Women and work: Elevator pitch or elevated heels?

There is a reason they are called killer heels or stilettos!

 A new spin on best foot forward. Where do you stand on high heels?

Women are the recipients of dozens of conflicting mixed messages every day, but none is more most confusing and troublesome than the question of those power high heels in the workplace. Are they the hallmark of a successful empowered business woman, or the badge of a person with more vanity than  sense?  Do they make us as physically vulnerable as the foot binding traditions in China,  only outlawed in the early 20th century, or create a career spring-board,  literally raising our visibility?

Men wore high heels throughout history until the 16th century and then (not unsurprisingly) they  moved away from that fashion statement, as the trend became associated with sentimentality and a lack of education.  Elizabeth Semmelhack, author of  The Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe, suggests that high heels are ” an irrational form of footwear,” while Kate Spicer of The Times claims that women buy shoes for their “potency” not their comfort.

In researching this article I have come across as much conflict as one might find at a Tea Party debate. Here are but a few arguments:

 A must have accessory  

Part of a career propelling, confidence  boosting,  power dressing wardrobe. Without these you are officially the office frump.  Some women are even having surgery  in order to wear these shoes,  such is their belief  in their value. Or is that possibly vanity or even stupidity? So do we replace our elevator pitch with elevated heels? Will slipping on our Jimmy Choos,  Louboutins or Manolo Blahnik’s make a difference? Lea Goldman of Marie Claire  tells us what we already know: offices are competitive places, quite often run by men.  Any boost women can get,  she maintains, is an advantage to bring women closer to men’s eye level. This view is supported by Tamara Mellon, Co-Founder of Jimmy Choo, but then she would wouldn’t she?

Bad for health. Should carry a government warning!   

High heels result in bunions, corns, callouses, shortening of the Achilles tendon, ankle fractures,  nerve damage, and arthritis

Good for health

They strengthen core abdominal and pelvic muscles simultaneously. Reduces health risks says Professor Margaret Thorogood, from the Medical School at Warwick University, said . ” It is very unlikely  that the prolonged wearing of high heels presents a risk factor

Sexualising and demeaning

They trade on sex appeal rather than innate abilities and skill set.  Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey,  believes that sky-high heels are just too sexy for most workplaces.  “High heels thrust out the buttocks and arch the back into a natural mammalian courting — actually, copulatory — pose called ‘lordosis, Rats do it, sheep do it … lions do it, dogs do it. … It is a naturally sexy posture that men immediately see as sexual readiness

Shows women as fashion slaves

Kristen Schaal  tweeted that high heels are the “modern-day corset.

I was early for a meeting in Central London recently. I sat in the reception of a smart office building and watched hundreds of women arriving for work. Many were wearing trainers and sensible flat shoes with their city suits.  Thirty minutes later I saw the same women in the hallways, most striding purposefully down the ten metre corridors, in their power business heels.

“So where do you stand on the power heel? Can you really put your feet first and look after your career as well? “

 

41 thoughts on “Women and work: Elevator pitch or elevated heels?

  1. Wendy Mason

    Long ago a very wise older woman advised me to combine comfort with good looks in shoes! In her view painful feet distracted from concentration and led to frown lines. Frown lines in their turn led to wrinkles. Do we really needs power heels to support our fragile self esteem? How very sad! I do believe in dressing for the occasion, but not at the expense of my ability to smile!

    Reply
  2. Jackie Groundsell

    Interesting one….

    I’m not quite at the trainer level for getting from A to B (I tend to wear pumps and then change to heels as I feel is appropriate), but I was aware of both women and men taking to trainers when the various disasters/bombings etc started to take place in London.

    I used to wear heels all the time, but as I’ve become a little heavier (soon to be sorted!) I find them less comfortable all day, so alternate on heel heights.

    So, why do I wear heels? They make my legs seem longer, me taller and marginally slimmer (vanity). They also make my posture better also leading to the afore-mentioned. I’m for anything which makes us feel better in ourselves, which in turn gives us more confidence. This goes for anything we wear in my book. If I’m wearing a frumpy old cardi (God forbid) then I would feel frumpy. That’s why “dress down Fridays” never worked for me and it didn’t take employers too long to find that out too!

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Jackie – can relate totally. But even sitting in reception for 30 mins showed me that heels are not built for speed and mobility , as women arrived by the hundreds in flat shoes. This indeed makes women vulnerable. So if heels make us glamorous – is that now a factor required to be successful in the workplace?

      Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Vicki for your comment. I was at a conference recently when a speaker maintained that high heels also propelled women forward, suggesting submission and subserviance. Would you agree with that?

      Reply
      1. vicki van alstine (@bubbleoffcentre)

        i do, dorothy. anything designed to put you off-balance physically, puts you off-balance in all ways. what better way to trigger unconscious anxiety and the usual female urge to “fix” the problem by putting the obvious needs of others first to relieve it. i wonder how many women take off their running shoes, and slip into high-heeled, institutionalized anxiety? and all the while thinking that they are assuming a powerful persona…

        Reply
  3. Wendy Dalton

    Stilettos – the curse of the insecure woman. Made to make women taller so that don’t feel inferior to their generally taller male counterparts. Made by men to make sure we can’t feel as comfortable as they do in the office.

    Bin them immediately. (Well, perhaps after you’ve achieved that promotion you’re looking for.)

    Reply
  4. Ann Lewis (@AnnLewisCoach)

    I’m with Wendy. And I LOVE shoes. But it is a dilemma.
    The (insert ‘f’ word) in me abhors the need for women to totter around damaging the delicate bones in their feet and putting their backs out in the name of power dressing.
    The woman of a certain age in me sighs over the arthritis and goes for sense over sensuousness. My quest these days is for designs that combine comfort and good looks.
    The aged crone in me says “they’ll regret it when they get bunions!”
    But the young woman I was still longs to be able to wear gorgeous shoes…

    Reply
  5. marion chapsal (@MarionChapsal)

    Only you, Dorothy, could write such an entertaining, witty and informative post mixing anthropology, sex and Jimmy Choo and women at work…
    Complex issue, women and their shoes…
    “Highly” sensitive, If I may say…
    At work, I would wear elegant and comfortable shoes, with an average heel, not too flat, not too high…Just right! Goldilocks escarpins??? Maybe, anyway, not Louboutin or Jimmy Choo, far too expensive!!!
    As I spend most of my time, speaking, presenting and training, standing in front an audience, I find it impossible to keep up with high heels.
    I agree that it’s “the modern-day corset”, excellent definition!
    I prefer Dorothy’s shoes…
    Like in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy needs to click 3 times her heels, no matter what your shoes look like, as long as you feel comfortable with them and they are exactly fitting your own style!
    Just pick them red 🙂

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Merci Marion! Love the idea of Dorothy’s red shoes and clicking 3 times; I have spoken to women who feel totally comfortable in towering heels and they claim they can even run for a bus. Just hoping that no long term damage is done!

      Reply
  6. Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach

    Very good and well articulated arguments against wearing high heels,

    When I go for work or have an important business meeting I always have a formal dark suit with a skirt, so a pair of flat shoes looks really ugly plus I am very small. I won’t wear a pair of shoes from Louboutin but even with much smaller heels my feet really suffer after one day and I have back pain.

    Not only wearing high heels is scarifying your health for vanity, starving yourself to fit in a size 2 slim pair of jeans and constant yo-yo- dieting hurts too. You can probably add breasts implants and Botox as most common tortures women self-inflict to look sexy and appealing at work or else.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Anne – high heels can look great worn in the right circumstances – but the potential long term effects have to be factored in. Wendy made a good point that women feel physically uncomfortable in a male dominated office environment – where they themselves feel at ease. Otherwise women would wear them walking to work and not change into them at their desks.

      Reply
  7. gilly weinstein

    Truly great post Dorothy, as ever, cool research, fab insights and terrific reactions here too. My view is that, as with most things in life, there isn’t necessarily a right and a wrong. It worries me that we still lapse into this deep need of wanting to define good/bad, right/wrong, correct/crass way too often, as women. There is, in this instance, what works FOR YOU and what makes you feel your most confident. Or empowered. If wearing heels (feeling taller, feeling sexier or feeling whatever) enhances your self-confidence and infuses your whole presence with assurance, why the hell not. It’s a very personal choice, entirely individual preference, except you need to be savvy enough and tuned in to the culture of the place you work in, and that of the places you visit (e.g. client firms etc.). There is a whole positive chain of knock-on benefits to feeling more confident, as we know. If you feel more solid and on-top-of-things in flats or flat heeled boots, why not? The key thing is keen self-awareness… know what makes you feel great, know what makes you look powerful, know what makes you look inspiring (or trustworthy or professional) in the eyes of the people who matter most, be it your team, associates or superiors. And if you aren’t sure, find out fast! Get some expert advice on how you come across, or what you are, in essence, broadcasting, in heels or not.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Gilly – yes you’re right , all women should do what they are comfortable with. But there are many economic forces out there to ensure that a high percentage women struggle to feel secure. If we all felt great as we are, whole industry sectors would be bankrupt. It’s tough to make a stand – whether on those heels or not!

