing I’d better known the full context and vowing to spend more time trying to look around the corners of an issue before the next time.
However, from these experiences I have learned a couple of important things. First, go in knowing that your idea will be changed– in fact, 90% of it may be thrown out, but if 10% sticks, that is a significant contribution. Be proud! Then reevaluate the 90% that didn’t make the cut and figure out why. Second, getting feedback- even (perhaps, especially!) criticism means people are listening and that’s a huge compliment. This one takes time to learn- feedback, particularly harsh criticism, is hard to absorb gracefully, but if someone is taking the time to give you feedback, it means that they believe you are worth teaching and have the capacity to grow. When you want to start worrying is when you are ignored.
Finally, I believe this with all my heart- Keep trying, keep standing up, keep waving the flag, and most important- keep caring. Apathy is the enemy of progress and when you sit back, opt-out, or stop caring, you perpetuate the status quo. Don’t be surprised when it finally catches up to you.