Do Women Who Wear Heels Command More Respect?

My workday often starts once I step off the bus and walk across the parking lot to the main entrance of my office building. Because of my commute, I tend to come into the office with my feet clad in practical, but not very stylish, socks and sneakers. My company happens to share space with the training center for a major bank so I often ride the elevator up to my office (where my work-appropriate footwear is kept) with a revolving assortment of banking professionals.

These folks are always easy to spot because they are either in uniform or three-piece business suits—in contrast to the more laid-back attire of my coworkers. Perhaps because I’m sensitive to my sneakers-with-a-dress styling, I pay a lot of attention to other people’s shoes as I’m waiting for the elevator to reach my floor. Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of women pairing their suits with sky-high stiletto heels. As I glance down at my own tatty gray sneakers, I often think to myself,

“Why would a woman voluntarily wear four-inch high-heels?”

Those shoes can’t possibly be comfortable, no one will see them if they are hidden behind a desk, and their bright red color seems out of place against the backdrop of a bland (yet impeccably tailored) gray pantsuit.

After several days of examining other women’s shoes (each one with a heel higher than the last), this is the conclusion I came to:

These women want to exude femininity.

But in an age of title IX, where gender discrimination is illegal and women are closer than ever to equal pay for equal work (although one could argue not close enough), is it still important for women to dress like women in the workplace?

We are in the midst of the first presidential race where there were two viable female candidates, and what is so extraordinary about the two particular candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, is that they have extremely different styles both in fashion and in politics.

Hillary has often been criticized for her penchant for brightly-colored pantsuits. She has often pulled back her short hair in dowdy headbands. She has a reputation for being a ball-buster, masculine and (public tears aside) an equal match for male political opponents.

Sarah Palin once competed in beauty pagents, keeps her long hair in tasteful updos and parades around in knee-length skirts and demure satin jackets. A “pitbull with lipstick,” she manages to look feminine, pretty even, while taking a hardline in government.

Hillary’s path to the White House has been blocked for now, overshadowed by a younger, arguably more attractive Sarah. Would a more feminine wardrobe have helped Hillary win over supporters? Are Sarah’s looks helping sway independent voters, both male and female?

Do we have more respect for women who dress like women?

If the women I see in the elevator are any indication, I’d have to say the answer is “yes.”

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15 responses »

  1. It’s not how high the heel is, rather how high is our (ie, women) self-esteem. Sometimes the right shoe (or skirt, or pantsuit, or hairstyle) is all it takes to give you the high-five you need to start the day, especially if that day means going to work.

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  3. Hmmm . . . interesting post! You ask: “is it still important for women to dress like women in the workplace?” It’s certainly not important regarding getting a job done or being recognized for your hard work. But it’s important to ME because personally, I feel much more stylish and put together. And I LOVE my heels!

  4. Back in the 80s when we were elbowing our way into the workforce, women HAD to dress more masculine just to be accepted. I think that while business women understand the need to have acceptable business attire, they also have an innate need to express their femininity, and not feel bound up in plain black or brown flats. I think an ensemble like the one you described says “I can run with the big boys AND make it look easy.”

  5. Maybe, like me, these women just love shoes. I love my heels, and wearing them to work is not that uncomfortable since I spend most of my work time sitting.

    And to answer your questions, I do think Sarah Palin is looked at more favorably by powerful men than Hilary Clinton partly because of the way she looks. Men are less threatened by women who are feminine. I don’t think they know how to act around a woman like Hilary, who they probably see as more masculine and more of a threat to their power. Another differentiation is in the position. Hilary was running for president – the woman in charge. Palin is running for VP – the woman who supports the male president.

  6. It’s sickening that “looking like a woman” requires high heels, skirts and such. I’ve been a woman my whole life and that sort of crap does not appeal to me. If I have lost work because of it, at least I have my self-respect.

    That isn’t to say that someone tottering on four-inch stilettos doesn’t have and isn’t worthy of respect, but it should be based on her deeds and qualifications, nothing more.

    And women who buy into this not because of “I enjoy being a girl!” or “I love my heels!” (I’d rather die than dress like a concubine, but those explanations are fine if they’re what the woman truly wants and enjoys) but because they think that’s what they need to do to impress the man and get by… I feel sorry for them in the long run.

  7. Maybe wearing high heels to work has less to do with being feminine and more to do with simply feeling taller and thus more intimidating.

  8. I love my job’s dress code because I can wear just about anything I want to. Jeans and flip-flops are fine, but I don’t look out of place if I dress professionally, so I can let my mood in the morning (or whether I have time to iron!)determine my wardrobe. My professional wardrobe is feminine, not because I think it “has” to be, but because those are the clothes I like. I feel confident in them, and when I feel confident, I do better work. In the outfit you described (the bland pantsuit with red heels) I thought, “Red heels would be perfect with that! Who wants to wear bland shoes with a bland outfit? Put some spice in it!” But are those red heels going to get you a promotion? Probably not directly (nor should they!). But they do probably help with your attitude.

    I also agree with Laurajeanette that some men feel more threatened by Hillary because of the way she dresses and wears her hair, which is really sad, especially since I suspect that her bright pantsuits are her way of trying to be feminine, but it’s just not “feminine enough” (whatever THAT means) for some men.

    As superficial as it may seem, Notanotherjen has a good point: appearing taller has its benefits. In my first job out of college I had to manage a student employee: but he was a grad student, 10 years older than I was, and about seven inches taller. He was doing a really poor job and I knew I had to talk to him about his performance. I chose my outfit very carefully (one of the few times I’ve preferred a more masculine outfit over a feminine one), practiced my “speech” in the mirror, and made sure to wear heels. I also made sure that I was standing on the other side of a table from him, just to ensure I wouldn’t have to look up at him! It’s tough to come across as “the boss” if your employee is towering over you.

    I sympathize with you regarding the bit of self-consciousness over wearing sneakers before you have a chance to put your work shoes on! I’m in the same boat.

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  10. Fascinating question! My own progress up the corporate ladder has been fueled by what many male managers have “complimented” as my ability to “act like a man.” And yet I notice how differently co-workers and clients, male and female alike, respond to me when I’m dressed up in skirt suits and heels with make-up and painstakingly flat-ironed hair. As temp agencies used to tell me when I was fresh out of college, “Look the part to get the job,” and, like it or not, looking the part often means performing your gender. As for the candidates, while as a woman I find their personal style irrelevant, my husband compared Hillary and Palin and said what a relief it was to see “a woman who looks like a woman” on the national stage. I slammed him for the sexism of this remark, because the feminist in me thinks you should be judged by your brain, not your looks, but it does appear to be true that while acting “like a man” brings sucess, women are still expected to dress the part of a lady. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

  11. Do we have more respect for women who dress like women? I think it depends on your filed and the atmosphere in which one works, for me, no.

    I am a minority in my field, in fact I am the only woman in the engineering department, and I’m respected but that didn’t come until I lost my femininity. My coworkers and I spent a lot of time in the factory and in the field so heels would be impractical and steel toe boots are required anyway, but I’ve found that the only method of truly excelling at office politics was to dress and act like a man. I completely lost my femininity at work, and it allowed me to excel past women who have previously worked in the same position.

    On the note of being taller helps, I have a friend who is in the Army and is 6’4″. He was saying the other day how when in combat (Iraq) people would follow him instead someone who was shorter but of higher rank. Just an interesting story I thought I’d share.

    Nice post!

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