Recently, a London receptionist made headlines when she challenged her temp company, which demanded that she wear two- to four-inch heels as part of a “formal dress code.” If you’re reading this in the U.S., and think something like that could never happen to you, think again: generally speaking, in most states it’s legal for employers to impose one dress code on women and another on men, as long as it doesn’t require more formal attire from one gender.
Dress codes are one thing, but even those of us who are lucky enough to work in places where the policy is something along the lines of, “Please don’t come to work naked,” can’t escape the added pressure professional women face to look “groomed” – in other words, to wear makeup, to blow-dry their hair, and in many cases, yes, to wear high heels. In a recent column in The Huffington Post, Emily Peck invites us to consider, for example, the difference between the day-to-day attire of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“The rules for dressing for the office are completely different for men and women,” Peck writes. “Perhaps no two people better exemplify the double standard than the most well-known executives working at Facebook: cofounder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, known for wearing the same grey T-shirt and jeans every day, and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who is typically seen perched atop towering high heels.”
Facebook doesn’t seem to have a dress code, so one could argue that Sandberg’s attire is personal choice, and as such, not worth discussing – except for the fact that it’s nearly impossible to think of a successful female businessperson who dresses with Zuckerberg’s casual approach to fashion.
Wear Heels, Get Promoted?
Last month, Peck wrote about Meya Laraqui, a young professional whose career took off after she received some unusual advice from a colleague: “Wear high heels.”
Laraqui keeps her stilettos under her desk, and hauls them out for meetings, but takes the advice seriously.
“I’m bound to a career in heels,” she told Peck. “I don’t mind it.”
From a career perspective, she might be making a smart decision: a recent study from sociologists at the University of Chicago and the University of California – Irvine found that while more attractive people have a higher income, women’s attractiveness premium was entirely due to grooming, while men’s was only half. In other words, it’s less about how women look naturally, and more about how unnatural they make themselves look.
The Problem With the Grooming Gap
Other than the obvious health issues related to wearing heels, the pressure to look professional in a distinctly female fashion harms women in other ways. For instance, it costs time and money. One report estimates that the average woman spends $15,000 on beauty products during her lifetime, and that’s not even taking into account the value of the time she spends using those products.
Ana Swanson, a reporter for Wonkblog, describes applying seven products to her face before 8 a.m.: “In a highly unscientific poll, 27 of my female colleagues at The Washington Post reported putting an average of five products on their face that morning, and keeping two additional pairs of shoes at their desk. The two male colleagues I asked averaged half a product and one extra shoe each.”
It’s hard to imagine a woman boiling all that down to some female version of the Zuckerberg uniform and getting away with it. Sheryl Sandberg’s shoes might make the more comfort-focused among us cringe, but she and other successful women like her will probably have to keep wearing them – for now.