Sex, Dress, and Power in 2008

Does what you wear have an impact on how you’re perceived as a leader? That’s the question that’s been burning up the fashion blogosphere the last few weeks, ever since Hillary Clinton declined to appear on the cover of VOGUE magazine and Editor Anna Wintour took umbrage. The story makes an interesting case study regardless of your politics, because it reinforces the importance of knowing how to dress appropriately for your industry and position. If you work in a male-dominated field, I encourage you to take notes.Here’s the story:

Senator Clinton was invited and agreed to appear on the February cover of VOGUE. The day she was supposed to be photographed and interviewed, she bowed out, saying that on second thought, she had decided that being on the magazine would make her seem “too feminine” in her race for the presidency.Annoyed, Ms. Wintour responded at length in the February issue of the magazine, saying, among other things, “The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying. How has our country come to this? This is America, not Saudi Arabia.”

So who’s right and who’s wrong: Clinton or Wintour?They both are.

Right and wrong, that is.The reasons are subtle and not politically correct, but let me take a stab at it:

On the one hand, you have a woman who has made it to the top of a female-dominated industry. Fashion magazines have been published regularly since “Godey’s Lady’s Book” appeared in 1830, and women have been writing for them almost as long – one of the few industries where women were welcomed early on. Not only does Anna Wintour wear whatever she wants to work, she influences what millions of OTHER women wear to work through her magazine’s layouts, articles, and ads. Of course she can’t understand why a woman can’t be both feminine and powerful; she’s been feminine and powerful her entire career.On the other hand, you have a woman who has made it to the top of a male-dominated industry. Hillary Clinton started practicing law in the early 1970’s when women were few and unwelcomed in the courtroom. She’s had things said and done to her that would have sent other women screaming in the other direction, and she has the battle scars to prove it. Now, as the first woman to run for president, she’s again treading into unfriendly territory. She dresses plainly and conservatively because she learned long ago that being feminine in a male industry is a liability instead of an asset.

Not fair, you say?Life rarely is. But if you look at the underlying psychology, you’ll begin to see why things have evolved the way they have. Western women are not required to don the traditional abaya worn by their Islamic sisters, as Ms. Wintour suggests, but they do need to understand a few things about how to dress when working with men.

Let’s break this down to basics:In the animal world, all the species have lived or died based on their ability to reproduce. When fish, animals, and insects look for mates, they seek the strongest, healthiest, most powerful specimens in order to accomplish this goal.

It’s the same in the human world. Our language, manners, and culture may set us apart from the animals, but our basic, most primal urge is still the same: to attract the strongest, healthiest, most powerful mates in order to reproduce. Even if we’re not conscious of this, even if we have no plans to reproduce, from exercising to exfoliating, women and men still regularly engage in behaviors to attract mates.So what does this have to do with Senator Clinton and VOGUE?

Keep reading. It will make sense in a minute.In her book “Survival of the Prettiest” (1999), Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, reports that while we’re told as children that “beauty is only skin deep” or “in the eye of the beholder,” the reality is that attractive people have long be rewarded for their beauty throughout history in nearly every culture in the world.

Pretty girls have more friends as children, are sought after by more men as adults, and are hired more quickly and paid higher wages than their less attractive counterparts. Women learned long ago that beauty is a commodity, which is why we have evidence of lipstick dating from 5,000 B.C., why Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey for luminous skin, and why we spend more money on beauty products today in the United States than on education and social services combined. Beautiful models and actresses are among the highest paid women in the world.For women throughout history and around the world, beauty equals power.

But for men, physical prowess and ample resources equal power.Just as male lions, gorillas, and deer viciously fight each other for the right to claim females and territory, so do men battle each other for the right to claim women and property. Sometimes it’s been just that base, as in war, but more often it’s played out elaborately over time by growing strong, gaining knowledge, and accumulating wealth.

To this end, as in the animal kingdom, men create an ongoing, unspoken dominance hierarchy in order to establish who’s the “alpha male” in any given situation.Dr. Etcoff describes it this way:

    Males form ranks quickly, even as boys. In boys’ camps, rank order develops in cabins within an hour. The top-ranked boy isn’t necessarily the biggest, but often the best-looking, most athletic boy who shows the most mature physique. The top boy initiates and organizes, and lower-ranking boys obey and question. Their submission is rewarded by the dominant boy’s protection and his leadership. (1)

The medieval feudal system is a formal example of this hierarchy, as are the various ranks in military, government, churches, and corporations.

