Last week I attended a conference for corporate directors. The attendees included those who are on corporate boards, CEOs and executives. After the opening session broke, there was a line for the women’s restroom. While waiting, I struck up a conversation with a few women. We realized that spending time in line at the women’s room was a very good sign. To us, it meant that there are more women corporate directors and executives.
Three of the plenary speakers at the conference were women CEOs – Mary Barra of General Motors, Cathy Englebert of Deloitte and Ana Patricia Botin of Banco Santander. All were very impressive and for someone like me, it was very inspiring to see powerful women CEO’s in traditionally male-dominated industries. As with most conferences, they built in networking time. While debriefing the speakers, I began to realize that women attendees commented more on the shoes and clothing of the women speakers than on the content of their message. The conversation went like this:
“Mary Barra was very impressive.”
“Yes, and did you see her leather jacket and high f*** me pumps?”
I started talking with other women and heard some of the same responses. Cathy’s shoes were funky. Ana’s necklace was great.
I grew very disappointed. Of course, not one person mentioned what the male speakers wore or how they styled their hair. I must admit, I did notice and admire the attire of the three women speakers but it was not my prevailing thinking as I reflected on their message. It left me disheartened and only reinforced what I experience regularly. As a women executive, I have to work just as hard on my “look” as I do on the content of my message. When you begin to look around, you see just how often this scenario plays out with women leaders in the public eye.
When I look at my schedule I plan out my clothing based on my day. Do I need to go from “business to evening” that day? Do I have to do a lot of walking? Will I be on stage? Will I be filmed and if so, do I need to pack extra cosmetics? I need to think about this all while planning the content of my day. It can be exhausting. But unfortunately, this past week just reinforced that it is a real part of how you’re perceived as a leader, and it likely something I need to continue doing.
Is there a way to stop the cycle? Can women truly be known for the content of their message rather than their facade? Can we help each other by reinforcing our message rather than commenting on each other’s wardrobe, hair and make-up? I will keep trying, but in the meantime, my daily routine will still include meticulously planning my outfits.