By now you’ve probably heard that last week, a woman working as a contractor at PwC in London was sent home for refusing to wear heels, attire that was prescribed by the dress code of the temp agency for which she works. Without pause, I can say that it’s downright unreasonable for an employer to require women to wear heels.
That said, the story did make me explore the question, should women who want to advance in corporate jobs wear high heels? Is it better for a woman’s career to wear heels? And almost sheepishly, I’m afraid that the answer I have to give - my personal opinion only! - is yes.
First let me share some personal information: My mom was a member of the “Power Dressing” tribe in New York City in the 1980s. Power Dressing was an important suit of armor for her as she ventured out into an extremely male-dominated work world. When she was out, I would sneak into her closet and try on her Charles Jourdan pumps (he was like the Louboutin of his day) and aspire to the day when I too would be a professional woman wearing such gorgeous high-heeled shoes. I couldn’t wear them soon enough.
In my professional career - which has always been in a fairly traditional corporate environment, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been known for being something of a heel aficionado. It all started on one of the toughest days in my career: Following a firing-squad type presentation to a client, I headed directly to the shoe department at Marshall Field’s and bought my first pair of Jimmy Choo’s. From that day on, I have spent a disproportionate amount of my take-home pay to feed my shoe habit, driven by both aesthetic and psychological needs. (Maybe it’s still cheaper than therapy?)
Sure - there were awkward moments. Since I’m not naturally as graceful as I wish I was, I have face planted at least twice in the office thanks to my 3.5” shoes. And, when I would go out on sales calls with my male colleagues who said, “let’s take the subway,” I had to tote out my flats and awkwardly change my shoes in the lobby of the client just so I could keep up. There was also that time I tried to ride one of the Google scooters in my Manolo's...
Now and then, I did stop to question why I had to experience the day feeling much more uncomfortable than my male colleagues. But I never dwelled long on that thought. (It’s hard to think when your toes are throbbing.) Like my mother before me, my heels were my professional uniform. They dressed me up, changed my posture and made me feel more confident (though admittedly less stable).
Life was mostly good in the world of glamorous shoes until I hit my late 30s, had two babies and my feet started hurting like hell whenever I wore heels. Even that didn’t deter me: I started to bring two pairs of shoes to work with me every day. When I was working at my desk or at a meeting with my close team, I wore the flats. For meetings with management or clients, I changed into heels.
These days, since I’m living the startup life at Fairygodboss, I have to confess that I’m somewhat out of practice with my heels. I’m much more likely to be seen in Nikes (that would have NEVER happened back in the day).
But for an important meeting or a visit to a client site, I will always wear heels. Just as my mother still does every day at her office.
So why do I think that it’s better for your career to wear heels in a corporate environment?**
1. The occasion calls for it.
Dressing up is a sign of respect. For yourself, for your work, for your employer, for the person you’re meeting with. Like it or not, in our culture heels are a shorthand for “formality.” For the same reason you wouldn’t wear flats with a black-tie dress, it’s also out of place to wear them to a big meeting or corporate event. And some assert that your shoes are the first thing someone notices.
2. They make you taller.
Ok, so that sounds obvious, but... being taller means you command the room better. I spoke recently with a university professor who told me that she wears heels when she lectures because she feels it makes her more visible and gives her more impact at the front of the room.
Also, believe it or not, research shows that taller people are more successful and earn more money. In this respect, since we can artificially make ourselves taller, women possibly have a workplace advantage. Why not use it?
3. You will perform better.
Get this: research has shown that scientists concentrate better when they are wearing a lab coat. And Gene Simmons feels more “rock star-y” wearing a full face of makeup. So it’s likely you will feel like a “successful professional” if you’re dressed like one. If your attire says “successful, confident, professional,” you’ve got your game on. And your performance is likely to improve.
4. Heels make you more attractive.
Again, some scary science: researchers have studied the concept of beauty as it relates to professional success, and wrote in Psychology Today (as reported in Business Insider), “beautiful people tend to bring in more money for their companies, and are therefore seen as more valuable employees and harder workers.” Since other studies show that high heels make women more attractive, it seems to follow that high heels equals more attractive equals more money for the company and you. And that sounds like a winning equation to me.
All this is not to say that you can't have a successful career in flats. I just think that you'll give yourself a leg up (pun intended?!) if you go for the heels.
So ladies, get out those heels (and credit cards) and be sure to treat yourself to a foot massage when you get that promotion.
**One caveat: I don’t think anyone should do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable from a gender identity perspective. If a woman feels more comfortable dressing like a man, then I think the broader point is that she should dress up in highly professional attire that speaks more to her.
Romy Newman is president and co-founder of Fairygodboss, an online career community for women. Visit Fairygodboss for more insights, opinions and information from thousands of other women.