Ditch the Heels If You Want to Climb the Corporate Ladder


We all know that women earn less than men while doing the same job. We also know that only a very small percentage of women hold the most powerful positions in corporate America. So why is this?

Certainly sexism and entrenched corporate patriarchies play a role but I suggest there may be another reason that no one talks about. Ever.

My hypothesis has to do with what women wear on the job and how what they wear negatively impacts their ability to appear powerful and confident, as well as their ability to perform.

In sum, we need to ditch the heels and the skirts. Here's why:

Many studies have been done and summarized in the media about how "power poses" affect not only how co-workers, bosses and interviewers view you but also affect how you perform. There is a "power pose" way of sitting and walking but these power poses cannot be done in heels and a skirt.

A sitting power pose is where you sit in a manner that takes up the most space possible, legs apart, arms apart (or not crossed or pressed against the body) with the feet either on the ground or with one ankle resting on the other knee. Harvard Business School professor Amy J.C. Cuddy calls this pose "the CEO." You can't sit in the CEO power pose in a skirt or dress (unless it is ankle length).

A power walk is characterized by a straight spine, shoulders back, eyes forward and a slow gait. You want to walk like you own the place and never look down. Well, there isn't a street or sidewalk in the world where a woman wearing heels can walk without glancing down to make sure she isn't about to step in a crack or subway exhaust grate. And we've all seen women in heels trip in the office, as well. When you are balancing your body weight on something the diameter of a pencil, you better be glancing down often enough to see that change in elevation where the marble floor meets the carpet or the wooden threshhold.

Power poses such as those described above actually change a person's hormones and behavior, just as if he or she had real power, according to Sue Shellenbarger in a Wall Street Journal article. She explains how these physiological changes are linked to better performance and more confident, assertive behavior. You don't just appear more powerful but you also perform better.

According to studies conducted by American anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, when people are conversing, 35 percent of the information received comes from words and 65 percent comes from body language. If you can't sit or walk in a manner that exudes power and confidence, you will not be perceived as powerful or as confident as those around you who can.

I do not mean to suggest that the way women sit or walk in the office is the sole reason why they don't have pay equity or power equity. But I am suggesting that wearing clothes or shoes that prohibit you from sitting or walking in a manner that conveys power, assertiveness and confidence may be hurting your chances of being viewed as an equal of the men around you who are exuding power and confidence in their body language. This could contribute to lower pay and fewer promotions for women.

If this hypothesis is true, you would expect more pay equity at companies where casual attire is not only permitted but is de rigueur, such as at Facebook. As of April 11, 2016, Facebook pays men and women the same rate for doing the same job with the same amount of experience. Of course there could be a myriad of other reasons that contribute to Facebook's pay equity other than the fact that casual attire in the office affords both sexes the opportunity to display power poses. But it could also be a contributing factor.

Lastly, I want to reiterate that I am not trying to "blame the victim" here. What women wear to the office is their decision and their right. But how they are perceived as a result of their clothing choice is not within their control. If their choice of heels and skirts causes them to be unable to project the power poses that subtley affect how they are performing and how others perceive their performance, then their choice may negatively affect their pay and chances for advancement.

Just a thought.

OK. I'm going to duck now. I know the slings and arrows are coming!