But it’s not always so formal. Watch any group of men together and you’ll see this dynamic in action, even if they’re all completely unaware of it. Ever wonder why young men always seem so hot-tempered and quick to come to blows when they disagree? They’re trying to establish dominance. Ever wonder why guys like to watch football, boxing, or movies with gory battle scenes? Because they like seeing OTHER strong males establish dominance.Guys learn early how to demoralize their opponents and how to find and exploit each other’s weaknesses to gain the upper hand. Even when they’re just joking around with their friends, men say things to each other in this ranking ritual that would end a similar friendship between women.

Now take a bunch of these strong, dominant males who are used to battling each other for resources, and drop an attractive, feminine woman into the mix who seeks the same resources. What do you get?Well, once they stop laughing, as they did at the beginning of the women’s movement, their first impulse might be to either sleep with her or push her into a low-ranking position out of their way. If she resists, then they’ll treat her like any other challenging male: they’ll “tap swords” to get an idea of her strength before they start looking for weaknesses and testing her endurance. Often, they’ll set aside the nice manners they use to court women and revert to the rougher “locker room” language and behavior they use among themselves. So what if she’s offended? It means she’s weak and doesn’t belong.

Now obviously, this doesn’t describe every man on the planet. There are lots of nice guys out there all along the alpha-omega scale. Kind, funny, helpful, and respectful, they barely resemble the dominant males I just described.But those dominant alphas are out there, mark my word. They tend to congregate en masse in high power, high income, male-dominated industries like law, medicine, politics, and professional sports, and in departments where big egos and big paychecks go hand-in-in. They may treat their sweethearts like princesses, lavishing them with pretty baubles, then turn right around and steamroll any woman that gets in their way, including competitors and support staff. If you plan to do battle with them, you must go prepared.

So dress femininely to attract men, but gender-neutrally to do business with them? That hardly seems fair!It isn’t. But in many male-dominated, highly competitive industries, it’s the reality.

Yes, I know it defies logic – kind of like the ongoing fascination with Britney Spears – but research shows it’s the most effective way to go about it. Women have a lot more latitude now that we did thirty years ago, and certainly much more freedom than many women around the world, but I think it’s going to be a while longer before we can dress in feminine frills and still be perceived as a strong leader of men.See how subtle and “un-p.c.” this is?

So to return to the original question: does what you wear have an impact on how you’re perceived as a leader?Absolutely!

If you’re in a women-dominated industry (fashion, beauty, interior design, the arts) dressing fashionably and femininely can have a positive impact on your bottom line. If you’re lauded for your beauty or sense of style and grace, then you’re a woman to be envied and emulated.But in male-dominated industries (finance, science, electronics, oil), where strength and power are desired, being fashionable and feminine is seen as a weakness. You need clothes that are strong and crisp and that draw attention to your business savvy rather than your feminine curves. You want men to listen to your ideas, not check out your cleavage.

So yes, Anna Wintour is correct in saying that women can dress femininely and still be taken seriously – but only in certain fields. Spending too much time on how you look can hurt your credibility in many industries.And yes, Senator Clinton is correct in saying that appearing on a fashion magazine may make her seem “too feminine” in her quest for the presidency. At the same time, UNDER-estimating the importance of wardrobe can also hurt your credibility. While her clothes are usually conservative and modestly cut, which is appropriate for politics, she sometimes wears colors, patterns, and styles that don’t flatter, fit, or command attention. Her selections seem haphazard. She has no signature look. She may be seeking the highest office in the land, but you wouldn’t know it by how she dresses.By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “gets” power dressing. Tailored, flattering cuts in rich fabrics and strong colors, you know at a glance that she’s a powerful, wealthy woman by how she dresses. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also does a very good job of sporting flattering styles in luxe fabrics. Her color choices sometimes stray off the power path – like the lilac-colored suit she wore for the last State of the Union Address, for example – but by and large, she also dresses like a powerful woman in a male-dominated industry.So yes, what you wear has a HUGE impact on how you’re perceived as a leader. So make sure your clothes say that you’re ready, willing, and able to do the job, and nothing’s going to stand in your way.

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(1) “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff, Anchor Books (1999), pages 74-75.

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