My writing is about management and NOT about politics but I must admit that I was taken aback by a recent Washington Post article on Melania Trump’s shoes. Now I am as liberal as they come. My grandmother, who died when I was fifteen, made me promise to never cross a picket line, a promise that caused me some anxiety during my years at The New York Times. I was lucky. The strike that was always threatening never came during my decade plus tenure. My first vote was cast, albeit illegally, for Adelaide Stevenson, when my grandmother cajoled the poll worker into letting me go into the booth with her and pull the lever. I am not a fan of the current administration. My left of center bona fides are legit. But, while there are many issues swirling about the political scene that are important to me, the ones concerning women and women’s rights are near the top of my list.
Shoes? Let me return to my YEARS of early Sunday School attendance. John 8:7 was one of the many verses I memorized: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” We’re always throwing stones at women.
I know, I know. The writer was using those 6-inch spike heels Ms. Trump wore as she made her way to the hurricane disaster area as a metaphor for many things, including the fact that she wasn’t about to wade into any flood waters. Yes, they are inappropriate footgear for doing just about everything, including walking.
Those 6-inch spike heels are also the perfect metaphor for what’s been labeled “effortless perfection” that young women believe is expected from them. The term was identified from research conducted at Duke University, designed to understand how men and women had their undergraduate experiences influenced by gender. Some key issues emerged for those young women: body image and disordered eating, sexual assault and the hook-up culture; and social status and hierarchy all strongly shaped their four year experience. What also emerged was these women had less self-confidence by the end of four years than they did at the beginning of college while young men had much more self confidence.
These women talked about an environment in which it was expected that they would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, popular and this all would happen without any visible effort. No such expectations were present for the young men.
This confidence gap has a significant impact in the workplace. I found “The Confidence Gap,” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman; The Atlantic, May 2014, particularly compelling, in which they write:
Even as our understanding of confidence expanded, however, we found that our original suspicion was dead-on: there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.
A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence (Emphasis mine).
What message do we give our girls on a daily basis, even before they get to an elite university and strive for effortless perfection? I did a small experiment this week. It is back-to-school week and many of my friends posted their kids’ back-to-school photos on Facebook. I counted what proportion of the comments about the girls mentioned how they looked versus the boys. The results are depressing because these are, for the most part, my liberal, feminist-leaning friends. Among the photos of girl children 37% of the comments mentioned their looks. Only one out of 22 photos of girls had no comments about the child’s looks. Among the photos of boy children 4% of the comments mentioned their looks.
This lack of confidence, this focus on physical beauty, this feeling of “not good enough”, is affecting women in myriad ways in the workplace. Women tend not to ask for raises in a positive, proactive way. Women tend not to apply for higher-level jobs until they meet all the criteria rather than most. Many young women couch their ambition by using it to “help” people, somehow making their goals more socially appropriate.
So, back to Ms. Trump’s shoes. I wouldn’t wear them. But I used to (ok, maybe not 6 inch but certainly 4 inch). I also used to wear false eyelashes to seventh grade, getting up hours early to do my full make-up. It took me a long while to build my confidence and it came from demonstrated competence in the workplace. It also came from going to college with only women, a choice that is rarely possible now. It came from the support of other, more senior women and men who believed that I was good. I’d rather show by example that women don’t have to be effortlessly perfect to be successful and have an impact on the world. I’m not going to waste my voice on dissing shoes.
“Sure (Fred Astaire) was great but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels.” Frank and Ernest cartoon by Bob Thaves, 1982.