A Balancing Act—Heels in the Workplace

This post is the first segment of a two-part post on women’s attire in the workplace.

Some women love them; some hate them; and some choose to bear with them. But beyond personal preference, heels have become a common and often an expected part of a woman’s professional attire. This was not necessarily true even 30 years ago. Stilettos have a complicated history, and women have grappled with making sense of these shoes. Once a symbol of highly sexualized femininity, only as recently as the late 1980s did high fashion transform heels into a controversial symbol of professional success.

The media has fueled this development. Think of Olivia Pope “running” DC in her powerhouse heels or reflect on the images of highly influential women in the media today (for example, Cheryl Sandberg was found sporting red peep-toe heels on the cover of Time magazine). These images tell us that these shoes are no longer just highly feminine; they convey more than that. These high-powered women in their high-powered heels mean business.

Despite general acceptance of high heels in the workplace, some women, especially early in their career, have to negotiate with the meaning of stilettos in the workplace. And according to science, this concern makes sense. Women in high heels have a “sexier walk” than those walking in flats, exaggerating the normal female gait, as a recent study has shown. This exaggeration enhances the wearer’s femininity in the eyes of the observer. And when femininity is augmented in the workplace, it may call for negative stereotyping.

Last October, Jorge Cortell, CEO of a healthcare software company, tweeted a photo of a woman’s five-inch stilettos at an entrepreneurship conference with the following comment: “Event supposed to be for entrepreneurs, VCs, but these heels (I’ve seen several like this)… WTF? #brainsnotrequired.” This tweet sparked a huge debate and made many women think twice about what it means to wear heels in professional settings.

His later tweets only served to further criticize wearers of heels (such as “high heels = self-inflicted health hazard = dumb”). Throughout this debate, he characterized women in heels as putting superficial concerns above all else.

While it is true that shoes, like other articles of clothing, reveal a message about the wearer, heels are particularly complex because they are “women’s shoes” that embody controversy around femininity. They deal with the contradictions that professional women must negotiate at work (e.g. look pretty but not too pretty or be feminine but not too feminine).

The assumption that if you choose a specific pair of shoes, you cannot possibly be good at your job is absurd. Should a man’s choice to wear a traditional tie, a bow tie or no tie at all be taken as indicia of his intelligence? When successful women choose to wear heels, which are so tightly intertwined with femininity, these women show us that there is a place for women—even traditionally “feminine” women—in the workplace.

Negotiating these complexities is much more complicated than deciding between style and comfort. One thing is clear, however—a woman’s choice of shoes should not be a reason to doubt her potential for success or competence. So put on your favorite pair of heels, ladies, and run (with) it!

MK Han

MK Han is a former contributor to Shattering the Ceiling.

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