Episode 72: The Power of Image (re-release)

This is not a sexist thing. This is a communication thing. What are you communicating by how you appear?
— Mrs. Moneypenny

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, men, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This week, a show about image.

I’m quite surprised I’m doing this – it seems a bit retro, a bit a women’s magazine-y to talk about how appearance affects our careers. And I basically have avoided women’s magazines for 15 years because I think they conspire to make women feel inadequate.

What got me thinking about this was reading a column by Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman.  In it she talked about how Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook studiously avoids discussing her clothes in any articles she’s featured in, even in Vogue – Friedman says it’s as if Sandberg thinks she’ll come across as superficial if she discusses her appearance and the part it plays in her career, even though she’s always meticulously put-together. It reminded me she doesn’t bring clothing and appearance up at all in her book ‘Lean In’ as part of her discussion of what can help women get ahead. Friedman rightly points out, I think, that  

“Clothes are tools to manipulate perception as much as raising your hand or speaking out loud.”

Reading that made me think of another FT columnist, Mrs. Moneypenny, otherwise known as Heather McGregor. She has her own book out, Mrs. Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Ambitious Women – and in that she does talk about appearance.

I met her in London recently and she told me a woman who wants what she calls a serious career needs to give a serious amount of thought to the way she looks. She began by pointing to one very famous woman…

“Hillary Clinton is one of my particular idols in terms of focus, perseverance, and also the greater good. She really passionately believes in changing the world to be a better place and has put everything into it almost at the risk of her health, recently, as you know. But Hillary herself says how you turn out matters. What you do with your hair matters.”

Even if you wish it didn’t. Look what happened when Clinton dared to appear in public last year without makeup. It became a news story.

[CBS This Morning:]

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is back from an overseas trip that took her to three countries over the weekend, but it’s not her diplomacy that’s making news. It is her appearance.”

“She appeared with no makeup, natural hair and glasses, and the Secretary makes no apologies.”

HC: “I am so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now, Jill, because you know if I want to wear my glasses I’m wearing my glasses, if I want to pull my hair back, I’ll pulling my hair back. And, you know, at some point it’s just not something that deserves a whole lot of time and attention. And if others want to, you know, worry about it, I’ll let them do the worrying for a change.”

But that pared-down appearance has not been repeated in public except when Clinton left hospital in January after being treated for a blood clot.

Heather McGregor has her own headhunting firm, so she meets a lot of professionals who are trying to make a good impression.  

“So 85 percent of communication is non-verbal. That’s why radio is such an interesting medium, actually. When you walk into a room you make a number of statements about yourself before you even open your mouth. It’s about the intonation of your voice, it’s about how you come across as a person, it’s about your handshake. When I am teaching interns about how to behave in a business environment I test their handshake. You know, is it an appropriate pressure, is it appropriately un-sweaty, how long should it last, these are all things that matter. You are communicating so much non-verbally.”

And she says despite the amount of attention paid to women’s appearance by pretty much everyone, men DO have to worry about it too.

“What men do is they eliminate appearance as an issue. So with men, as long as they’re neat and tidy, and they’ve got rid of any extraneous nose hair, and they don’t have any body odor problems or breath problems, it’s fine, they just eliminate. Nobody ever hired a man because he looked brilliant but plenty of people didn’t hire men because they turned up looking a shambles. With women you also need to do the same thing, eliminate appearance as an issue. So I have people that come to me saying I haven’t made partner in my law firm.  And then you have to say to them, do you wear that much cleavage at work? Because if you wear that much cleavage at work I’m not surprised you’re not making partner. People will be worried that it sends the wrong signal to clients. So I would say this is not a sexist thing. This is a communication thing. What are you communicating by how you appear?”

But at least some of that is in the eye of the beholder. Because what’s right for one workplace could look very odd in another.

“Knowing that I have to put on a hard hat, it doesn’t make sense to do my hair up.”

That’s Amy Johnson. She’s an engineer for a chemical company, based in Pennsylvania. She spends a lot of time in steel mills and is often the only woman on the premises.