      Reply
  8. FutureExpat

    I’m only 5′ tall, so unless I wear stilts there’s no way a mere pair of heels can put me on eye level with almost anyone else. I stopped wearing heels 20 years ago, and rely on my forceful personality since I’ll never have the height. My feet, ankles, legs and back all thank me. . .

    Reply
  9. Gwyn Teatro

    Dorothy, This is another really interesting topic to contemplate. To be honest when I wore heels, I gave no thought to either what they were doing to my feet or their social, or professional, significance. Being somewhat vain and quite short, I liked them because they made me feel taller (and thus eye-to-eye with a few more people) and because they lengthened and enhanced my leg shape. (There, I said it)

    “Are they a hallmark of successful empowered women?” No, I don’t think they are. They are after all, just shoes. If we consider high heels to be a hallmark of power and success, I actually think we’re starting at the wrong end of the anatomy.

    Whether we choose to wear stilettos or ballet flats is really of little significance (except of course, to be aware of the associated consequences to our health). To me, it only becomes important if we allow our appearance and choices associated with it, to take up too much headspace. I think it safe to say that most women don’t want to spend inordinate amounts of time creating the impression of success. It takes too much precious time away from doing things that make success real.

    To me, unless you are in the Wizard of Oz, your power will not come from your shoes no matter how many people there are to suggest otherwise. Would that it were that simple.

    Reply
  10. Vanessa

    I can’t walk in heels – I never “learned” that skill. And after an ankle tendon injury earlier this year, I get swelling if I don’t wear supportive shoes. And that makes it incredibly hard to find ‘work’ shoes! It’s very hard to find a supportive work shoe for pants and skirts that isn’t some giant chunky thing. And related to this topic, people seem to look down on women wearing socks. It’s hot here, I’d rather prevent a sweaty smell than care what I look like!!

    Reply
  11. Gwyn Teatro

    Dorothy,
    That may be a rhetorical question but it does trigger a thought and that is how important mentors are for women of all ages. There are inordinate numbers of advertisers, marketers, and shape shifters out there set on convincing us that we “need” these things to be powerful, or even acceptable. It’s time to knock that stuff on the head and push back. That makes the work you and others do to help women see their power beyond the superficial trappings enormously important.

    Reply
  12. Tanveer Naseer

    Hi Dorothy,
    I feel a bit odd being the lone guy to wade into a discussion on women’s shoes (trust me, if the topic of handbag accessories comes up, I’m outta here!).

    All kidding aside, ironically, my wife and I had a spontaneous discussion last night while watching TV about why women still love wearing these shoes (not sure how the topic came up; guess it was another moment of trying to navigate through the Land of Women). I remember telling my wife how I find it sad that women still feel the need to wear such uncomfortable shoes just to make their legs look good (on an aside, it’s odd how women want people to look them in the eye and yet are willing to put their health in harm’s warm for a toner-looking calf. But I digress).

    Interestingly, my wife told me about a few of her colleagues – ranging in age from mid-30s to late 50s – who say they love their high heels and find them rather comfortable. Wasn’t too sure what to make of that as, from a guy’s perspective, teetering on a pencil-thick heel seems anything but comfortable.

    In any case, it’s sad to hear that one argument in favour of wearing these kinds of shoes is that it instills a sense of confidence in women. Rather than defining your value by how you look or what you wear, all of us should be focused more on how our contributions provide a benefit to those around us.

