The Length of the Skirt Does Not Dictate the Size of the Brain

Playful image of woman walking in romantic old village
Playful image of woman walking in romantic old village

You'd think by this day and age it would go without saying, but a woman's intelligence, expertise, and character cannot be determined by the hemline of her dress.

I'm sure for many this statement couldn't be more obvious. You might even think it's an absurd thing to point out -- an echo of a less enlightened era, which we've left behind as a society.

Sadly, though, I find myself frequently reminded of how many people still adhere to preconceived judgments, which are rooted in women's physical appearance and style.

Whether it comes in the form of misogynistic comments posted in response to YouTube videos, or feedback offered by viewers of an online debate series I produce, the internet has a way of bringing out the worst kind of scathing, appearance-based scrutiny.

Take the case of the woman who moderates, the online debate series I mentioned. A smart, highly educated, sex-positive academic who consistently does an outstanding job guiding our discussion panels through a variety of serious and potentially thorny topics, expertly balances professional discourse with the need to tackle controversial hot-button subjects.

What irks me to no end is for all the weighty and difficult areas discussed, all the opportunities for viewers to chime in with something of value, one of the more common subjects of the post-debate comments is the appearance and dress of the moderator, as well as other women who participate in the discussions.

From catty comments about the panelists' hairstyles and body size to oddly Puritanical takes on the length of the moderator's skirt (which, for the record, reached her knees), judging by the published feedback, one of our recent sessions seemed to inspire less intelligent analytical thought than the average episode of The Walking Dead.

While it's a mistake to take comments published online as broadly representative of the larger population, rather than the individual cretins who post them, the volume of inane comments I've seen in response to these substantive discussions, along with decades of my personal experience as an entrepreneur who also happens to be a woman, leads me to think a whole lot of people haven't gotten the memo about the disconnect between personal style and personal substance.

It's not just men who harbor antiquated thoughts about the connection between a woman's appearance, intelligence and professionalism, nor is it the case that such thoughts always run in the direction of more conservative dress. As women, we get it coming and going; if we're not dressed in a way that's "inappropriate" or "too sexy," then we're dressed in a way which isn't sufficiently feminine.

For an example of the latter, a friend of mine recently told me a story about her older sister, a Harvard-educated neurologist who has been practicing medicine for close to 30 years, and still has to contend with ridiculous perceptions based on how she dresses at work.

An administrative supervisor (also a woman) actually suggested to this neurologist that she should wear high heels while on call for the hospital's emergency ward, a situation which often requires her not only to move quickly, but spend entire shifts on her feet, moving from one consultation to another.

The reason for this insane suggestion? A high percentage of patients had indicated on a recent survey they'd find it "more professional" if female doctors at the hospital wore heels while they worked. (I'm not kidding; this actually happened.)

For an on-call doctor at an emergency room, however, the connection between the suggested attire and the task at hand is akin to recommending a lumberjack work in a speedo and Birkenstocks. This might amuse onlookers in some way, but our underdressed hypothetical lumberjack would be nothing less than a woodsy maiming waiting to happen.

While the situation with the neurologist is even more obviously absurd than what our discussion moderator faces, the core of the problem is the same: Instead of focusing on the value of what she's doing and saying, an unnerving percentage of the audience is apparently incapable of looking past a skirt, and pay attention to the important and insightful things the woman wearing the skirt has to say.

While all of this doesn't surprise me, it does disappoint me, because I've been seeing, hearing and dealing with this kind of stupidity my whole life, regardless of what I was doing for a living at the time.

For women, it seems like it doesn't matter how we work, or how much we accomplish, professionally or personally; when it's all said and done, far too many people still only see what we have going on from the neck down.

Still, I'm hopeful the question here is "When will this change?" and not "Can this change?"

Maybe it's naïve on my part, but it wasn't so long ago that women like me had a bigger problem than how we were perceived at work, because we weren't allowed to be at work at all.

Sure, that's progress, no matter how you measure it; all I'm saying is can we please stop using a literal measuring tape for the job evaluation?

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