I reached my current height when I was in fifth grade and all of 11 years old. I still carry a vivid memory of going out trick or treating with my friends the year before, towering over them, and some dad saying to me, “You should be ashamed of yourself, begging for candy with the little kids at your age!” I was ashamed after that, feeling wrong in my 5’7” self.
Unfortunately “feeling wrong” in your skin is an all too common feeling among young women, even after decades of women’s advancement in education and their subsequent rise in the working world. There is a pervasive cultural message that a woman’s value is closely linked to her appearance. Young women today want to be perfect – smart, successful, beautiful and thin. And they punish themselves to get there.
It starts early. An article in 2012 in CNN online was titled, “Fat is the new ugly on the playground” and it detailed how young girls are increasingly bullied about weight. By 2016 a study by Girlguiding in the U.K. revealed that 36% of 7 to 10 year girls believed that how they looked was more important than their brains or their personalities. Other recent studies show that nearly 4 out of 10 girls under the age of 12 are on a diet!
Studies among college women repeatedly show that they DON’T get more realistic about their body image as they get older – they get less realistic. For example, a study among college women revealed that nearly 9 out of 10 surveyed wanted to lose weight, even though all of them were at a healthy weight or on the lower end of the healthy weight charts. Weight loss would have put nearly 20% of these women under weight!
When college women were asked if they felt pressure to maintain a certain body weight, the large majority said yes, citing, in order, their boyfriends, girlfriends and mother as the source of the pressure.
So what happens when you get into the workforce? Lisa Quest, writing in Forbes Online, has discussed that a woman’s weight can have a significant effect on earnings, with “heavy” and “very heavy” women earning between $9,000 and $19,000 less than their “average” weight counterparts. But a more recent Forbes Online article by Ms. Quest (“Thin is In for Executive Women,” Forbes Online, August 6, 2012) cited a study by Mark Roehling and Patricia Roehling, in which they found that between 45% and 61% of top male CEOs are overweight but only 5% – 22% of top female CEOs are overweight. The authors conclude that these findings suggest that there is a greater tolerance for larger men in the executive office. For women, it helps to be thinner.
I was hired as CEO at the thinner end of my weight range. When I left my closet held a complete business wardrobe in every size, starting with size 10-12 and ending with size 20. At the slimmer end of the range I felt strong and deserving somehow. At the heavy end of that I felt self-conscious and awkward and ashamed, even though I had 13 years of great performance as a CEO behind me, with top line and bottom line growth and a thriving and energizing company culture. Actual performance wasn’t enough. Living large, a phrase that connotes celebration and success, the ability to spend freely and have the best of everything, means something very different to those of us women who have been bigger, taller, heavier, larger than our culture’s feminine ideal.
Have I lost all my male readers by now? What I am really writing about are concrete examples of the unspoken, unconscious biases that exist in our corporate life. Obviously there are other biases besides those targeted toward women, but these are the ones I know best. All of these biases should be of concern to men, too, if they want to work, manage and lead a workforce that is motivated and energized to do their best.
So let’s be clear about SOME of the unspoken, unconscious biases that exist for women as they climb the executive ranks. These are just a few that I’ve written about in the past few months:
· We have to be thin and dress attractively; it often helps to be attractive.
· We have to be not TOO assertive but not TOO weak.
· We have to care about our children but not let our families get in the way of our ambition.
· We have to prove ourselves repeatedly while men more often get promoted on potential.
· Even our positive performance reviews detail ways we can improve, unlike our male counterparts.
I could go on and on…and if I cited all the references I would run out of room. But, perhaps to add insult to injury, women are often passed over because someone doing the hiring believes they’ve chosen the “best person for the job” and that same decision-maker steadfastly believes that he or she has no bias!
Are you that decision-maker or do you manage an HR department? Then I urge you to read this article: An International HR Leader Publicly and Bravely Admits Her Bias Against Women Leaders
Then I suggest you go to the AAUW website and take the survey listed under Implicit Association Tests about your own unconscious biases. This one is from Project Implicit out of Harvard University. I took two, one on race and one on gender. I learned that I have a slight bias women against women in leadership roles. I did not have these same biases around race in the workplace; only gender. Wow! Unconscious bias is critical for all of us to look at.
“My point is that perceptual bias can affect nut jobs and scientists alike. If we hold too rigidly to what we think we know, we ignore or avoid evidence of anything that might change our mind.” Martha Beck