    Just one guy’s opinion . . . now I’m going to go back to watching a movie where things explode for no apparent reason (it’s a guy thing)

    Reply
    1. Silke Green

      Thank you. I am also a woman and think the same way you do, even though other than those women who feel they need to wear high heels and love them, I am six feet tall and for me they are just uncomfortable shoes that additionally have a few other associations that make me sad that at this time and age women in the English speaking world really feel the urge to wear such things and live under the illusion that they “dress up” if they wear them. I’d question another woman’s ability to think reasonably if I were to work with one. I also do not consider it a good thing if women are so easily influenced by the media and television programs like Sex & The City. It is sad that other women fought for equal opportunities and those who at least got the legal arrangement so easily spoil it by bringing sex rather than competence at the workplace. I do not think that women in general are in the position that it is the time to ruin it so easily yet. I am a woman but I refuse the notion of a “common sisterhood”, because with women like this I hardly have anything in common, who mainly see their own short term advantage. Luckily I am in the position that I live in a country where they are a faux pas in the business world and I really hope that this “practise” does not spread over from the UK and the USA.

      Reply
  13. Janet Vanderhoof (@JanetVanderhoof)

    What about the height, you can look at the man straight in the eye or tower above him? Does that give you power? I do believe though that the woman should use all her tools. What’s wrong with looking great at your own risk. You can wear comfortable heals like the Louboutin, they are surprising comfortable. When they are really high I do believe the woman looks awkard when walking and not attractive at all. Tastefully, high is my vote and it is way better than flip flops which some women do to underdress, which I am totally against.

    Reply
    1. Silke Green

      I am six feet tall and I can assure you that looking down on men does not give you any advantage in the job, on the contrary, it makes looking for a job much harder. Women who are a mere 1.50 meters tall have an advantage, even though the earlier mentioned “personality” trade off does not pay off, because small people are regarded as rather nasty by taller people and it is a well known … proverb. Men who are as tall as me or taller have never been a problem, because they apparently have not personality disorder due to their hight.

      Reply
      1. Dorothy Dalton

        Silke – thanks for your 2 comments. I think there are many judgments made about appearane and unhappily the marketing machines of major companies tap into our insecurities to motivate us to buy their products! I was delighted to read that a movement is starting to stop advertising with digitally enhanced photos of models such as Julia Roberts. It’s one thing to buy into vanity, but another at the expense of long term health.

        I recently had surgery following a life time of high impact sport and spent 2 months on crutches. Never have I come to appreciate the value of basic mobility as I did in that period and the run up to the surgery. Government health warnings are a good idea!

        Reply
  14. Dorothy Dalton

    Tanveer – delighted that you decided to wade in. And grateful for your measured response. There is clearly a place for sexy shoes in life generally ( IMHO!) but women donning them because they think it conveys a snense of confidence and power another. To be contentious:do we deduce that sexual power is important in the workplace? Is it something that women fall back on when all else fails or just another tool in the box? Thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Tanveer Naseer

      My pleasure, Dorothy (and on aside, my wife got a chuckle from hearing about how I’ve been pulled into a discussion about ladies’s shoes).

      To start off, I’d like to counter what my friend Janet wrote shortly after my comment about the height giving someone a sense of power. While my wife, who is a good foot shorter than me, told me that she does feel a little more assured when she wears her boots (she doesn’t wear high heels in general) because of that extra height boost. But as a tall guy (6 feet) I can tell you that my wife’s stature doesn’t diminish her ability to stand her ground or to put me in my place when necessary (yes, we’ve been married for a long time so I have no issues admitting to that 🙂 ).

      As for your question, Dorothy, regarding whether women should utitlize their sexual power, either as a last-ditch effort or simply as another tool in their box, I think we need to look at this from the other vantage point. Namely, does it bother women that men can still objectify women sexually at work irrespective of what their role or contributions are to their organization? Obviously the answer is yes or sexual harrassment wouldn’t be an issue, nor would there be persisting controversies over women being fired for dressing “too sexy” or not following an organization’s rigid dress code.

      As you know, one of the common issues discussed regarding women and leadership is the lack of representation which often seems to imply that businesses still can’t see women as being capable of leading large teams or organizations. Clearly, if a woman feels the only way to get attention or get ahead is to draw attention to her physical attributes, instead of her contributions, how is she really helping the case to move the mentality forward to treat women the same way men are treated in terms of their talents, abilities and contributions?

      We can’t on the one hand say that businesses need to look at women as competent and capable equals if, at the same time, we’re telling women that it’s okay to use your sexuality to help draw attention to yourself. After all, if a guy were to start workin a Fabio look at work, how many people do you think would honestly take them seriously or even want to put them in a position of high responsibility? Obviously not many because the guy would be the target of in-house jokes because his attire makes it difficult for others to take him seriously.