“Knowing that I’m going to be in a mill with high humidity and temperatures exceeding a hundred degrees in the summer, it doesn’t make sense to put on makeup because it’s just going to run off. It doesn’t make sense to put on expensive clothes because it’s just gong to end up greasy and that grease doesn’t come out in the washer.”

In 2011 a Harvard study showed that women wearing a certain amount of makeup – let’s call it medium coverage – were perceived as ‘more competent’ and sometimes trustworthy than those without. The study was pretty small and it was paid for by Proctor & Gamble, which makes a couple of makeup brands itself. It got quite a bit of attention and stirred a fair amount of disdain and outrage among some women.  Amy says in the mill, her credibility hangs on NOT seeming to care too much about the finer details of her appearance…

“If I’m going to walk into an environment that is predominantly male, if not all male, being a female, I don’t want them to disregard me as not being capable. I think if I were to spend too much time on hair and makeup and those things I think it would give the first impression that I’m not really a mill person."

And that’s the last thing her career needs. By presenting the unadorned image she does Amy feels she’s taking the best route to being on equal footing with the men she works with.

“I know that the men tend to change themselves – change the way they act when I’m present. They watch what they say, they don’t cuss as much, they may not be as rude to eachother, they might not yell at eachother like they normally would. But you know they joke around with me. They listen to what I say. I don’t feel like I’m the only female. Which I think is very important.”

She says it’s when she goes into the office, which does have plenty of women, that she feels the need to dress up. Amy’s getting married in a few weeks and she says she will be getting her hair and makeup done for that occasion.

Heather McGregor says whether most people realize it or not, highly successful men are making tweaks to their appearance as their careers progress – often prodded by an outside advisor.

“I was speaking to somebody yesterday morning who has been advising a CEO of a very, very big company, who recently took over the job, about how he should present himself to the outside world - and this had involved even going clothes shopping, and the color of his socks. I don’t believe men don’t have these issues.  Men are taken aside by their chairman when they’re made CEO and told you know, I want to make you CEO, but you’ve got to look more professional, you’ve got to give over more signals about how you are.”

That idea about being given feedback about your appearance is really interesting. Because there’s research from McKinsey and Company says that one of the reasons women are further behind at work is that women get less feedback about everything.  Here’s recently retired McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh.

“Women have to actually fight for feedback. And it’s because everyone around them wants to be nice. It’s not because they want to deny them the ability to grow. They don’t want to hurt them, hurt their feelings, they don’t want them to cry. So women have to say no, really, I obviously have blind spots, everybody has them, what are they? Tell me, what am I doing wrong? And even then people say you’re fine, you’re just fine…yet they’ll take a man aside and say you know what you just did in that meeting, never do that again, that was stupid. They might even swear at the guy. Get yourself a long sleeved shirt…you look cheap in a short-sleeved shirt…so they’ll just say it like it is…you look like an idiot, you sounded like an idiot…don’t ever do that again and what do they say to the woman, you were fine. How is she gonna grow? She’s making the same mistakes.”

Now of course I have no idea how often this lack of feedback concerns a woman’s appearance, and I’m guessing a lot of women are very conscious of the way they look in a professional environment. But it’s very interesting when you think about that fact that many of the managers in a position to give feedback and advice are men. And senior men generally do not feel comfortable giving women advice about their appearance. Heather McGregor says a male CEO client of hers asked her to intervene with one of his female staff, who he said dressed like Miss Marple and needed to acquire a slicker look.

Heather says there’s a simple answer for anyone who feels they want to take a step up and needs to look well put-together, but is floundering a bit about how to upgrade…

“If you have a serious career and serious aspirations and you know, getting the right clothes and using the right makeup doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t come naturally to me, particularly on makeup, and I went and asked for help. People are always wiling to help you from that girl sitting at the counter at the department store all the way to professional makeup people. Treat it like you were getting married, if you’re going for a promotion get someone to teach you how to do your makeup.”

But sometimes those people can be over-zealous. I’ve come out of department stores where I asked for a natural look…plastered in more makeup than I’d ever choose to wear for the fanciest evening out.

That’s The Broad Experience for this week.

If you have feedback or story ideas you can find me at Ashley at thebroadexperience.com. And if you like what you hear please share the show on social media – it really helps.

I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.