      Similarly, if women want to ‘change the system’, they need to change how they play the game, by not cow-towing to the male’s lowest common denominator, but by aiming higher in expecting those they work with to view them from the context of what they contribute. Yes, this doesn’t happen right now, but honestly, how can it if women are willing to perpetuate themselves the idea that they need to rely on their sexual power to be taken seriously when men don’t.

      On a final note, I decided to ask my oldest daughter, who is about to enter the teen years, her thoughts on women using their appearance to help them move ahead. Her first response was ‘sure, that’s easy for those who are attractive, but what about the girls who aren’t? How is that being fair to them?’ A good point, there, that in promoting the use of sexual power as a tool in the office, women are actually creating a second-class within their gender, between those who are attractive and those who aren’t. Again, if we want to change things, we need to recognize whether physical appearance, instead of abilities, is what we want to use as the line in the sand that determines the potential for growth a woman has in the business world.

      So, while I agree with you, Dorothy, that there is a time and place for women to don the high heels to make themselves more attractive, I think focusing on looking anything other than professional and serious at work will only serve to hold women back as men will have a hard time viewing them as equals if they have to rely on physicality over ability to draw attention to themselves.

      Sorry for the long reply, but I figured it merited a well-thought out response.

      Reply
      1. Dorothy Dalton

        Tanveer – what a fabulous and detailed response! Thank you! I totally agree with all your points. However many women would argue that they are not playing on a level playing field and they need to do what it takes to get ahead. Remember my post She’s to sexy for her job?

        Regrettably, attractive people both men and women earn more than their less attractive counterparts. Playing devil’s advocate here, If confidence is a key ingredient to success, shouldn’t we all do what makes us feel more confident?

        Reply
      2. vicki van alstine (@bubbleoffcentre)

        i agree with tanveer, dorothy.
        re: your devil’s advocacy: it would be great if the confidence gained from wearing heels was a confidence based on reality. i suggest that it is based on media/cultural notions mostly perpetuated to sell product. expensive, crippling footwear implies that the wearer is among that elite group with wealth and power and no need to work anyway. which as we know is nonsense, but we’ve had decades of brain-washing into thinking that what we own and our “look” – all that is superficial – is the be-all and end-all to getting and maintaining power at work and in personal relationships.
        i suspect the vast majority of high-heel wearers have “bought”-into the myths and you will not persuade them with facts of the physical reality, the cultural imposition or any concern for gender equality. there is general abhorrence for the old chinese custom of foot-binding, but at the time, it was accepted – for reasons that are equivalent to our high heel notions now.
        and, at this point, many women are in the position of having to play the game regardless of personal preference as they would be at a disadvantage if they didn’t. it’s a conundrum…

        Reply
  15. Diane Webb

    Some fun comments, I like the fact a guy joined in.
    How’s about this to mull over:
    Whilst we’re worrying about “to heel” or “not to heel” and spending time or not tottering around hoping to look powerful, our counterparts are sitting around hoping to look powerful in expensive suits feeling very hot and bothered and hoping to look cool and swarthy. Watch the tell tail trail of persperation! Give me heels any day and the redder the better. Seriously I just wear what I feel good in, when I’m at ease I radiate confidence and in my experience this is our most powerful tool.

    Reply
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  17. Green Corset

    I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that too few folks are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy I found this during my hunt for something regarding this.

    Reply
  18. Deb Nystrom, Reveln (@RevelnConsults)

    Yay to that, “so best to wear what we feel best in!” Dorothy. It’s not the just heels, though stilettos in the workplace can be seen as being who you are not, if it doesn’t fit your workplace context and how YOU CHOOSE to contribute to it.

    Confidence and clarity that you are sharing the best of who you are is followed by your clothes, including footwear. A good pair of heels that fit well, look great and lends the right amount of panache to your presentation, to that I’d say, “Viola!” Anything less is less.

    Above all, make it healthy inside and out. Coffee, wine, heels, yada – yada. Research is conflicting. Moderation usually is the right thing. Make the best “right action” choice that works for you and get ON with it, says I.

    Thanks for John Baldoni for the reference to your blog. You’ve got some cool stuff going on here. 🙂

    “Be proud to wear you.” ~ Dodinsky ~ Deb

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Deb – appreciate your comment. I’m all for women doing what they are comfortable with, but there is part of me that feels we are just being brainwashed into following fashion trends to the detriment of our long term health!

      Reply

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